By Katherine Hon
The original name of present-day Ray Street was Robinson Street. This narrow road marks the boundary between William Jefferson Gatewood’s West End tract and Joseph Nash’s Park Villas tract. Both men knew multiple Robinsons in early San Diego.
One possibility for the original street name is William N. Robinson (1841-1878), who arrived in San Diego from Texas in 1850 as a young boy with his father and mother. The family settled in Old Town. In 1867, 10 years after his father died, William and his mother sold their large land holdings in the western part of San Diego and moved to a ranch in Jamul. The 1870 federal census listed him as a farmer.
He served in the state assembly in 1869 and 1870, during which time he was favorably mentioned in several issues of the San Diego Union. The December 30, 1869 issue noted, “Hon. W.N. Robinson, our member of the State Legislature, will please accept the thanks of this office for favors at Sacramento.” The February 3, 1870 issue reported under a letter from Sacramento, “I don’t know what our San Diego people are after, but I have noticed several of our leading citizens here lately. W. Jeff. Gatewood has been at the Capital all along, and within the past few days I have seen Judge Bush, Sheriff McCoy, and other familiar faces. Representative Robinson is always at his post, and votes regularly on every bill that comes up.”
Robinson and Gatewood connected in the effort to bring the transcontinental railroad to San Diego. The San Diego Union’s October 10, 1868 issue listed William N. Robinson as one of the directors of the San Diego and Gila Southern Pacific and Atlantic Railroad Company, of which Gatewood was president.
The San Diego Union’s June 3, 1871 issue related a connection between Robinson and merchant Joseph Nash in a short news item stating, “TALL OATS – We saw at Mr. J. Nash’s store yesterday, stalks of oats eight feet in height, that came from Mr. W.N. Robinson’s Ranch in the Jamul Valley. Mr. Robinson will cut about one hundred and fifty tons of oat hay on his ranch this season.”
When Robinson ran again for the Assembly in 1873, Gatewood endorsed him at a rally of Democrats, as reported in the Daily Union’s September 3, 1873 issue. Robinson lost the race, however, and the stress led to a mental breakdown reported in the Daily Union’s September 18, 1873 issue as a “sad calamity that has befallen one of the leading citizens of Southern California.” Judge Thomas Bush committed him to the Stockton State Hospital. After a few months, Robinson recovered and was discharged in January 1874. He returned home to Jamul and lived with his mother until his death on October 30, 1878 at the relatively young age of 37. His obituary in the San Diego Union’s October 31, 1878 issue noted he was “to be buried at Old Town where the remains of his father and wife repose.” This is El Campo Santo cemetery, although these Robinsons are not in marked gravesites, and their names are not on the list of known burials.
William N. Robinson’s street name could also recognize his father, James W. Robinson (1790-1857), a prominent California pioneer who played a significant role in Texas history before William was born. In 1835, when Texas was pursuing its independence from Mexico, James W. Robinson was elected lieutenant governor of the provisional government. He briefly served as governor in early 1836, when the original governor, Henry Smith, was deposed. But Smith refused to relinquish the office, so Robinson joined the Texas army and fought at the battle of San Jacinto. He served as a judge from December 1836 to 1840, practiced law, fought in battles at San Antonio, was imprisoned in Mexico in 1842, and may have participated in negotiating the 1843 armistice between Texas and Mexico.
In 1850, James W. Robinson arrived in San Diego with his wife, Sarah, and their young son. They had traveled in a wagon train that included Louis Rose, another prominent San Diego pioneer. Attorney James Robinson took cases throughout the state, many involving land claims, his specialty. He served as district attorney from 1852 to 1855, and in this capacity, he prosecuted an individual who has surpassed most Old Town pioneers in name recognition to this day — “Yankee Jim” Robinson (no relation).
Under the headline, “An Interesting Page of San Diego History — How the Pioneers Disposed of Offensive People,” the Daily Union’s October 4, 1872 issue related the story of a crime and trial that occurred twenty years earlier in the summer of 1852. The article described how James Robinson, alias “Yankee Jim,” a Canadian Frenchman of “dangerous character,” and two companions stole a boat in the harbor, afterwards deserting it and turning it adrift. The three men were arrested on the charge of grand larceny. The article noted that “James W. Robinson, father of Hon. Wm. N. Robinson, was at that time the District Attorney and conducted the prosecution.” Yankee Jim was found guilty. He was hanged a month later “on the spot where Whaley’s brick house now stands.” His spirit is reputed to haunt the Whaley House in one of San Diego’s most popular ghost stories.
Unaware that Yankee Jim’s story would reverberate through time while his own story would become obscure, District Attorney James W. Robinson continued his contributions to early San Diego civic development. He helped establish the Democratic party in San Diego, serving as a local delegate to the state convention in 1855. He served as president of the three-member City Board of Trustees from 1852 to 1853 alongside Louis Rose as treasurer. In 1851, Robinson helped establish San Diego Masonic Lodge No. 35. He followed Philip Crosthwaite — Gatewood’s brother-in-law — as Master of the Lodge in 1856. Robinson strongly supported development of a railroad connection for San Diego, serving as president and a director of the first San Diego and Gila railroad company organized in 1854. He died on October 27, 1857 at the age of 67.
Creating historical confusion, the only Robinson grave marker at El Campo Santo cemetery is for Yankee Jim, which lists the executed man’s name as “James W. Robinson.” The known burials also list Yankee Jim’s name this way, with his age as 31 and date of burial as September 19, 1852, the day after his hanging. Charles L. Spratley notes in his book, “Piercing the Veil: Examining San Diego’s Haunted History,” that “If you ever see a picture purporting to be the Yankee Jim who was hanged, chances are it’s a photo of James W. Robinson, a highly distinguished and prominent judge, attorney, and businessman.”
James W. Robinson built a grand two-story house on the Old Town Plaza in 1853. The first floor was adobe painted to look like wood siding, and the second floor was wood frame painted to look like adobe. Through the next 50 years, the building served various purposes, including private residence, offices for the San Diego Herald — Old Town’s newspaper during the 1850s — general store, schoolroom, law office, medical office, jail cell, and the County Clerk’s office. Louis Rose bought the house from James W. Robinson’s widow in 1868. By about 1900, the house had been demolished, but it was reconstructed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation in 1989 and now serves as the Old Town visitor information center.
Robinson Street in West End was changed to Ray Street in May 1900 at the recommendation of City Engineer Louis Davids. With his admiration for early scientists, perhaps Davids wanted to honor John Ray (1627-1705), an English botanist, ornithologist, zoologist, theologian and naturalist at the University of Cambridge who established species as the ultimate unit of taxonomy.
— Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at email@example.com or 619-294-8990.