The first known residents of the Solana Beach area migrated here about 9000 BC from Asia across the Alaska land bridge. Now known as the San Dieguitos, they were hunters of large animal such as mastodons, giant bison and camels that grazed in the many marshes and lush grass hillsides of the area. A climate change dried up the marshes and grasslands and many of the large animals perished as their food source disappeared. It is believed a small number migrated south into Mexico who apparently were followed by the San Dieguitos. Evidence of these early settlers can still be found on the bluffs and rolling hills east of the ocean.
The next wave of inhabitants arrived about 7,000 BC are now known as La Jollans. They dwelled in small bands along the coast and around the lagoons, where they collected seafood and gathered seeds.
Around the beginning of the current era, the La Jollans were ousted, or absorbed, by a new group of immigrants from the Colorado River area. Known for almost three hundred years by their Spanish name, Diegueños, today they are referred to as Kumeyaay-Ipai. The Kumeyaay-Ipai fished and foraged along the coast, and gathered acorns, pinon nuts and other edibles in the mountains.
The Spanish arrived in 1769 led by Don Gaspar de Portola. Portola’s charge was to press north from San Diego to Monterey Bay establishing a series of missions along the way. He was accompanied by Franciscan padres whose job it was to convert the local Indians. Traveling between the San Diego and Monterey missions, the Portola party established a trail known as “El Camino Real.” In the Solana Beach area, the Spanish traveled inland to avoid the many marshes and inlets near the coast. El Camino Real crossed at Conley’s corners on Via de la Valle which is now the east end of the Polo Field.
Control of the area passed to Mexico when it gained independence from Spain in 1821. Many of the inhabitants were sons and grandsons of the original Spanish settlers who became influential in government and were owners of enormous ranchos. Many thousands of acres in what is now San Diego County became privately owned during the Mexican regime. The then current mayor of the City of San Diego, Don Juan Maria Osuna, claimed the 8800 acres known as Rancho San Dieguito in 1836. His eldest son, Leandro, lived in a three-room adobe off today’s Via de la Valle near the Rancho Santa Fe village center. It has undergone a second restoration by the Rancho Santa Fe Association. In 1845 Don Juan Osuna built his own adobe about a mile west on Via de La Valle, which was restored in 1923 for Bing Crosby by Lilian Rice
Following the Mexican War with the United States, California became a U.S. territory, and on September 9, 1850, was admitted to the Union. Until the 1860s and the gradual influx of the Anglos, the Californios (early Mexican, large land owners) continued to dominate life in the Solana Beach area. The County of San Diego was established by the State Legislature on February 18, 1850. The population numbered 790. Records show that the first American homesteader in the vast San Luis Rey district, was William A. Ewing, who took up 180 acres in the San Dieguito River valley in 1862.
“Grandpa” Frank Knowles came to the San Dieguito area in 1885. Before Knowles died in the 1940s, he shared memories of a few Indians living on the San Elijo Lagoon at that time. He lived to be 104 years of age. The main area known as Solana Beach was originally called Lockwood Mesa and was uninhabited until 1908 when the first two ranches were established by the George Jones family. Chief crops were grain and lima beans.
The oldest house in Solana Beach is the Stevens House, built in 1887 and originally located on the Molly Glen Ranch. Henry and Belle Sandford of Del Mar established the ten-acre ranch on the south slopes of Solana Beach. It was located on the current site of the Del Mar Downs development. In 1891 the ranch was bought by Susan Stevens, daughter of James and Susannah Stevens, for whom Stevens Street and Stevens Creek were later named. The Stevens were originally from New York, but later moved to Michigan and then North Dakota, where James West Stevens was a State Senator in the third legislature of that state (1892-1896). They came to California in early 1896, with their son Edwin following a year later. In 1898 Susan sold the ranch to her parents.
“Grandma Stevens,” as Susannah was known, was a celebrity when she reached her 105th birthday. By the time she had turned 100, she had been interviewed and photographed by newspapers from Los Angeles and San Diego. She and James celebrated their 60th anniversary with a big party on the Del Mar beach in 1906. James died in 1907 and Susannah Stevens lived in the ranch house until her death in 1927, a few days short of her 106th birthday.
After Susannah’s death, Edwin and his wife Jennie lived in the house until Ed’s death in 1935. They speculated in real estate, and with Col. Ed Fletcher’s brother-in-law Eugene Batchelder, developed the adjacent 160 acres now known as La Colonia de Eden Gardens. The house itself changed hands at least twice after Jennie’s death in 1940. The final owners found old 1890-era newspapers in the walls when they lived there. The Stevens House today is in La Colonia Park and houses the Solana Beach Heritage Museum. It currently is open on the first and third Saturday of each month from 1:00 to 4:00 pm or by calling the curator at 858-259-7657 for an appointment for a tour by any group of one or more.
Lake Hodges Spurs Development
The area encompassing Solana Beach began to develop rapidly when Lake Hodges Dam was built in 1918. The creation of the 12,000-acre Santa Fe Irrigation District in 1918 ensured that the area from Rancho Santa Fe through Solana Beach would prosper and expand. The coastline from Solana Beach to Oceanside began to boom in the early 1920s. In 1922 Colonel Ed Fletcher, an early community leader and developer, purchased 201 acres at $200 per acre from farmer George H. Jones to develop the town of Solana Beach. Fletcher’s goal was for his new community to be the regional commercial center for Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach. The goal was never realized when the former two communities overturned the original severe restrictions imposed on commercial development in those towns. Nevertheless Solana Beach grew rapidly paralleling the development of the entire county during the 1924-29 period.
To provide access to the beach, hydraulic water pressure was used to break up the hard pack and create a notch in the bluffs above the beach. This took one man three months with a fire hose, using water that was coming over the spillway at Lake Hodges Dam. The loose sand was scooped up by steam shovel and trucked to the surf line where it was washed away. The beach was opened with great fanfare, including horse races on July 4th, 1924.
For his “commercial center” Fletcher opened the Bank of Solana Beach, which he subsequently sold to the Bank of America. Other businesses provided by Fletcher were a train station, a Ford agency/garage, a grocery store and a hotel. This prompted the development of many additional businesses on the Plaza, Highway 101 and Cedros Ave. When the depression hit in 1929, Fletcher lost all the buildings noted above and was forced to sell half of real estate holdings in the downtown area plus 800 contiguous acres running to Rancho Santa Fe.
The depression stifled growth in Solana Beach. The price of lots tumbled and land reverted to the Santa Fe Irrigation District for lack of tax payment. For almost a decade, progress was at a standstill. With the approach of World War II, the community began to stir. However, it was not until the early 1950s that the area reached the stage of development that had been predicted for the 1930s.
Additional information on the development of the community can be found in two books published by the Solana Beach Civic and Historical Society. They are “La Colonia and Solana Beach Spring Up from Colonel Ed Fletcher’s Running Water” and “Early Solana Beach; Recollections by George C. Wilkens and Robert Chuckles Hernandez as told to Jim Nelson.” Copies may be obtained at the Solana Beach City Hall at 635 S. Highway 101, the Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center at the train station, Out of the Blue Shell and Gift Shop at 315 S. Cedros Ave. and Tony’s Jacal and Don Chuy’s Mexican Restaurants at 621 and 650 Valley Ave respectively..
La Colonia, the older of the two communities, was developed in 1919/20 for Mexican workers who tended the large citrus groves in Rancho Santa Fe. In creating a subsequent 1923 subdivision, Eugene Batchelder registered the name Eden Gardens. In a further expansion in 1944 the name reverted to La Colonia and today is referred to as La Colonia de Eden Gardens.
After World War II, the Solana Beach community began to grow. The Chamber of Commerce was formed. A sanitation district and a fire district were created. For a 10-year period between 1950 and 1960, the community underwent tremendous growth. The Bill Jack plant (1949) brought industry into the area and private contractors built a number of homes. Marview Heights, land originally owned by the Santa Fe Irrigation District and later sold as individual homes by Fred Howland Ford and his brother, gave impetus to local residential development.
The market collapsed in 1959-60 and it was not until late 1967 that the trend reversed. Paul Tchang, a San Diego builder, constructed almost 100 premium homes in Solana Beach by 1969. Thirty-three more were built in 1970, and 500 more from 1971 to 1977. Lomas Santa Fe completed their golf course and opened the sale of lots in Isla Verde in 1968. This signaled the beginning of a real estate boom which lasted well into the 80s and 90s. After a brief interval in the mid 90s, real estate sales were once again on the rise.
As the community progressed, additional attention was given to civic beautification. The Solana Beach Women’s Civic Club, founded in 1953 and predecessor to the Civic & Historical Society, had succeeded by 1971 in having unsightly billboards removed from along Highway 101 through town.
In 1973, the club obtained lease of the Western section of the railroad right-of-way and planted 450 Torrey and Aleppo pints, hand watering them with the help of the Boy Scouts until funds were raised for in-ground irrigation. The Club also spurred creation of a walking/running trail, which grew in popularity — as did the trees — for the next 20 years.
During this period, the Women’s Civic Club also fostered renovation of the central plaza, installation of the “Sun Burst Fountain,” and posting of welcome signs at City entry-points.
The City of Solana Beach was incorporated in 1986 and included the original neighborhood of La Colonia de Eden Gardens. The City Charter provides a Council-City Manager form of government, with the Mayor’s position rotating among the Council members. The Women’s Civic Club was reorganized as the Solana Beach Civic & Historical Society in 1989.
Recent decades saw creation of the Cedros Design District, building of the Solana Beach train station, formation of the 101 Merchants Association, construction of a new joint-use library, and the influx of many new businesses. In 1995 the Santa Fe train station was moved from Del Mar to a new station in Solana Beach. In 1999 the North County Transit District, operator of the “Coaster” commuter train, and the City of Solana Beach completed a $25-million project to lower the train tracks below grade level under Lomas Santa Fe Drive.
The “big dig,” as it became known, required building temporary “shoefly” railroad tracks through the now popular, pine-shaded walking path along Highway 101. Members of the Civic and Historical Society — successor to the Women’s Civic Club — again rallied, with the City, to support an “Adopt a Tree” program. After a a shaky start, the effort ultimately resulted in the relocation and replanting of 361 trees to residential gardens and commercial landscapes. Fifteen trees were saved and, in 1997, eight were boxed and stored along Hwy. 101 for replanting after the “big dig” was completed.
Meanwhile, plans progressed for the “Coastal Rail Trail” that now sits above and beside the 1.8 mile rail corridor. In 2002, the Society raised funds to finally replant the eight boxed trees, creating the Torrey Grove near the northern border of the City. Later in the decade, the Society (and many of its members) donated funds to preserve the open space from commercial development, with a capstone donation coming from the Harbaugh Family Trust. In February 2020, the shady Torrey Grove and Coastal Rail Trail were officially linked with Harbaugh Seaside Trails, merging with the expanding San Elijo Lagoon trail system and northward into Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Encinitas.
Solana Beach Today
More than13,000 residents call this four-square-mile beach community their home. The Pacific Ocean is to the west; the City of Encinitas to the north, and the City of Del Mar to the south. The unincorporated village of Rancho Santa Fe is located on the east side. Property values in this upscale community have appreciated significantly since incorporation. The business community has equally enjoyed the prosperity of a healthy economy. Solana Beach is the home for many artisans, high-tech businesses and professionals.
The elementary school district is composed of eight elementary schools, two of which are within the City limits. Earl Warren Middle School is under the administration of the San Dieguito Union High School district. Both the middle school and Skyline Elementary School have been completely rebuilt in recent years. High school students in the area generally attend Torrey Pines High School or Canyon Crest Academy, both located to the southeast of Solana Beach in San Diego, or San Dieguito Academy, located in Encinitas. Additionally, there are several private schools in Solana Beach.
The City has two community centers, Fletcher Cove and La Colonia. The Fletcher Cove Community Center, originally a Civilian Conservation Corps barracks, was moved from Vista to Solana Beach in 1944. Some 68 years later, it was It was renovated and reopened for community events in a three-phase project that included extensive landscaping and updates to the adjacent beach access facilities and park. Ceramic artworks by local artist Betsy Schulz line curved paths to the sea at the Cove, as well as both the south and north entries to the Coastal Rail Trail. Ms. Schulz’s contributions to the City’s public art installations also include the dramatic Fire Wall sculpture at the Fire Station, flanked by a native garden planted by the SeaWeeders Garden Club of Solana Beach.
The Community Center at La Colonia was dedicated on May 5, 1991. Program activities in the centers include adult education classes and meeting places for numerous community groups. In November 1996 the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department opened an office in the La Colonia Park Community Center. In April 2019, after years of planning and private as well as public fund raising, the La Colonia Skatepark opened on the park’s north end.
The South Cedros area of the City has been developed as an upscale design district, but its cultural heart remains the world famous Belly Up tavern, established in 1974. Later developed as a concert hall, the Belly Up is consistently acclaimed as one of San Diego’s best live music venues. Through the years, it has featured artists as diverse and renowned as Bo Diddley, Willie Nelson, Tom Jones, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name just a very few.