By Katherine Hon
Many streets in San Diego originally had different names from what we know them by today, especially the subdivisions (“tracts”) mapped prior to 1900. In those early days, development was so sparse, it did not much matter that there were at least fifteen “First Streets” throughout the city. However, by the late 1890s, urbanization was intensifying, and the potential for mass confusion with the existing street name patterns was obvious.
To eliminate duplication and achieve some continuity where street names changed from tract to tract, about 90 names were changed throughout the city by Ordinance No. 599 adopted by the Board of Aldermen on February 6, 1899, and more than 250 names were changed by Ordinance No. 755 adopted May 21, 1900. Ordinance No. 755 brought authors to Point Loma and gems to Pacific Beach, among many other changes.
The source of alphabetical themes for street names changed by Ordinance No. 755 was Louis Jackson Davids, the relatively new city engineer. He wrote the following memorandum to the Board of Public Works on February 1, 1900: “Gentlemen, I hand you herewith a list of streets in the City limits of San Diego, the names of which occur in other and more central parts of the City. The new names suggested are taken either from natural objects (trees, flowers etc.) or from men celebrated in Science, Literature, Statesmanship, War etc.; care being taken to maintain alphabetical order. It would seem advisable to have these names changed by ordinance and to take such action as will prevent further duplication in names of streets.”
The Board of Public Works acknowledged receipt of Davids’ memorandum and list at their February 8, 1900 meeting, noting, “The City Engineer suggests new names, with a recommendation that they be substituted for the old ones. Upon motion being duly seconded the same was referred to the Common Council with recommendation that the same be adopted.”
The San Diego Union’s February 9, 1900 issue reported, “Mr. Davids has proposed new names for most of the duplicates and the board has decided that it would be a good thing to make the change before any greater difficulty is likely to result from the change. A communication will be sent to the council recommending the adoption of the suggestions made by the engineer.”
Ordinance No. 755, which provided for “changing the names and regulating the naming of certain streets in the city of San Diego,” was read and adopted at the aldermen’s meeting on May 21, 1900 and approved by the mayor the following day. The list of name changes was certified by the city clerk as being published in the San Diego Union’s May 24, 25, and 26, 1900 issues.
Davids’ list of new street names that are mostly still present include alphabetical authors from Addison to Zouch — later Zola — and Alcott through Dumas in Roseville, authors Elliott through Lytton in Loma Portal, historians Abbott through Guizot in Ocean Beach, gems Agate through Hornblend and statesmen Allison through Randall in Pacific Beach, naval heroes Bainbridge through Rogers in La Playa, cities Chicago through Nashville in Clairemont/Bay Park, and scientists/engineers Cuvier through Herschel in La Jolla.
Who was this scholarly civil engineer?
Davids had been unanimously selected by the Board of Public Works to be city engineer from three candidates on April 27, 1899. He replaced Edwin Capps, city engineer since July 1893, who resigned because he had just been elected mayor.
Davids’ selection was favorably received. The San Diego Union’s April 28, 1899 issue reported, “Mr. Davids is by far the best man, so far as engineering ability is concerned, that the board of public works could have chosen…it is safe to say that the city’s interests will at all times be carefully guarded by him.”
Davids was born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1854 and obtained his civil engineering degree from Union College — a private liberal arts college in Schenectady, New York — in 1879. He began living in San Diego around 1886. An article about his wedding to Eda Skidmore in the San Diego Union’s April 27, 1894 issue noted, “Mr. Davids is well-known in this city as a gentleman of more than ordinary culture and enviable attainments as a civil engineer, in this state as well as in Mexico and South America, where he was engaged for a series of years in railroad construction. He recently quit the services of the Santa Fe railroad company to look after his private interests in and about San Diego.” His “beautiful and accomplished bride” was described as a native Californian who had traveled extensively and had recently “been teaching in the public schools of this city.” Perhaps the couple came up with the “celebrated” names for streets together.
Davids was described in the 1894 Great Register of San Diego County as being 40 years old and 5 feet 10 inches tall, having a light complexion with blue eyes and brown hair, and living at 170 21st Street.
Davids’ home was on the southwest corner of 21st and L streets in what is now the Sherman Heights Historic District. His house was built in 1892 and has been replaced with a newer structure. However, other nearby homes built in the late 1800s still grace the neighborhood. Davids’ across-the-street neighbor was William B. Hollington, a retired English physician who lived at 171 21st Street from about 1888 to his death in 1908. Hollington’s Victorian-era Queen Anne style house was built in 1887 and is a designated historic resource.
The Board of Public Works “dispensed with” the services of Davids at their October 25, 1900 meeting. The Evening Tribune’s October 25, 1900 issue related the conversation of the board members, who acknowledged he was “a competent engineer, but has a different opinion from this board as to the manner of running his office.” They replaced him with George d’Hemicourt — one of the other candidates in 1899 — at a special meeting on October 30, 1900.
Davids subsequently moved to Oakland with Eda and their son Cyril. He worked as a civil engineer there and in Los Angeles, where the family was living by 1920. He and his wife died within nine days of each other in October 1933 in Los Angeles.
Although he was San Diego’s city engineer for only a year and a half, Davids’ renaming of city streets in 1900 had a profound effect on the identity of many San Diego neighborhoods.
Stay tuned to future PastMatters columns for more about original street names and changes throughout the city.
— Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.