San Diego Scrapbook: 5 head-turning historical city images

We take a look at five fun images from the city archives — and dig into what the heck we’re looking at. 📸

SD Fire Department historical image

This photo of a San Diego Fire Department crew on a trusty steed was taken in 1910.

Photo via San Diego City Clerk Archives

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Love a scrapbook? Us too. This is why we love exploring the City of San Diego’s archives — a treasure trove of photos and materials that tell the history of the people and things that have shaped America’s Finest City. 🌇

On one such journey, we went into the city’s historical photos and found ourselves scratching our heads at some of the snapshots. What were we looking at? Here are five fun photos that made us curious — and taught us something new about the rich past of the place we call home today.

🐴 Local firefighters on a horse, 1910

Every hero needs a horse. On Aug. 5, 1889, a City Charter Amendment established the San Diego City Fire Department. To start, the department consisted of 41 men, 11 horses, 4,000 ft of hose, two steam fire engines, one hose wagon, two hose carts, and one hook and ladder. As the department modernized and motor-drawn vehicles saved money and improved emergency response times, fire horses were phased out. In 1917, the city says the last team of fire horses were moved to city-owned yards where they were used to haul trash.

SD Balboa Park Panama California Exposition Construction

A construction site in 1914 for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition.

Photo via San Diego City Clerk Archives

🏗️ Something big is coming, 1914

Balboa Park, is that you? This photo shows large-scale construction in preparation for the Panama-California Exposition, the event many historians credit for putting San Diego on the map. Held between Jan. 1, 1915, and Jan. 1, 1917, the expo celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and San Diego’s place as a major US port. Many Balboa Park sites that we know and love today — like Spreckels Organ Pavilion and cultural buildings along El Prado — were built for the exposition.

SDSU 1930 Main Quad

SDSU, we see you.

Photo via Harry “Jimmy” Erickson/ San Diego City Clerk Archives

🏫 Knowledge is power, 1930

San Diego State University has been a cornerstone of local education for 125+ years, but the beginnings of the oldest and largest higher education institution in San Diego are humble. The university was founded in 1897 as San Diego Normal School, a training center for elementary school teachers, with just seven faculty and 91 students. In 1921, it became San Diego State Teachers College. As it outgrew its original campus on Park Boulevard, locals rallied to build a new campus in eastern San Diego. In February 1931, students and faculty moved into the area pictured here — the seven Mission-style buildings known to this day as the Main Quad.

SD 1973 Bathtub races

A tub in the bay — that is so San Diego.

Photo via San Diego City Clerk Archives

🛀 Rub-a-dub-dub, San Diegans in a tub, 1973

Boats, surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks… bathtubs? If it can float, San Diegans will find a way to get it on the water. On this particular week — Aug. 24-Aug. 31, 1973 — locals fashioned bathtubs or “close facsimiles” into small watercraft and launched them at Crown Point Shores for the 1973 Bathtub Races in Mission Bay. The rules: the engine could only have up to 8 horsepower, and the max weight (including the driver) was 350 pounds.

SD Rolling Stones 1981

Wild horses couldn’t drag San Diegans away from this 1981 concert.

Photo via San Diego City Clerk Archives

🎸 Pure satisfaction, 1981

Our city has seen its share of iconic concerts, and this one — The Rolling Stones at Jack Murphy Stadium on Oct. 7, 1981 — was epic, with a setlist that included hits like “Under My Thumb,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” The rockers were on a 29-city tour across the US to promote their “Tattoo You” album, and sold $50 million in tickets — the largest grossing tour of 1981. The 1982 film, “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” documented parts of the tour.

📷 Say cheese. We’ll explore more historical local photos like this a little later this year, but if there’s anything you’d like see more of like this, send us a note. We’ll be here, scrapbookin’.

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