Wednesday, October 28, 2020

“Empire Builder” Showcases John D. Spreckels’ Influence on Coronado and San Diego

Empire Builder book cover
“Empire Builder” by Sandra Bonura

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Reaching far beyond Coronado, John Diedrich Spreckels greatly influenced the growth of San Diego at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. His name is prominent in the Hawaiian sugar, building, energy, railway, and steamship industries. Empire Builder: John D. Spreckels and The Making of San Diego, is the title of the new book by Dr. Sandra Bonura. There has been little chronicled about this powerful man or his family because he was intensely private. Bonura stated that, “because Spreckels owned all the newspapers from the top to the bottom of California, his goings on were kept hidden from the public, unless it furthered his political or financial gains. Looking behind the scenes of his life was labor intensive!”

Bonura explained that her journey in leaving professorship to authorship began with forgotten steamer trunks found in a century old attic in Berkeley. The contents were donated to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla. The cataloging of the contents revealed valuable scientific papers, maps, artifacts, letters, photographs, and more.  But it was 100-year-old love letters hidden amongst the scientific collection, found in their original envelopes, that captured the heart and mind of Bonura in 2008. The letters from a 19th century missionary teacher in Hawaii to her scientist fiancé, the future co-founder of Scripps, at Harvard were of great value to history, because it was a firsthand account of the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. Those edited letters and commentary were published by the University of Hawaii Press as An American Girl in the Hawaiian Islands: The Letters of Carrie Prudence Winter. “That glimpse of history fed my soul, which was especially needed at the time,” remembers Bonura.

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Dr. Sandra Bonura. Image courtesy of Sandra Bonura.

John D. Spreckels was mentioned in those letters. He told Hawaii’s last queen to fight for her monarchy and financially supported her. As a native San Diegan, Spreckels was a name Bonura knew. She had spent a lot of time in Coronado growing up because her mom worked for the Navy on North Island. She remembers frequent trips on the car ferry, the famed blue cheese and Italian dressings at the original Mexican Village, and the magnificent celebration of the Christmas tree lighting at The Del every December.

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Her four years of research and two years of writing uncovered unshared stories of Spreckels as a multi-faceted, ruthless and savvy businessman, coupled with a generous philanthropist spirit; for whom, because he didn’t toot his own horn, many people didn’t realize the extent of his generosity. Like Spreckels, Bonura was raised with German immigrant family history and this was common ground in writing his biography.

Spreckels was a very ill refugee of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake when he came to Coronado to make it his home. He was one of the lucky earthquake victims who had a place to go. He essentially owned Coronado Island, including The Del. Once his health returned, he had no desire to live anywhere else, plus, his grandchildren were nearby.

1891 view of Coronado, Empire Builder book
John D. Spreckels was in favor of Coronado incorporating. Image from “Empire Builder” used with permission of author Sandra Bonura.

Within a short period of time, Spreckels funneled a great deal of money from his sugar and shipping industries into his new hometown of San Diego putting him at odds with other businessmen at the time. He was both loathed and loved on both sides of the bay as he built up the infrastructures of both San Diego and Coronado.

But one thing was clear, he loved Coronado and made many contributions to the community, including gifting the library to the city, which he considered one of his legacies. He gave the city its first movie theater within the Spreckels Building, now used as the Lamb’s Players Theatre, and kept Coronado Tent City as entertainment for the locals, even though he never made a dime on it. He also donated land in Coronado to many philanthropic organizations. He built his lovely Harrison Albright-designed mansion overlooking Glorietta Bay, which is now the Glorietta Bay Inn.

During the journey of writing Empire Builder, Bonura gained great respect for Spreckels, who loved the arts, music, and books. She learned he had social anxiety and was so shy he couldn’t even address his own employees in public. He hid this with a gruff exterior. She shares many untold stories that are insightful.

She discovered that Spreckels’ papers were not archived in one place, so she had to look at a variety of industries to uncover his legacy. He had four children, and she found a treasure trove of information from his great granddaughter, who allowed her open access to the family archives, where she spent two days in 2018 scanning photos dating back to the 19th century from Germany, along with letters, notes, and more. She even saw two oil painting that Spreckels had created at age 13 which revealed an incredible art talent.

She learned that the Spreckels family had few connections with each other, so she helped organize the first Spreckels family reunion, which was held at The Del in February 2018, with 45 people in attendance. The Union-Tribune followed her and the family around for two days in an event that ended at Balboa Park’s Spreckels Organ Pavilion. She enjoyed introducing the youngest generations to the oldest and hopes those relationships will continue.

In the past, Bonura has given lectures at the Coronado Historical Association (CHA) on “How Sugar Built San Diego”, and in 2018 was asked to curate a Spreckel’s exhibit, entitled “John D. Spreckels, the Man, the Legacy.” Writing copy to accompany the artifacts, she soon realized there was more to this man than met the eye, and she simply had to write his biography. The stories and anecdotes in the book are nowhere else to be found and she is confident this story of the founding of our city by this indomitable man will cause both laughter and shock! The book chronicles the complete history of The Del right up through the current pandemic closure.

A history aficionado, this is her third biography. Her last book Light in The Queen’s Garden: Ida May Pope, Pioneer for Hawai’i’s Daughters won the 2019 the top award for Excellence in Non-Fiction. She also wrote Queen Lili’uokalani’s Beloved Kawaiaha’o Seminary and Lydia K. Aholo—Her Story Recovering the Lost Voice and award winning An American Girl in the Hawaiian Islands: Letters of Carrie Prudence Winter 1890-1893.

Bonura’s writing process is to grab a strong cup of coffee and write three to four hours every morning and then conduct research at night. “Writing the Spreckels book was my most fun project to date. I relished learning more about my stomping grounds and enjoyed all the connections I made,” she comments. A creative soul, she loves to draw, decorate, garden and strives to leave the world a prettier place.

“In writing my doctoral dissertation, I was continuously told to ‘silence my own voice’ and to report in scholarly fashion the voice of other researchers. But this is my time now, and I chose to write as I talk in Empire Builder. Telling stories is what I like to do. When I meet people, I collect their stories. While writing Spreckels’ biography, I often imagined I was collecting his story firsthand.”

Bonura feels she gave a fair representation of the complexity of Spreckels’ business and personal life “from the good, spicy, and everything in between.”  Author signed copies of Empire Builder: John D. Spreckels and the Making of San Diego can be purchased at CHA at 1100 Orange Ave, or ask for it at Bay Books or find it from online book sellers. And don’t miss Dr. Bonura’s virtual slide presentation for the Coronado Library on November 9 at 11 am.

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Jennifer Velez
Jennifer fell in love with Coronado as a teenager while visiting a college friend. She vowed that someday she would make it her home, and that dream has recently become a reality. Fast forward through completing college with a BA in Journalism, Public Relations and Communications, she then went on to work with a variety of clients. She also taught Journalism and coordinated fundraising for her children’s school, and was a staff writer for San Diego Family Magazine and contributed to other parenting publications. Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to:


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