History of Gaslamp Quarter

Once a growing merchant town, the Gaslamp Quarter is now a bustling downtown neighborhood. Learn about some of the area's most important historic moments.
History of Gaslamp Quarter
The Historic Gaslamp
The Founding of New Town
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New Town and the Gaslamp Quarter

The Gaslamp Quarter, commonly referred to by locals as the Gaslamp, is a cultural and historical center in San Diego, California. The town is a sight to behold now, but looking back at its past reveals an even more impressive and interesting history that created the Gaslamp Quarter as it is today.

The town is considered a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places. Each year, it hosts thousands of visitors looking to learn more about early life in San Diego and the people who shaped its modern appearance and feeling.

When you visit the Gaslamp Quarter, it's easy to see how history is ingrained in every part of its identity. There are many museums that bring the area's past into its present. Even the gas lamps that line the streets are a relic of the past, so entrenched in the town that they were the direct inspiration for the current name.

Of course, the present appearance of the area only tells half the story. To learn the real history of the Gaslamp Quarter, you must start with the founding of a small city established early in the settling of the West known as New Town.

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The Founding of New Town and Its Development into the Gaslamp Quarter

When Spanish settlers first came to California, they had trouble settling the area that would eventually become the Gaslamp Quarter. There were a number of failed attempts to establish a city in San Diego Bay. While the area wasn’t hospitable for the settlers, it was especially attractive to local rabbit populations, and it eventually gained the local nickname ‘Rabbitville.’

The land was purchased in 1850 by William Heath Davis, who was a trader and merchant. Despite his investment, very little developing was done to the land to make it more profitable and popular. Still, this initial purchase and renovation of the area paved the way for future developers.

Since its founding, the nearby Old Town, often called the birthplace of California, was the most prominent town in modern-day California. This all changed in 1867, when the real estate developer Alonzo Horton purchased 800 acres of land close to the bay.

To contrast with Old Town, the newly established area was named New Town, and from the moment of its inception it drew attention from the surrounding areas.

While the town always attracted crowds, these crowds were often made up of less savory people. One such person was Wyatt Earp, a notable figure in the town’s history. Once best known for being a lawman who fended off outlaws in the west, Earp was also a frequent gambler, and he established multiple gambling halls in New Town.

The trend set by Wyatt Earp continued in the following years. Around the late 1880s to the early 1900s, New Town became best known for its red-light district, the Stingaree. There were many gambling halls, brothels, and bars, and the situation only got worse for many years.

Around 1970, the city shifted its focus toward urban development and historical preservation. This urban renewal led to the restoration of many Victorian homes that now make up the bulk of the buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter. This prioritization of historic artifacts remains the town’s mission statement to this day and drives the majority of tourism to the area.

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Historic and Informative Places of Interest

With such a strong focus on history, it’s only natural that the Gaslamp Quarter is home to many museums, as well as its own historical foundation. These services work to preserve the shared history of San Diego for life-long residents and curious tourists alike.

There are almost 100 Victorian-style buildings still standing in the town, many of which are still in use today. If you take a trip to the Gaslamp Quarter, or if you’re a resident who wants to learn more about the way your home looked hundreds of years ago, these historic sites are a great place to start.

Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House Museum

The Gaslamp Museum is a near-mandatory stop on any trip to the Gaslamp Quarter. It is a Victorian house that has been converted into a museum that showcases the many phases of the Gaslamp Quarter’s history, from its early days as New Town to more recent developments. In addition to its educational focus, the Gaslamp Museum is also believed to be one of the most haunted buildings in the neighborhood, and ghost tours are frequently offered.

The museum is located in the Davis-Horton house, which also goes by the name William Heath Davis House. Constructed in 1850 after William Heath Davis purchased land in the New Town area, it is the oldest building still standing in San Diego.

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The house has been renovated many times throughout the years, with each renovation keeping the building in good shape, while still preserving all of the historically significant architecture and interior design.

Each room in the house showcases a different period in San Diego’s history and the history of the house itself. It has been used as a private residence, a hospital, and even military barracks. Rooms are decorated to reflect the pre-Civil War era, the modern Gaslamp Quarter style, and everything in between.

The Gaslamp Museum is included in the list of attractions applicable for a bundled discount when you buy a Go San Diego pass for your trip. Purchasing a pass through us gets you access to our additional discount on top of the Go San Diego passes already discounted rates!

Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation

The Gaslamp Museum currently functions as the headquarters for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation (GQHF). The foundation works to preserve the history of the Gaslamp Quarter and of San Diego, and also to make the knowledge of the area’s past accessible to everyone. They are responsible for maintaining and showcasing the Gaslamp Museum, as well as running walking tours to nearby historical landmarks.

As an organization concerned with exploring the Gaslamp Quarter’s history, GQHF also runs many community outreach programs that encourage people of all ages to develop an interest toward San Diego’s past. They run multiple lectures about different aspects of the area’s history each year, and they also host events like the Fallback Festival, a wild west-themed street fair for kids.

San Diego Chinese Historical Museum

San Diego has a significant Chinese population in Kearny Mesa, but there is also a long history of Chinese residents in the Gaslamp Quarter. In the 1860s, Chinese abalone fishermen settled in what is now known as the Asian Pacific Thematic Historic District (APTHD).

This area is now part of San Diego’s Chinatown, and it’s where the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum can be found.

The San Diego Chinese Historical Museum was founded by the San Diego Chinese Historical Society. It is housed in a renovated and repurposed church and school that was originally going to be demolished back in the 1990s. After significant efforts by the Chinese Historical Society, the building was saved, and the museum opened its doors in 1996.

The museum now includes three different buildings as well as a Chinese garden. The exhibits showcase the influence of Chinese culture on past and present San Diego, as well as the area’s long history of multiculturalism.

Museum exhibits and attractions include Chinese artifacts, models, historic photographs, works of art, and displays. The museum runs educational programs for those interested in learning more about Chinese history in the Gaslamp Quarter, and there are annual celebrations for events like the Moon Festival, Chinese New Year, and other holidays.

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Gaslamp Walking Tours

With so many well-preserved historic Victorian-era buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter, it’s no surprise that walking tours are a main attraction!

There are many different walking tours to choose from, and each one highlights a different aspect of the Gaslamp Quarter’s history. They are a great way to experience the neighborhood and take a more in-depth look at the area’s past by learning from a local expert.

The Gaslamp Museum and Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation offer multiple walking tours. Daytime tours take visitors past different buildings while a museum docent explains each building’s significance. Nighttime tours like the Ghosts of the Gaslamp Tour take a more paranormal angle, showing off the spookier side of San Diego and more specifically, the Gaslamp Quarter.

If you’re looking for something a little more unique, check out the Brothels, Bites and Booze: San Diego Gaslamp Walking Tour. This is a culinary tour where you can enjoy great local food and drink, all while learning about the more scandalous history of the Gaslamp District. Tour guides on this tour relay shocking and often little-known information about the history of the infamous red-light district.

The Gaslamp Quarter also is right next to Petco Park, home of the MLB San Diego Padres. The Petco Park Tour is the perfect option for sports fans. Tours include behind-the-scenes locations like the press box, visitors’ clubhouse, the dugout, and even a look through San Diego’s athletic history with the Breitbard Hall of Fame.

Gaslamp Quarter Trivia and Other Historical Facts

The Gaslamp Quarter’s history is incredibly extensive and includes lots of surprising and interesting trivia facts. Here are just a few of the aspects that make this part of San Diego so special.

The Gaslamp Quarter Archway Sign

The large arched sign that welcomes visitors to the Gaslamp Quarter may look like a relic of the past, but it was actually built quite recently (in 1990). Its design is inspired by the Victorian architecture that can be found throughout the rest of the town.

Additional Historic Landmarks

There are many more landmarks in the Gaslamp Quarter that make for excellent stops on sightseeing tours. These include the Old City Hall, the Royal Pie Bakery Building, the Spencer Ogden Building, the Louis Bank of Commerce, and the St. James Hotel. Each of these landmarks help to give the district a unique feeling and character.

Bum the Dog

Bum was a Saint Bernard and Spaniel mix who became a local celebrity in the late 1880s. He arrived as a stowaway on a ship, and while he lived in the Gaslamp Quarter, he ran with the fire brigade, walked in parades, and was known by all.

A statue of Bum can be found behind the Gaslamp Museum.

Sister City

The Gaslamp Quarter’s sister city is Edinburgh, Scotland. Like Bum the dog, Edinburgh has its own canine celebrity: Greyfriars Bobby. There is a replica of Greyfriars Bobby’s bronze statue in the Gaslamp Quarter, and Edinburgh has a statue of Bum in return!

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