Interview with Richard W. Crawford, Author of The Way We Were in San Diego

AK: What was the strangest or quirkiest story you uncovered while researching your “The Way We Were” column for the San Diego Union-Tribune?

RC: The story of celebrity evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson’s mysterious disappearance in May 1926 has a strange San Diego connection. McPherson reappeared a few weeks later and claimed she had been kidnapped. This was too much for newspaperman Abe Sauer, the editor of a small San Diego weekly who published what everyone was whispering: that Aimee’s “kidnapping” had actually been a runaway affair with a church employee. When Sauer printed a lurid column that described Aimee’s “ten days in a love shack” he was prosecuted in Federal court for sending obscene literature through the mails. Sauer was acquitted but his publication received national attention.

AK: What inspires your choice of topic for each week’s column? What is your research process like?

RC: While I’ve written columns on characters and events that are familiar to students of local history, I’m most interested in fresh, unknown topics that may surprise readers. Such as the appearance of magician Harry Houdini in San Diego, the laying of the first sewer system in the city, a daring art heist from the Carnegie Library, or plans for a floating sports stadium in Mission Bay.

The process for writing the columns begins with the topic, of course, followed by collection of as much research material as I can find in newspaper articles, diary entries, reports, original documents, and more—all gathered in a couple evenings each week, usually in the library at San Diego State University or from Special Collections at the Public Library. On Saturday’s I stake out a quiet spot in the San Diego State library and compose the columns. Sunday’s I keep free for Chargers football.

AK: As a librarian, how have you seen technology impact collections and research?

RC: Technology has really enhanced our ability to find “the small stuff.” For example, newspapers such as the historical Los Angeles Times are now available in online databases. The San Diego Union may be available that way within a couple of years. These databases are key-word searchable and show complete pdf reproductions of news articles going back into the late 1800s. This is a revolution for local history research, but the databases are only available in well-funded libraries.

Researchers often make the mistake of assuming that everything is available on the Internet and that brick and mortar libraries are passé. This is ignorant and naïve, I’m afraid. The resources available only in libraries are invaluable, particularly when accompanied by the advice of experienced librarians and archivists.

AK: As a kid, did you frequent a library or bookstore, or was there a particular experience that sparked your interest in history?

RC: I’m the son of a college history professor who loved books. I inherited every bit of my father’s interest in books and libraries. As a kid I spent much of my summers in my local branch library in Long Beach, or at our downtown Carnegie Library. As a special treat, my father and I would go to the main Los Angeles Public Library and spend the day there. Or we would visit incredible used book stores, such as Acres of Books in downtown Long Beach.

AK: Do you have a favorite story from your collection The Way We Were in San Diego?

RC: The tale of “Russian Mike” might be my favorite. Michael Rose was a seaman from the Ukraine that settled in San Diego’s red-light district in the 1880s. He was a bar keep but more often a bar fighter. In 1899 a drunken Mike shot his friend—the owner of a notorious saloon. The story of the slaying and the court trial of Mike is a memorable chapter in our history.

AK: Who do you think are some of the most interesting San Diegans through history?

RC: I’ve written about several remarkable San Diegans. Till Burnes was a popular saloon owner in the notorious “Stingaree” district of San Diego. George Horatio Derby was an Army engineer who came in the 1850s to build a dike on the San Diego River but is remembered as a humorist who left entertaining writings about the town. Perhaps my favorite character is Abe Sauer, the editor of the San Diego Herald in the early 1900s. He enjoyed attacking the rich and powerful and was sued unsuccessfully eighteen times for libel.

I’ve also looked at notable characters that had only brief appearances here but left lasting legacies. Richard Henry Dana, Jr., the author of Two Years Before the Mast, described San Diego of the mid-1830s. Charles Lindbergh spent only a few months here but his airplane, the “Spirit of St. Louis,” was built in San Diego, and, of course, his famed trans-Atlantic flight began from a San Diego airfield.

AK: What made San Diego the self-proclaimed “Air Capitol of the West”?

RC: We all know San Diego for its wonderful climate. For pioneer flyers in the early 1900s our climate meant year-around flying weather. It just couldn’t be beat anywhere. As flying developed here we had a slew of famous aviation firsts: the first successful seaplane flight, the first aerial loop, and the first air mail service—even the first successful commercial airline.

Airplane manufacturing also drifted here because of the weather. Reuben H. Fleet’s Consolidated Aircraft moved here from Buffalo, New York in 1935 and eventually became the Convair and General Dynamics remembered today.

AK: Are there areas of San Diego’s history that you think have been significantly overlooked?

RC: There are two periods of time that are a bit dark in our history. In the 1860s the population was quite small and there was not a single newspaper in town. First-hand accounts and records are sparse for that era, and writers have largely ignored those years. After the San Diego Union started up in late 1868 we had uninterrupted reporting of local events that continues to this day. Most of the Union’s reporting was indexed years ago by librarians at the San Diego Public Library. That card index has always been a boon to researchers but there’s gap in the indexing from 1904 to 1930. The predictable result has been that historians tend to shy away from “the gap” years because helpful topical indexing is unavailable. San Diego in the 1910s and 1920s is fascinating and quite overlooked.

Richard W. Crawford’s The Way We Were in San Diego is available from The History Press and San Diego bookstores.

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