By Katherine Hon
Do you know the name of the major road in North Park that honors a World War I general and all San Diegans who fought in that war? Hint: It is a freeway exit from Interstate 5 to North Park.
It is Pershing Drive, named for General John Joseph Pershing. It isn’t surprising that few know the answer — the naming and the war itself happened more than 100 years ago.
North Park started growing in the early 1900s when the streetcar — called the “University Avenue Electric road” in a 1907 San Diego Union article — connected the area to Downtown San Diego along University Avenue that year and along 30th Street soon afterward. These streetcar routes extended the public transportation network initiated in 1906 by extension of the San Diego Electric Railway line from Mission Cliff Pavilion in University Heights to the eastern boundary of Normal Heights along Adams Avenue.
After World War I ended in 1918, housing in North Park began to boom. Although the streetcar continued to serve faithfully until 1949, there was an increasing demand for better roadways to satisfy the desire for transport by personal automobile. In “North Park: A San Diego Urban Village, 1896-1946,” Donald Covington wrote, “The ideal became the sanitized, all-electric, stucco hacienda, a romantic amalgamation of Edison, Bell, Ford and Zorro with telephone jacks and radio aerial intact. The patio succeeded the verandah; the tiled breakfast room challenged the paneled dining room; the screened sleeping porch gave way to the two-tray laundry porch; and the motor car became the new house pet with its own attached garage.”
Many North Park businessmen could see that everyone’s new “house pet” required a better connection to Downtown for North Park to thrive. A possible connection was the existing road through Balboa Park — still known only as the “Big Grade” — that snaked from 18th Street to the northeast corner of the park at 28th Street. But that road was steep, narrow, and unpaved. The cost to change the hazardous roadway into a 25-foot wide paved boulevard was initially proposed to come from public donations.
Richard Allen Chapman — president of a real estate and insurance company at the time — presented the proposal to improve the Big Grade and name it Pershing Memorial Drive to city officials in November 1918. The San Diego Union’s Nov. 15, 1918 issue reported that he intended the project to include “suitable monuments or slabs at both ends of the drive giving the names of the general staff in command of the American forces in France, together with the names of all men from the city of San Diego who died on the field of battle in the cause of liberty.”
The Board of Park Commissioners unanimously supported the concept. Soon afterward, the City Council approved the project and promised matching funds.
Throughout 1919, prominent San Diegans including North Park residents Jack Hartley, Will Stevens and Charles Small contributed. The world-renowned opera singer Mrs. Ernestine Schumann-Heink — a beloved figure in San Diego — gave a concert in the Spreckels Organ Pavilion which was advertised in the San Diego Union’s May 24, 1919 issue as “the biggest musical event of the year.” The newspaper article noted that the entire proceeds would be “donated to a fund to Build Pershing Paved Road and Monument to the San Diego Boys who died in the service.”
John Joseph Pershing (1860-1948), the road’s namesake and the representative for all San Diegans who had been killed in the war, was born on a farm in Missouri. He attended the United States Military Academy (West Point) from 1882 to 1886 and served in the U.S. Army through multiple military campaigns prior to World War I.
He served as the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) on the Western Front in World War I from 1917 to 1918. As AEF commander, Pershing was responsible for a fighting force that started as 27,000 inexperienced men and grew to more than 2 million soldiers.
Sufficient funds for the project finally were raised by mid-1922 with the help of G. Aubrey Davidson, president of the Southern Trust and Commerce Bank; George Marston, president of The Marston Company department store; and Charles Small, manager of the Bishop Cracker and Candy Company. In January 1923, paving was completed, and Pershing Drive was opened to travel. It does not appear that the proposed monuments were ever constructed.
In April 1923, the name of the road continuing north to University Avenue was changed from Oregon Street to Pershing Avenue in response to a petition supported by residents, although residents along 28th Street also petitioned for their street to have that honor. At this time, spurs of newly improved Pershing Drive lined up with both streets. In 1992, nearly 70 years later, the Pershing Spur was closed to accommodate plans for Bird Park, which opened officially in September 1997.
— Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at email@example.com or 619-294-8990.