El Cajon Historical Society

El Cajon's Crown Jewel: The Corona Hotel 1886-1920
by G. Carroll Rice

Times were good! The Southern California Land Boom was in full bloom in the mid-1880’s when Mrs. Anna Stough Knowles conceived the idea of a modern first-class hotel in the midst of the action. Mrs. Knowles was the daughter of Oliver J, Stough, a man of wealth who had made fortunes in real estate from Pacific Beach to Burbank; and it’s a good bet that he was a silent partner in her ‘hospitality’ enterprise. With money at hand, she purchased ten acres on the north side of Main Street at Magnolia, directly across the street from Amaziah Knox’s workaday El Cajon Hotel built ten years earlier.

In 1885, she engaged premier architects, James and Merritt Reid, who were designing and building the luxurious Hotel Del Coronado for Mr. E. S. Babcock, to design her dream hostelry. Fully reflecting the Late Victorian/Queen Anne styling, and occupying a ground space of 40 by 110 feet, the all-wood El Cajon Corona Hotel [[1]] offered 40 public and private rooms designed to appeal to a genteel clientele.

Outside, the three-story structure featured an open first floor roofed veranda for walks around the building and access to offices and shops. As time went by those professional and commercial accommodations would include doctors’ offices, a barber shop that offered hot and cold baths, a drugstore, real estate sales offices, a motion picture company headquarters, and a popular billiard parlor.

           Balconies on the second and third floors gave guests views of the passing parades of people, carriages, wagons, and, later, those new-fangled automobiles on Main Street. On the roof, a ‘sky veranda’ and a spacious cupola observation tower offered visitors and prospective land buyers unobstructed views all the way to the mountains. Completing the picture, a jaunty weather vane atop the cupola reached 75 feet above the ground and responded to the prevailing breezes.

Lodgings for overnight and long-term guests included five bedrooms on the third floor, twenty on the second floor and six on the ground or main floor. The public facilities encompassed a dining room which was famous for its savory chicken dinners; the City Club Room (a venue for community and civic meetings), a spacious ballroom to host community dances, and, for the men, an impressive grand saloon.

There was no central heating, but warmth was provided by open fireplace grates, strategically located on each floor. Seven brick chimneys along the back side of the hotel, five rising from the ground and two rising from the second floor, served the heating system. It wasn’t until 1911 that electricity became available in the
El Cajon valley and, presumably, to the Corona. Although electric power was eventually installed in the hotel, a sewage system was years away, which resulted in the installation of a privy behind the hotel. Excavations of that privy area in 1992 proved that it was also used for the disposal of refuse and garbage. The collection of trash and discarded artifacts from the pit gave archeologists intimate insights into life in El Cajon in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

 When the Corona opened in 1886 the demand for Southern California land was at its peak. Basking in its heady atmosphere, the hotel flourished as land companies, such as the El Cajon Land Company and Pacific Coast Land Bureau, brought thousands of prospective buyers by carriage, and after 1889 by train, into the valley.[[2]]

By 1890, with California’s business climate slipping into the doldrums, Anna Stough Knowles wisely sold the hotel and moved to La Jolla, later opening the Vienna bakery and dining room at Fourth and F Streets in downtown San Diego. [3]

In spite of the prosperous operation in its earliest years, it appears that the hotel suffered from management problems, and by 1892, Amaziah Knox had assumed the reins; adding the operation of the Corona to his continued management of his original El Cajon Hotel. Some time in this period the property title was acquired by the Pacific Coast Land Bureau of San Francisco and they closed a portion of the hotel. Social notes in the El Cajon Valley News indicated that organizations met and dined at the Knox, but went across the street to dance in the Corona’s ballroom.

The Corona underwent a major renovation in March 1899, when its San Francisco owners rented the building to J. D. Rush who then was managing the
El Cajon Hotel for Amaziah Knox who wanted to retire to ranching. Paint, structural repairs, and even a new windmill and pumping system promised first class accommodations at the re-opening. In his initial advertising, Mr. Rush stated that the Corona would now offer better stabling for animals, display rooms had been added for the use of traveling salesmen, and that excellent meals would continue to be available for twenty-five cents. [4]

For the next twenty years, the Corona Hotel was the center of public activity in the El Cajon Valley. Management and ownership changed several more times as the prosperity of the mid-1880’s faded into memory. In 1908, the Corona became the property of W.T. Munger, who bequeathed it to his daughter, Louisa Starr in 1911. Even then, the aging Corona, held her own as the new century blossomed and the world swirled into an era of unparalleled sophistication.

During those sparkling, late 'teen days when motion pictures were new and hadn't yet found voices, the Corona housed the office of the of the El Cajon Valley Film Co. Its manager, John Filson, not only directed the company's productions, but was available to train and coach aspiring motion picture actors two days a week (The fee for such training is not mentioned.) Hotel rooms and the Corona, itself, frequently appeared in films between 1911 and 1920 when Valley locations were popular with the pioneer motion picture companies.

Still, time had taken its toll and by 1920, Mrs. Starr, a former city clerk, had listed the hotel on the market at $15,000 and anticipating the sale, rented it to Mr. W.C. Houghton on a month-to-month basis.

December 14, 1920 must have been chilly, for about 8:00 that evening Mr. Haughton removed the covering from an unused heating grate on the northeast side of the building. Unaware that instead of repairing its damaged chimney, a previous manager had simply closed it off, he started a fire that ignited the building’s exposed wooden framework and spread across the upper floor. Guests in upstairs rooms immediately realized the futility of tossing pitchers of water on the blaze and began to evacuate. The alarm was sounded and the El Cajon fire company arrived quickly, but their equipment was totally inadequate against a fire of this magnitude. Unable to produce enough water pressure to do any good, the local firemen called for help from La Mesa and San Diego. Both departments responded, but by the time they arrived, flames had already spread through the entire building. The heat generated by the fire was so intense that buildings across the street – among them the new Lyons Building at the northeast corner – were scorched and their windows were beginning to crack and fall. Water from La Mesa’s new pumper truck and San Diego’s Unit No. 4 was used not only to fight the fire, but more importantly to cool the neighboring buildings and spray the overheated firemen.

By 10:00 P.M., the once magnificent Corona Hotel was gone. Fortunately, the fire had started on the upper stories, and the alarm had been given in time for the forty or more occupants, including some children, to retrieve what they could of their property and escape uninjured.

The community had met the emergency well, rallying at the first sounds of the alarm and helped rescue as much hotel furniture and other property as possible. Within the two-hour period a kitchen was set up in the Veterans Hall to serve coffee and snacks to the firefighters.[5] The building had been insured for $3,000 plus an additional $500 for Mrs. Starr’s personal items, but the loss of property by the guests, mostly men working on road improvements, was uninsured.

After the fire there were those who shrugged their shoulders and commented that an old wooden building, dry as tinder, could be expected to burn down sooner or later. The Corona, however, was far more than an old wooden building; it was a structure in the grand design that brought a sense of pride and permanence to
El Cajon residents and business owners. The Valley’s first doctor, A. L. Derbyshire, had opened his office, and later the first pharmacy, in it. The first available hot and cold baths were offered in the hotel barber shop at a time when few families had bathing facilities at home. The community would long miss its ballroom, the promenades on its roof and the handsome observation tower so loved by visitors and enthusiastic real estate salesmen for the stunning views of the valley’s rich agricultural heritage and dawning potential.

            Probably the most significant series of meetings ever held in the Corona took place in the Fall of 1912 as a petition for the incorporation of a village called ‘The Corners’ into a new city to be named El Cajon was being prepared for the County Board of Supervisors. After it was submitted and certain boundary adjustments made, the Board of Supervisors gave its approval and set an election date for November 12, 1912. The residents approved the plan and elected James B. Harris, J. B. Rumsey, William Stell, Dr. Charles R. Knox, and George French to a board of Trustees. The Trustees held their first meeting in the Corona’s City Club Room and   appointed James B. Harris as President of the Board; the positions of City Clerk and Treasurer were filled by store owner Leo T. Meachum and O. B. Avis. [6]

Many times in the past I have looked at old photographs of El Cajon, and have been confused by seeing the Corona’s cupola rising above the horizon. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, but now I can see in its vanished elegance the symbol of the faith men and women once had in the future of this valley we call home . . . a monumental pointer toward what the City of El Cajon became and continues to be in a Valley of Opportunity.

G. CARROLL RICE


 [1] Also referenced as Corona del Cajon and Hotel del Corona in some papers. At least one sign on the front of the building reads: El Cajon Corona Hotel.

 [2] Pourade, Richard, A History of San Diego, The Glory Years, Union Tribune Publishing Co. 1964.A townsite was laid out in El Cajon Valley by the El Cajon Valley Company, of which Ephraim Morse was a principal figure. A second hotel, the Corona, had an observation tower from which prospective buyers could select their lands. The Pacific Coast Land Bureau loaded fifteen carriages and coaches with prospective buyers and took them to see the beauties of the valley. Lots were sold in a spirited auction.

 [3] El Cajon Valley News, April 2, 1892

 [4] El Cajon Valley News, March 18, 1899

 [5] El Cajon Valley News, December 17, 1920. The bulk of the information about the fire is derived from this article, apparently by an eye-witness.l

[6] Daily Californian, December 27, 1983. Article by Chloris Scott, A look back/El Cajon could have been a 'Hollywood.' Discusses pioneer motion picture production in El Cajon,

 [7] El Cajon Californian-Weekly Edition, Thursday, October 29, 1992. An excellent article by James W. Graves, Hotel gives birth to cityhood presents further details about the incorporation of El Cajon and contains more facts about the Corona Hotel


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