California Historical Landmark No. 59: San Diego Presidio Site

Presidio Hill, just above Old Town, is the site of several California Historical Landmarks, and is today a lovely city park for relaxation and enjoyment, with hiking and picnicking opportunities with fantastic scenery and views. Located prominently in the park is the Junípero Serra Museum, which is run by the San Diego History Center. The museum is located just uphill of the original site of the Presidio (garrison) established by the Spanish.

California Historical Landmark No. 59

Prior to Spanish settlement, the hillside was settled by the Kumeyaay people as the village of Cosoy. When the Spanish came to settle Alta California, they established the Presidio, a military fort, in May 14, 1769. The Presidio hill had a strong defensive position, and could keep watch over San Diego Bay, and the Pacific off of False Bay (today’s Mission Bay), while having access to water from the San Diego River. The presidio was the first permanent European settlement on the Pacific Coast of the US. While the presidio had to fend off an Indian uprising only a month into its establishment, a stockade was completed in 1770. The Mission San Diego de Alcala was founded only two months after the fort was established, also on Presidio Hill, by Fr. Junipero Serra, though was moved further upstream to its present site in 1774.

Around that time, the original buildings of the Presidio were being upgraded to adobe structures, and in 1822, after Mexican independence, the post was turned over from Spain to Mexico, and became the Mexican Governor’s residence until it was abandoned in 1837, when being in the town below was more practical than up on the hill. The site fell into ruin. George Marston, a wealthy San Diego businessman, bought the site in 1907 in order to preserve it, and had the Serra Museum building built in Spanish Revival style in 1929, and turned the park over to the city at that time. While no buildings of the Presidio remain, you can still see the remnants in the mounds just west of the Serra Museum at its parking lot.

Plaque text:

    Soldiers, sailors, Indians, and Franciscan missionaries from New Spain occupied the land at Presidio Hill on May 17, 1769 as a military outpost. Two months later, Fr. Junipero Serra established the first San Diego mission on Presidio Hill. Officially proclaimed a Spanish presidio on January 1, 1774, the fortress was later occupied by a succession of Mexican forces. The presidio was abandoned in 1837 after San Diego became a pueblo.

    California Registered Historical Landmark No. 59

    First registered Dec. 6, 1932. Plaque placed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperation with the San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation and Squibob Chapter, E Clampus Vitus, August 8, 1992.

The perimeter of the site itself is partially marked with a yellow wall just downhill of the parking lot, and can be entered from a few spots. Most of the site is grass covered, though some mounds form the outline of a building site within the fort site. At the back end of the parking lot is a small pentagonal building that forms a corner of the perimeter wall. It probably stores park maintenance supplies, but has a small staircase leading up to a roof overlook spot, and has a marker on the wall memorializing Sylvester Pattie, the first American buried here (part of a exploration expedition, who was imprisoned).

Following the main roadway downhill, there are also a few other markers and statues: one grove has a statue entitled Padre, a time capsule and the Serra Cross, made out of tiles and bricks pulled from the ruins of the Presidio, and built in 1913. Across the roadway is a larger statue entitled The Indian, by the same artist, Arthur Putnam, around a buried archaeological site that was once the village of Cosoy. Near this statue is an restroom with a rooftop overlook spot for Old Town and Mission Bay. Both statues were originally placed elsewhere but later moved to the park in 1933.

The Presidio site is located about two-thirds of the way up Presidio Hill, in the aptly named Presidio Park.

From Interstate 5, take Interstate 8 east to Taylor Street / Hotel Circle (first exit), and turn right (west) onto Taylor Street. Follow Taylor Street along past the Presidio Hill, and turn left onto Presidio Drive, entering the park*. Follow the road south and it will immediately end in a T, and turn left to stay on Presidio Drive, and it will meander up the hill. The Serra Museum will be on the left, with its parking lot on the right.

The Presidio Site landmark plaque is located at the parking lot entrance, across the road from the Serra Museum. The actual presidio site is located downhill of the parking lot, in the area surrounded by the yellow wall.

*At the park entrance, just east of the intersection of Taylor Street and Presidio Drive, are two more California Historical Landmarks, No. 67 – Serra Palm, and No. 244 – Derby Dike, as well as a marker for the La Playa Trail. At the top of Presidio Hill is another Historical Landmark, No. 54 – Fort Stockton.

If you have time for your Presidio visit, I suggest taking the Old Presidio Historic Trail. It is about a mile long, and is marked with a series of 13 signs from Old Town to the Serra museum. The signs, made by the San Diego Historical Society, describe some of the history of the hill site. We tried to follow it, but went off track after hitting the main steep slopes going up the hill. We did find the last few signs of it as we returned down the hill from the Serra Museum. The first marker of the Old Presidio Historic Trail is at the intersection of Mason St. and Juan St. next to Old Town State Park and the Presidio Hills Golf Course, which is the site of another California Historical Landmark – No 74 – Casa de Carrillo.

See all the photos on my
flickr album of Presidio Hill. There’s photos of the Presidio site, the Serra Museum, and other parts of Presidio Park, the Casa de Carrillo, and related historical landmarks.


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