Rancho Peñasquitos – A History

Los Peñasquitos Rancho has an exciting history. In 1823 one league (4243 acres) of land was awarded to Captain Francisco Maria Ruiz, a Commandant of the San Diego residio. This one league was at the eastern part of the Canyon and extended into Sabre Springs and up to Rancho Bernardo. Ruiz spent many years in loyal service to Mexico, and this splendid canyon was his reward. Ruiz built a one-room adobe casa in 1824. You can see three of the remaining walls of his house in the main ranch house conference room. When you visit it, you will be standing in the oldest private standing structure in San Diego! Ruiz was not entirely pleased with this first land grant. He stated that parts of his rancho were covered with brush and were useless for cultivation or grazing cattle. He requested another one league of land to the west called El Cuervo. In 1834 Ruiz received his wish and El Cuervo became part of Los Peñasquitos.

In 1837, Ruiz gave Peñasquitos Canyon to his grandnephew, Francisco Maria Alvarado. Ruiz never married and Alvarado and his family cared for their uncle during his declining years. Alvarado was politically active in Old San Diego. He served as councilman (regidor), Town Treasurer, Justice of the Peace, and Coroner. The main highway between Old San Diego and Yuma ran through Los Peñasquitos Canyon (the long way around by our standards!). This road ran right by Rancho Peñasquitos, which at that time was called Alvarado’s Place. The army used this road to transport supplies from the Port of San Diego to Yuma. In 1848 this same road was used by Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny and the half-starved remnant of his Army of the West after their defeat in the Battle of Mule Hill in San Pasqual. This road was designated the first County Highway, and was a segment of the first Transcontinental Mail Route.

In 1857 Alvarado shifted ranch operations to his son, Diego, who built the adobe ranch house in the west end of the canyon. And in 1859 Alvarado’s daughter, Estephana, married Captain George Alonzo Johnson. Captain Johnson was an entrepreneur who brought the first steamships to the Colorado River. These steamships were used to move supplies up and down the Colorado River for the US Army, who protected the people coming to California across the Southern Emigrant Trail.

Capt. Johnson loved Los Peñasquitos and built a spacious house. The house was known throughout San Diego County as an elegant home; and the Johnson’s were renowned for their generosity and hospitality. Diego Alvarado and his bride, Rudicinda Osuna, were married at Los Peñasquitos, and children from many surrounding families were baptized here.

Capt. Johnson experienced a series of setbacks (including the fact that the Federal government owed him several hundred thousand dollars, which was never paid) and in 1880 he lost his marvelous Rancho Peñasquitos. Colonel Jacob Shell Taylor, founder of Del Mar, eventually acquired the entire canyon for about $15,000. He installed a telephone between Del Mar and Peñasquitos so he could conduct business. Taylor was an early developer. He subdivided Peñasquitos and attempted to sell lots for $250 each! However, Taylor lost his property in the recession of the late 1880’s.

Charles F. Mohnike paid more that $100,000 for the ranch and extensive grazing areas in 1910. Mohnike originally had orchards in Chula Vista. He and his family of nine children used Rancho Peñasquitos as a summer home until disaster struck. A fire in 1912 burned some of the ranch buildings. It was followed by a serious cold snap, which wiped out Mohnike’s fruit business. He built the adobe at the Equestrian Center and turned Los Peñasquitos ranch house into a bunkhouse.

In 1921 George Sawday and Oliver Sexon, two of San Diego’s best known cattlemen, bought the ranch and stocked it with cattle. The ranch house continued as quarters for cowhands and their families.

By 1962 Peñasquitos ranch spread over 14,000 acres. A major developer, Irvin Kahn, who planned to make the canyon into golf courses and fairway homes, bought it. He was persuaded to sell the canyon to the City and County. In 1974 the County acquired Los Peñasquitos Ranch House and began its restoration. Volunteer organizations, like the San Diego County Archaeology Society and Friends of Peñasquitos work closely with City and County Rangers to preserve and protect the restored rancho and the beautiful canyon.