Hotel del Coronado from Vision to National Historic Landmark

Hotel del Coronado was the brainchild of two retired Midwesterners who’d made San Diego their home and subsequently befriended each other. Elisha Babcock, Jr. and Hampton Story frequented the barren island of Coronado to hunt jack rabbits and quail, and dreamed up the idea of a grand fishing and hunting lodge would lure people to the island to buy land there. After all, San Diego was enjoying a real estate boon at the time. 

They joined with San Diego banker Jacob Gruendike and bought the island for $110,000 at the end of 1885. By the time of purchase, their initial idea had already blossomed into building “the talk of the Western world” to promote the sale of island land parcels to wealthy buyers. Much of the island was sold by parcel at auction before the hotel ever broke ground – basically, on lofty descriptions alone.

In preparation for building the hotel, they needed to overcome several obstacles. The island would need water, transportation, a lumber source, and skilled labor to take on the project. They overcame the difficulties by developing the Coronado Beach and Water Company, San Diego/Coronado Ferry Company, and Coronado Railroad Company for starters. 

They took on other partners, including one with connections to lumber in San Francisco where they sourced Douglas fir, sugar pine, and redwood, and brought them to the island via log rafts. They built a system on the island to support the hotel’s construction that included an electrical power plant, brick kiln, metal shop, iron works, and planing mill. By March 1887, they were ready, and broke ground. 

Eleven months later, the second largest wooden structure and largest resort in the world opened to the public in February, 1888. Unfortunately, real estate went from boon to bust in San Diego at the same time and Babcock and Story didn’t have the money to finish building the hotel. Enter John Spreckels who bailed out the duo – buying out Story first, and later Babcock. By 1894, Spreckels was the sole owner of Hotel del Coronado. 

Babcock and Story’s dream had come to fruition. They had successfully built the largest wooden resort in the world – a title it retains today. It was “the talk of the Western world” that they’d envisioned. But it wasn’t theirs. It was now the pride of John Spreckels who could look upon it every day from the terraces of his nearby Coronado mansion, now Glorietta Bay Inn.

Early Glory Days at The Del

As anticipated, Hotel del Coronado drew the wealthy from the East Coast in droves. Already accustomed to traveling resort to resort via railway, they made their way to Coronado Island where their private rail cars could be unhitched from trains that brought them to the West and parked on the property’s spur track. 

The luxurious hotel offered every amenity and distraction for America’s wealthiest families, including archery, golf, croquet, swimming, biking, and boating. Indoors, guests could enjoy bowling, billiards, chess, cards, and music. The hotel had electric lights throughout, a truly modern amenity. Even Thomas Edison marveled at the feat of lighting such a massive space as he toured the hotel. The Del also featured public telephones and elevators, and private bathrooms – all luxuries at the time.

A Presidential Getaway

Hotel del Coronado’s history of entertaining sitting Presidents is as long as the hotel’s history itself. President Benjamin Harrison was the first to visit the hotel in 1891, albeit for breakfast only. President William Taft, whose sister lived on the island, stayed at The Del in 1915 during the Panama-California Exposition. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the hotel in 1935 during his presidency. He gave a speech in Balboa Park before 50,000 people during the California-Pacific International Exposition. According to hotel historians, President Roosevelt flew the presidential flag from the turret of Hotel Del, making the hotel the official White House during his stay.

In more modern times, President Richard Nixon held a state dinner – the first outside the White House – in The Del’s Crown Room for Mexican President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz in 1970. It was attended by both past President Lyndon Johnson, and future President, Governor Ronald Reagan. Presidents Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Sr., Clinton, and Bush, Jr., have all been frequent visitors at the hotel. 

Hotel del Coronado’s presidential past also includes stories of romance. It was here that the then future President Ronald Reagan decided to marry Nancy Davis. The Reagan family vacationed at Hotel Del for years, and following the death of former President Reagan, Nancy Reagan stayed at The Del for the Coronation of the USS Reagan. Another romance, this one of the kingly sort, involved England’s Prince of Wales, who visited the hotel in 1920. After ascending the throne as King Edward VIII, he gave it up in 1936 to marry Coronado divorcee Wallis Spencer Simpson. Talk about romance!

Hollywood and Hotel del Coronado

Hotel del Coronado has been a favorite getaway for Hollywood’s elite since its opening. In fact, the silver screen stars’ dedication to Hotel Del as the place to be, helped it thrive when other seaside hotels were boarding up during tough financial times. Charlie Chaplin was a frequent visitor. Rudolph Valentino starred in the movie The Married Virgin, shot at The Del in 1918. Some Like It Hot starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis, also filmed here 1958, was probably the most famous movie made at Hotel Del. 

In 1980, Peter O’Toole starred in The Stunt Man, shot at Hotel del Coronado. Historian Chris Donovan reports that during the filming of the movie, “They actually built a structure on top of our roof and blew it up, which we could never allow today.” A long and growing list of Hollywood celebrities from Humphrey Bogart to Brad Pitt have stayed at Hotel del Coronado, so don’t be surprised if you run into a celebrity or two during your stay.

It isn’t just Hollywood stars that have been drawn to this seaside resort. L. Frank Baum wrote a good portion of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz while at the hotel. Aviator Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis plane was built in San Diego, then flown to New York from Coronado’s North Island. After Lindbergh completed his trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, he was honored at an extravagant dinner in the hotel’s Crown Room. National Baseball Hall of Famer and “Sultan of Swat,” Babe Ruth also spent time vacationing at Hotel Del.

Intrigue at The Del

In November, 1892, Kate Morgan checked into Hotel del Coronado. She told hotel staff that her brother, a doctor, would be joining her there to treat her stomach cancer. Three days later, she was found on a stairway to the beach with a bullet wound to the head; her brother never arrived. The case was investigated and ruled a suicide. Ghostly happenings at the hotel have been connected to her death ever since. 

The room where Kate Morgan stayed (then 304, but now 3327) is one of Hotel del Coronado’s most frequently requested. In 1999, writer Stephen King wrote a short story inspired by the real-life news reports of Christopher Chacon, a parapsychologist investigating and attempting to debunk the hauntings. The short story was turned into the 2007 movie, 1408 starring John Cusack as a world renowned debunker of the supernatural and Samuel L. Jackson as the hotel’s manager. 

For a factual recounting, Beautiful Stranger: The Ghost of Kate Morgan and the Hotel del Coronado was published in 2005 by the Hotel del Coronado Heritage Department. In 1990, author Alan May also penned a book on the subject called The Legend of Kate Morgan: The Search for the Ghost of the Hotel del Coronado.

A cursory history of Hotel del Coronado cannot possibly do it justice, but history buffs and fans of the hotel who want to dig deeper have many options at their disposal. Take a guided tour of the National Historic Landmark with Coronado Museum of History and Art docents who are well informed about the hotel’s history. 

Or, if you like your history in bite sizes, pick up the book Hotel del Coronado History, written by hotel historian Chris Donovan, from one of the Hotel del Coronado shops. Read about its grand history as you linger over coffee or a Manhattan at the 46-foot handcrafted mahogany bar in Babcock & Story. You may be the only one in the room who knows it was shipped around Cape Horn in 1888 to take its place there.