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Coronado Tent City Attracted Early Glampers

The Coronado Tent City launched in 1900 with 300 fancy red-and-white-striped seaside tents. It started as an affordable summertime alternative to the famed Hotel del Coronado off the coast of San Diego, California. Local mogul John D. Spreckels initially thought it would be a bad investment. He was wrong. By 1903 more than 1,000 families travelled by new railway lines from all over the United States and San Diego to spend their summer by the seashore.

The Coronado Tent City Offered Luxury At Low Prices

The Tent City remained a smashing success until 1938. Tents with red-and-white canvas or thatched roofs were erected along the empty beach south of the Hotel del Coronado (known as Hotel Del). Some say the idea came from the earlier tents that housed workers during the construction of the hotel.

According to the hotel’s history page, the Tent City was designed like a small city. A grid of dirt streets eventually became well-worn thoroughfares lined with mature trees. An early brochure described the accommodations that today would be considered glamorous camping (glamping).

“A furnished tent comprises electric lights, matting on boarded floor, comfortable beds and cots, bedding, wash-stand, mirror, tables, chairs, rockers, camp-chairs and stools, necessary cooking utensils, clean linen, daily care of tent, and laundry service of tent linen.”

The Coronado Tent City offered restaurants, a soda fountain, grocery store and shops. Entertainment included an arcade and shooting gallery, theatre that showed early films as well as live performances, bandstand, and dance pavilion. Guests enjoyed a seal tank, ostrich farm and monkey cages. Managers even held children’s bullfights.

For those who tired of swimming in the ocean, there was a large public pool. The Balboa Park Carousel was a favorite feature at the Tent City in the early 1900s.

Like all well-run cities they had a library and a police department to keep people in line. Residents kept up-to-date on events and local gossip with the daily Coronado Tent City newspaper.

Prices were geared to people who could not afford the luxury hotel to the north. Unfurnished 8-by-10-foot tents cost $1.50 to $2.50 per week. More luxurious tents cost $6 per week. Those included beds and linens, a washstand with towels and water, rocking chairs and a lamp. An add-on of electric lights cost $1 per month.

The Coronado Tent City was a sister project to one established on Catalina Island.

Bound Brochure Titillated Vacationers

The University of California San Diego library archives have a digitized brochure used to lure customers from across country. It contains original photographs from the Tent City and outlines all of its features. It offers a valuable look at the changing times when seaside resorts were becoming affordable to the masses and transportation was making them accessible.

The dedication page reads:

“When heats as of a tropic clime, Burned all our inland valleys through, Our friends the guests of summer time, Pitched their white tents where sea winds blew”

In the Amusements section paints a picture of an early all-inclusive resort vacation:

“From the rising of the sun until the midnight hour, opportunity is afforded for everyone’s enjoyment according to their taste. Some take the early morning plunge, others a boating trip before breakfast or a cycle spin, while others stroll along the sandy beach and delight in the pure invigorating air. After breakfast the city livens up; the bazaars are open, the bowling alley, merry-go-round, and other attractions are in full blast, and music is in the air.”

Evening entertainment paints a picture of new developments in technology including the beginning of electric lights in widespread use.

“Beginning at 8 is an outdoor concert by one of the best collections of musical artists eve assembled on this coast, followed by dancing on the casino and theatricals at the pavilion. During this time the camp is ablaze with electric lights, all is life and bustle. People come by trainloads from San Diego to enjoy the music and other features of amusement…”

The Coronado Tent City News Offers A Time Capsule

The Coronado Tent City daily newspaper announced weather forecasts, upcoming events and activities. Each bound edition also recorded the social news and biographical features. Reporters often wrote about events of the previous days including Rag Time Night. In one case a reviewer scolded people who behaved rudely at a performance. Vintage ads appear in each issue.

Daily gossip was also a hot item in the following piece about a visitor to the Tent City who had been in residence for several weeks, checked out, then returned to the same tent where she changed into her swimsuit.

“Maybe it was force of habit or as some would have it, just unexampled nerve; but anyway, she did it with all the coolness imaginable. She had been residing here for many weeks, and among other amusements she included a battling of the surf in her day’s enjoyment. The lady left on Monday for San Diego, but the fascination of old ocean was upon her, and over she came on Tuesday to take a farewell dip.

 To the old street she went and into the old familiar tent which immediately after her going had been rented to new campers who at the time she called were out. Their baggage had not yet arrived, and there were no visible evidences of a new regime. Leisurely she discarded her walking garments, their place being taken by a bathing suit, which was soon being buffeted in the waves.

 Pretty soon the legitimate owners came to their new home where they were shocked at the sight of this scattered feminine apparel. They tied it in a bundle and had half decided to throw it into the bay when the thought struck them that Joe Hammond had better be consulted. This worthy individual received the package and the story, and passing the package without the story on to somebody else, went to attend to some business at the other end of camp. The “somebody else” wanted to go to lunch so he put the parcel on a shelf and forgot about it.

The lady in the meantime had finished the swim and of course reappearing at the tent found things rather different than when she left it. Neither Joe nor the other fellow could be found when she called at the office to secure her very necessary clothes, and it was a miserable and angry lady who attired in a wet bathing suit, set the office force on a wild goose chase after the valuable finery.

 For a full hour they hunted high and low, and at last in one of the dark recesses of the storehouse the much-wanted bundle was brought to light. A hurried toilet and the first car to San Diego were the concluding incidents of this comedy.” 

San Diego historian Joe Ditler recently donated a full season of the publication to the Coronado Public Library. Digitized copies of the Tent City news can be read at the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

The Tent City Moved To Imperial Beach

By 1938 the Coronado Tent City gave way to big development. The towering Coronado Shores condos now sit in its place. In 1939 several hundred of the original tents were moved by barge from the Silver Strand to Imperial Beach.

According to DigImperialBeach.com, Thomas Halbert Hall intended for some of the tents to become the center of a Writer’s Ranch Colony. Others became the focal point of the Summerville cottages also in Imperial Beach. According to Dr. Steven Schoenherr of the South Bay Historical Society, the Summerville cottages on the beach at 652 through 664 Seacoast Drive were demolished in 1991, but one was saved and moved to the YMCA.

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