Andrew Belcher Gray

Andrew Belcher Gray

Most people credit William Heath Davis for the original “founding” of San Diego in 1850, but the need and the idea for a city close to the bay existed long before then. The idea for such a site came from Lt. Andrew B. Gray, chief surveyor of the U.S./Mexico Boundary Commission.

Gray was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of the British Consul. At the age of 13, he worked with a military engineer and learned the surveying profession in the Mississippi delta. In 1849, he was appointed chief surveyor of the U.S. Boundary Commission by President James K. Polk. He arrived in San Diego the early summer of 1849, and immediately started surveying the shoreline surrounding the bay and studying Spanish charts from 1782. This enabled him to locate the site of Punta de los Muertos.

On June 1, 1849, surveyors from the two countries met at Punta de los Muertos (present day Seaport Village). Before the survey began, Gray had camped at the Punta site, and saw a protected deep anchorage, flatland to the east (logical location for a port city) and in Gray’s mind, the perfect end point for a transcontinental railroad.

Sketch of the Port of San Diego, 1850. Surveyor A.B. Gray. From the Collections of the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation

in early 1850, he proposed the idea to William Heath Davis, Jose Aguirre, Miguel Pedrorena, William C. Ferrell and T.D. Johns. He had been introduced to Davis, who was visiting his wife’s relatives in Old Town and who was reputed to have immense wealth. The group formed a partnership, and purchased 160 acres from the City Alcalde, Thomas W. Sutherland, on March 3, 1850. As Davis was the wealthiest of the partners, most of the responsibility for development of the New Town fell to him.

The acquired 160 acres covered what is now Broadway and west of Front and extended to the shoreline. It must be noted that part of the acquisition was underwater at high tide. There was a promise though that Davis who was “flush and had a large income” would build a wharf and warehouse within 18 months. They were very eager to get the wharf and town started as they knew, through Gray’s connections, that the Army wanted to construct a barracks and a large supply depot in San Diego, and the partners wanted it in New Town, not Old Town or La Playa. The wharf was built on the site deemed most feasible from an engineering standpoint by Andrew Gray.

Between March and July of 1850, Gray survey-mapped the area into 56 blocks, which were generally 300 x 200 feet.  The blocks were subdivided into lots which ranged from 50 x 140 to 65 x 100. Most streets were 75 feet wide. He also built a house, the Hermitage, between now Market St. and Island Avenue. It later became a hotel.

As the town grew, Gray went to New York to promote New Town. He wrote to Davis, “You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have been the founder and patron of a lovely…flourishing and beautiful town. Ten years – and they will soon pass away – you will still be young and will be surrounded by a delightful society – and heavy business population.”

In 1852, Gray was recruited by the Texas Western Railroad to lead a survey from San Antonio towards the Colorado River and westward to California. The result of this work was published in 1856 as Survey of a Route for the Southern Pacific R.R. on the 32 Parallel.            

By 1857, Gray was in Arizona promoting copper mines at Ajo and the future Ray-Hayden-Winkleman area. Apache attacks, transportation costs, and the looming Civil War slowed the beginning of the mining venture, which in the 20th century became one of the richest copper producers in the country.

Gray remained in Arizona and continued his surveying business until the outbreak of the Civil War. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Confederate Army, and as an engineer, he worked on the fortifications along the Mississippi River.

Andrew B. Gray lost his life in 1862 when the boiler of the steamship he was traveling in blew up. He left behind a wife and three daughters in New Orleans.