From ancient times to today, San Diego remains a magnet for wellness seekers

In Summary

For thousands of years, the San Diego region’s near constant sunshine, lush valleys and stunning coast have drawn people searching for wellness.

Eric Ortega walked through Warner Springs on a recent hot afternoon.

“I see our homeland,” he said, looking at houses that dot vast rolling expanses of land covered by dry brush and trees.

My grandmother lived in one of those houses,” said the 54-year-old Ortega. “My grandfather lived in those houses.”

And just east of the homes, sit two large pools of water sprung from the ground. One hot. One cool.

Ortega said practicality and spirituality drew his ancestors to the springs possibly as far back as 4,000 years ago.


Pala Mission Band of Indians member Eric Ortega looks at the Warner Springs Ranch where his ancestors — the Cupa Indians — lived for generations before they were evicted in 1903. Photo by Amita Sharma, KPBS

The water was healing,” Ortega said. “It cleaned our bodies and our souls. If you’ve had a hard day of hunting and gathering, you came and you soaked in the hot springs.”

He says it touched every aspect of Cupa society.

It was constantly part of keeping us strong, our whole culture,” he said. “A lot of our religious events were dunking with the water, sprinkling with the water. It was a big part of our daily life.”

When American settlers started traveling through the area in the 1850s, the Native Americans used the water to turn a profit.

“We would wash their clothes,” Ortega said.  “We would let them bathe, let them drink water, feed them; and then, they would pay us and be on their way.”

Around the same time, word got out to ailing Americans, who were arriving in the region, that the hot springs just might be a panacea.

“The claims that were made in the 19th century was that these hot mineral waters could cure just about anything, I mean cancer, tuberculosis, all kinds of diseases,” said Phil Brigandi, a local historian. “The hot springs were of course good for some joint-type diseases because they were warm and soothing.”

As the fame of the hot springs grew, he said the property became highly coveted. And even though the land had already been deeded to a man named Jonathan Trumbull Warner decades earlier, the Indians continued to live there. 

“Eventually, the folks who own the Warner Ranch, led primarily by a man named John Downey who was a former governor of California, decided they wanted access,” Brigandi said, “… so they instituted a lawsuit treating the Indians as if they were trespassers.”

The lawsuit prevailed. In 1903, the Cupa Indians were removed.


The Cupa Indians stop down on the first night of a three-day journey after their eviction from Warner Springs Ranch where they had lived for generations, July, 1903. Photo by Out West Magazine

“It was the last of these old federal removals, as we politely call them, where we took the Indians from their natural home and moved them off to a reservation,” Brigandi said.

Some 200 men, women and children were marched on a three-day, 60 mile journey to the Pala reservation.

“The eviction of 1903 was the trail of tears for the Cupeño people and the other Indian people living on the Warner Ranch,” Brigandi said. They wanted to live where they had always lived. They lived in good substantial adobe homes by the springs. Their church was there. They had a government, a school there, their graveyard with the bones of their ancestors was there.”

Ortega said he knew a prominent member of the tribe, Roscinda Nolasquez, who was 11 when they were forced from their ancestral homes.

“She said they were crying,” Ortega said. “They were howling.”

Brigandi said the Pechanga Indians, who had been evicted from their land 28 years earlier, came down from what is today called Temecula to support the Cupeños soon after they arrived at Pala after the eviction.

And they brought a barbecued steer,” Brigandi said. “They brought oranges for the kids. And there’s this amazing moment of these two Indian groups together, one who has survived a removal and the other who is in the midst of it. You can only imagine what was said around the campfire that night.”

Descendants of the Cupeños are still trying to get their land back and the water for a price.


The Cupa Indians stop for a rest during their three-day journey to the Pala Reservation after they were forcibly removed from their ancestral home at Warner Springs Ranch, July, 1903. Photo by Out West Magazine

In 2013, a bankruptcy judge rejected the Pala Band of Mission Indians bid for the property. 

Pala Chairman Robert Smith said he was “blown away” by the decision. But he is still optimistic

“Eventually, we’ll have to buy our land back,” Smith said. “Whatever it takes, we want to do it.”

Meanwhile, standing outside a security fence surrounding the property, Ortega shared Smith’s optimism about owning the hot springs some day. If that happens, he said everyone will be welcome.

“We will gladly share it as we did in the past,” Ortega said

How The “Invalid Trade” Helped Build San Diego

After the Civil War, San Diego didn’t have much going for it economically.

But it was beautiful.

“The valley was green and the river was flowing,” said San Diego historian Iris Engstrand. “The mountains were on both sides to the valley. Geraniums grew here, every flower imaginable, the beaches, the sun.It looked very much like southern Spain.”

The weather was equally Mediterranean.

San Diego had an average temperature of 70 degrees,” Engstrand said.

Today, talk in San Diego tends to center on exorbitant housing and whether to move elsewhere. But there was a time when cheap land and the promise of fresh air and a balmy climate inspired scores of sick Americans to flock to the region to heal.

“I’ve seen estimates as high as a quarter of San Diego’s population may have been these health seekers,” said David Miller, University of San Diego history professor. “Something a lot of people aren’t aware of is the role these health seekers played in settling San Diego and Southern California.”


A train carrying people from Arizona into San Diego in the late 1800s. Photo via the San Diego History Center

As news spread of San Diego’s natural features in the 1860s through pioneer paintings and word of mouth, people took notice.

Out-of-state developers like Alonso Horton saw boom potential. In 1867, he bought 965 acres for 27½ cents an acre in the middle of today’s downtown. 

That area became known as New Town or as Horton described it, “Heaven on Earth.”

Ailing businessmen Frank Kimball and Ephraim Morse also came. And families moved to San Diego, many with tuberculosis, known then as consumption.

Some said many of the newcomers recovered. They credited San Diego’s fresh air and even climate, spawning the birth of what was then called the invalid trade.

“There was a trade in invalids in the sense that you could make a fortune by offering what they wanted,” said Andy Strathman, CSU San Marcos history professor.

The idea was to sell San Diego’s sea, topography and climate as a tonic.

And everyone was in on it, including the citrus industry.

Very often, the orange crate labels that were taking the fruit back East would contain these picturesque scenesof a Southern California landscape,” Strathman said. “They would feature healthy looking people who were vigorous and young.”

The transportation industry did its part too. 

 “You have the railroads actively marketing health to sick patients to bring people to San Diego to develop it,” Miller said.

At times, the sales pitch surpassed hyperbole. Death in San Diego was described as a “remarkable event.”

“There was a story of a man who lived to be 109 and got so sick of living that they had to take him out of California so he could die,” Miller said.

The air in Southern California was touted as so fresh and beneficial that it would bestow its people with melodic voices, eventually creating an entire race of singers.

“It was pure boosterism,” Strathman said.

San Diego and Los Angeles even competed for the ill.

And it got dirty.

According to the book “Health Seekers of Southern California,” a Los Angeles man warned an Ohio man not to go south because San Diego’s constant fog caused malaria, diphtheria and a slew of other contagious diseases.

The iconic Hotel del Coronado, according to the book, was characterized as a pesthouse that was shuttered by quarantine officials 100 times.

“Los Angeles people were jealous that San Diego was getting so much attention,” Engstrand said.

The trash talk didn’t work. San Diego became known as a cure for almost any illness.

“It was a place to go if you had any kind of joint problems, tuberculosis or internal diseases, whatever because of the climate,” Engstrom said.

San Diego physician Peter Remondino, who often dressed in a cape, added heft to the reputation.  In 1890, he wrote: “Sea air has been shown to exercise a decisive preventive action in the case of consumption.”

But retired San Diego physician George Kaplan said if people didn’t get the disease locally, it was probably due to better hygiene in the region. He said the cramped, industrialized and polluted conditions elsewhere in the country made it easier to contract TB.


Tuberculosis patients convalesce at Vauclain Tuberculosis Sanitorium in San Diego. Photo via the San Diego History Center

And he said there was another reason, other than the climate, that people survived tuberculosis, which is a bacterial infection.

“I think most of those who recovered, recovered because they were previously in good health,” Kaplan said.

Nonetheless, San Diego’s economy benefited from the invalid trade. A San Diego Union opinion piece, titled “Our Winning Card” from that era read, “Our best money has always come from our climate.”

It goes on to say “probably two-thirds of our population and wealth has been drawn to San Diego by its advantages as a health resort alone.”

San Diego still draws health seekers today.

The travel website Thrillist ranked San Diego the third most healthy place to live in the United States.

And San Diego real estate agent Joe Farrage said clients tell him they want to move here for the same reasons people settled the area 150 years ago.

‘Its natural beauty is the main thing right away,” Farrage said. “And then I think everything is sort of surrounded by the sun and the weather and the coastline.”

He said when prospective buyers see people doing paddle board yoga, surfing, kayaking, running on the beach or meditating and having access to fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, San Diego becomes irresistible.

“It’s that healthy lifestyle,” Farrage said. “And that is really appealing to people.”

Today: “They feel like they’re their best self when they’re here.”

As the story goes, newlyweds Deborah and Edmond

Szekely hurdled through a rugged, dirt road in an old Cadillac in 1940.

They were set on opening a health camp in Tecate, Mexico, a short drive from San Diego.

“When we got there, there was nothing,” Deborah Szekely said. “And I mean nothing. We’re talking about no electricity, no running water. We had outhouses.”


Deborah and Edmond Szekely eye their Rancho La Puerta spa in Tecate, Mexico, which is a short drive from San Diego and a place where Deborah says guests feel peaceful. Photo via Rancho La Puerta

But Szekely, now a petite 97-year-old with styled-white hair and piercing but gentle eyes, said they hadMount Kuchumaa. They built their retreat business called Rancho La Puerta at the foot of Kuchumaa.

In the morning everyone climbed the mountain,” Szekely said. “And they still do.”

The Kumeyaay Indians have long believed Kuchumaa is suffused with power. It’s a place where shamans held   rituals. It’s also believed to impart renewal.  

“It’s hard to explain,”Szekely said. “But on the morning hike, I’ve had so many guests tell me my father spoke to me. I mean, you know, that they’re sort of open to getting suggestions from there, you know, and they have interesting experiences.”

From day one, there was an organic garden where guests worked. The retreat offered meditation and yoga classes. Her husband, Edmond, who was once head of the British International Health and Education Society, lectured on living within “the natural and cosmic laws and return to original life.”

The ranch became enormously successful.

“We’re the first fitness spa in the world,” Szekely said. “And we have had all kinds of awards as the best in the world.”

Hollywood came.

The two main ones were Kim Novak and Burt Lancaster,” Szekely said. “We had all those young starlets.”

Years later, Szekely said several actresses asked her to open a spa that offered more privacy and was closer to Hollywood.

In 1958, she opened the Golden Door Spa in northern San Diego County, which she later sold. Today, she still lectures at Golden Door and Rancho La Puerta, a place that she says has retained a “special quality.”

“Everybody tells me when they drive onto the ranch they feel at peace,” she said.


Guests pose for a picture at Rancho La Puerta in Mexico, in the early days of its opening. Photo via Rancho La Puerta

Some of San Diego’s 35 million annual visitors also report a perceptive change in how they feel when they arrive in the region.

As they walk outside of the airport, they just say they feel a difference in the air,” said Kerri Verbeke Kapich, chief operating officer for the San Diego Tourism Authority. “They can feel the sunshine. They feel this fresh breeze. They actually say it makes them feel better and different immediately upon coming into the city.”

The authority’s communications director Candice Eley said after extensive focus group interviews with visitors, she believes they are experiencing San Diego’s “sun vibes.”

“They get this good vibration, this healthy feeling when they’re here,” Eley said. “They feel like they’re their best self when they’re here.”

Szekely credited all the commonly known traits of the San Diego region — the beauty, the sea, the climate.  But she said there is something else that she can’t quite name.

“I wish I knew,” she said. “It just is. The Indians who settled here had quite a high degree of culture and had the sense to pick it. It’s always been a place which people select.”

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

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