History of the Sweetwater Valley

During the time of the Kumeyaay, the landscape of Bonita was very different. The only structures were short huts made of willow poles and leaves that were designed for seasonal travel. The Kumeyaay lived a seasonally nomadic lifestyle in the coastal and mountain regions of Southern California. The local Native Americans called this area Apusquel; the Spanish later called it La Purisma. Archaeological finds suggest that the Kumeyaay lived on the mesas surrounding the river and quarried stones for tools near the Sweetwater Dam.

The arrival of the Francisan Friars in 1769 and the establishment of the missions of Alta California had a profound effect on the local people. The Sweetwater Valley was made part of El Rancho del Rey, the Ranch of the King of Spain, which was set aside to raise cattle that would in turn supply the soldiers and other officials of the Spanish government who were living at the Presidio. Though the area was part of the Spanish kingdom, few Spaniards lived in the valley other than those necessary to oversee the cattle operation, and no structures have survived from this period.

When Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, land that had been in the hands of the missions was soon being awarded as land grants. In 1845, the parcel renamed Rancho de la Nacion was awarded to Don Juan (“John”) Forster by his brother-in-law, Gov. Pio Pico. Within five years, Alta California had become part of the United States of America. Between the costs of his land claims to the U.S. government and paying taxes required by the government, Forster was heavily in debt. To pay back part of the loans, Forster sold Rancho de la Nacion.

The earliest residents of the Sweetwater Valley came from the east looking for better health and a change of fortune. Most were businessmen who took their accumulated assets and bought many acres that were soon producing a variety of fruit and flowers. Though they were not quite gentleman farmers, they certainly made a good living on the fruit their farms produced.

By the mid-1880s, a land boom was in full swing in San Diego County. Several maps were recorded in a plan to sell lots in Bonita and on the shores of the reservoir, but the boom was short-lived and the developments were soon abandoned. Though the land bust of the 1890s was bad for the land business, it turned out to be a blessing for the lemon business. While individual growers had success growing citrus in the Sweetwater Valley, it was not until 1888 that large-scale citriculture began.

Though most families had some livestock on their farms, the first large-scale dairy was created on the east end of the valley in 1903 when Sam Williams started his operation. Dairies grew in popularity after 1910, and they remained a part of the valley until the 1970s. Chickens also thrived in the valley climate, and several poultry farms existed into the 1950s. The riverbed, which was dry for many months at a time, was planted in vegetables and other seasonal plants—prior to 1900 by Chinese immigrants and later by Japanese and Mexican truck farmers.

The dawn of the 20th century ushered in a decade of relative weather calm in the Sweetwater Valley. Rainfall averages were normal or slightly higher, and the citrus industry flourished, sending hundreds of carloads of lemons and oranges east each year. In 1913, however, an unusual weather disaster hit the valley. On January 13, a cold air mass that lasted for two days hit the region, leaving overnight temperatures well below freezing in Bonita. Young lemon trees were completely destroyed, and older trees suffered catastrophic losses.

Just as the lemon orchards were beginning to recover from the freeze, the flood of 1916 devastated the landscape. Though the orchards were largely spared, the dam and water system were crippled, roads and bridges were washed out, the rail system was dealt a fatal blow, and the packinghouse suffered major structural damage. The time and effort to repair these systems, as well as to return the orchards to production after the freeze, kept the Bonita farmers busy into the 1920s.

The prosperity of the 1920s led to a boom in housing. Though not quite as heady as the land boom of the 1880s, the trend toward buying and subdividing land continued to grow. By the 1920s cars had become a regular part of daily society which opened up previously undeveloped lands where prices were and lots could be larger.

The lack of new building from the Depression and war years created a pent-up demand for housing the raised the value of open land tremendously. In the five years following the end of the war, 181 separate lots were created for building in the valley, a veritable boom for building as compared to the preceding 15 years. Profits from growing lemons were soon to be exceeded by dividing and selling land.

Even though these initial subdivisions consisted of large lots, with custom homes at low density, there was concern for the rural nature of the Sweetwater Valley. In 1949, a group of influential citizens formed the Sweetwater Valley Civic Association (SVCA) to preserve the atmosphere of the valley. The SVCA was also successful in realigning the proposed 54 freeway away from Bonita Road in 1949, thus saving the valley floor from destruction. Yet growth continued, and many residents welcomed the new grammar school on Allen School Road, a volunteer fire department, and a shopping area with a small restaurant and a beauty parlor.

The 1970s and 1980s were to be times of great change in the valley. Paid employees replaced the last volunteer firefighters in 1968. The 805 Freeway opened in July 1975, bringing more traffic and more people. A new school was built in the valley, and a nationally known supermarket anchored a new shopping center. The valley celebrated the nation’s bicentennial with a new library and post office. After a contentious battle that went all the way to the California Supreme Court, the Bonita Golf Course was annexed to National City and a regional shopping mall and movie theater opened in 1980.

Though Chula Vista and National City did succeed in annexing and urbanizing portions of the valley, due to the efforts of the residents, a measure of the rural character of the valley does remain. Nearly 1,000 acres of the valley are permanently preserved as open space, including much of the riverbed. Three stables still operate, and horses are not an uncommon site on the miles of trails that crisscross the valley. Some important buildings have been lost, but many of the significant houses and businesses of the past have been preserved, and though large subdivisions were built, acre and half-acre lots remain on the mesas and hills. If nothing of major consequence occurred in the during the last 100 years, the fact that Bonita endures in the 21st century is a significant achievement.