Born on June 15, 1823 to Daniel and Catherine Kirkpatrick Lyons of County Donegal, Ireland, George Lyons arrived in America as a boy and later became a carpenter. In the 1840s, he embarked from New Bedford, Massachusetts, on a journey around the Horn to Ca1ifornia. (123)
Research has uncovered discrepancies in the date of Lyons’ arrival in San Diego, but it is assumed to be around the time of the American conquest in 1846. (124) He embarked immediately as ship’s carpenter on a whaling expedition to the Northwest, but returned one year later to settle permanently in San Diego (125)
A native of County Donegal, the northern-most county in Ireland, George Lyons must have found San Diego to be an intriguing place to live (126) The moderate climate, desert scenery and Spanish-speaking population would seem foreign to someone accustomed to the damp, cool climate and Celtic customs of the Irish northwest. Despite these differences, Lyons successfully entered into the San Diego community and became one of its best-known members.
Shortly after he settled in San Diego, George married Maria Bernarda de Villars, the daughter of a Mexican army officer who, at one time, commanded the Presidio (127) Bernarda and George raised nine children- William, Alexander, Andrew, Dolores, Benjamin, Daniel, Benetia, Bernarda and John- each of whom became productive citizens of San Diego (128) The Lyons made their home on the opposite bank of the San Diego River from Old Town (129) The verdant beauty and productivity of their residence attracted much attention (130) In 1873, a local newspaper heralded in particular the beauty of their trees: “the pepper trees are the finest we have seen this side of Los Angeles, and their graceful foliage is gladdening to the eye of the wayfarer." (131)
Judge Benjamin Hayes also took note of the Lyons’ garden and recorded in his Diaries that they owned 1-1/2 acres on the right bank of the river. Hayes further noted that:
"[Lyons’] garden was surrounded by a live fence of willows, which provided abundant foliage, and watered by five wells. In the late spring of 1854, [George] spent $280 for ditching, setting fence poles and other maintenance necessities." (132)
The San Diego Herald felt compelled to make mention of Lyons’ green thumb and reported in September 1855, that he had succeeded in raising a crop of tobacco on his property. Lyons believed that the crop could be cultivated in San Diego on the expanse of flat lands between Old Town and False Bay. Several citizens actually planned to cultivate it in 1856 based on Lyons’ results and advice. (133) Fertilized with manure from the stables and corrals, the garden also supported fruit trees brought from San Francisco and was tended by a gardener whom Lyons paid $20 per month.
Although a flood of 1861-1862 washed away the locally renowned garden, Lyons and his green thumb managed to re-cultivate the land. The San Diego reported in 1868 that Lyons gave the staff a sweet potato which weighed 6-1/4 pounds. (134) The transplanted Irishman claimed to have grown the potato without irrigation, and the article described it as “solid, through and through, and when baked, mealy and of a delicious flavor.” (135)
In addition to his home and fine garden, Lyons owned four horses, one dairy cow, and two work oxen. In 1860, his farm implements and machinery were valued at $100.00, his farm at $500.00, and his livestock at $300.00.’ (136)
Lyons acquired further property in August 1876 when he leased pueblo lot 1191, which lay within the pueblo lands of the city of San Diego, for the term of one year at an annual rent of one dollar! City regulations required that he leave a public road open through the land and prohibited him from removing trees from the premises. (137)
George Lyons actively participated in San Diego politics and public affairs, so much so that he must be considered as instrumental in the city’s evolution from a Mexican village to an American city. His first appointment to public service in San Diego came in 1853 when his fellow citizens elected him as one of the three Trustees of the city. In response to this election, the San Diego Herald noted that each of the gentlemen chosen as Trustees ‘‘are trustworthy and estimable men in private life and, we doubt not, will fulfill their public duties in a satisfactory manner.” (138) Thus, George Lyons established himself as a highly regarded citizen of San Diego.
Lyons progressed from city Trustee to Postmaster of San Diego in 1854. He held this post until 1856, when replaced by Richard Rust, who had held the post prior to Lyons in 1850. Obviously political rivals, Lyons succeeded Rust once again in 1857. "Lyons took charge of his new duty the first week of February, 1854. In order to learn how to manage the post office, Lyons traveled to San Francisco where he observed its functions. He made extensive arrangements to ensure “good accommodations” for the San Diego post office.’ (139) In response, the previous Postmaster, Philip Hooff, conceded that the Lyons’ “ well-known comfort, taste and elegance” would add to the business.’ (140) Upon Lyons’ return from San Francisco, he announced that James W. Robinson would serve as Deputy Postmaster.’ (141)
Public life seemed to agree with Lyons and on June 30, 1855, he announced his candidacy for sheriff in the upcoming fall election. Less than one month later, however, on July 28, he withdrew his candidacy. (142) Although the reason is unknown, this did not stop Lyons from pursuing other interests in the public sector. In 1856, San Diego democrats chose him as their representative to the State Democratic Convention held in Sacramento. These representatives elected California delegates to the national convention to be held in Cincinnati, Ohio. (143)
Lyons actively participated in his community in an unofficial capacity as well. In July, 1856, San Diegans proposed that an infantry company be stationed in the town. A proponent of the idea, Lyons was scheduled to attend a meeting to discuss the proposal at the San Diego and Gila Railroad office on July 8 at 8:00p.m. (144)
The following year, he served on a committee which petitioned the Board of Supervisors to build a road to the Colorado River. The committee believed the cost of the road would be $2,300 to construct. The same year, he also served on the Grand Jury, which recommended the county jail’s condition be improved and refused to indict a citizen for shooting and killing a soldier. (145)
George Lyons’ participation in San Diego’s civic affairs reflects his interest in the community’s well-being. Lyons originated from one of the poorest, most rural counties in Ireland. Perhaps he desired to do his part to ensure a stable and secure life for his family in the United States.
Although he withdrew his candidacy for Sheriff in 1855, Lyons once again announced on July 25, 1857 his intention to run for the position. His opponents included Joseph Smith, the Deputy; Phillip Crosthwaite, one of the first sheriffs of San Diego; and Thomas Darnall. In the September election, Lyons won by a majority of 62 votes. He held the post of Sheriff concurrently with that of Postmaster for six months, until replaced by the new Postmaster in April 1858. (146)
The race for Sheriff brought Lyons his share of problems. On August 22, 1857, one month after Lyons announced his intention to run for the office of Sheriff, the San Diego Herald published a letter from Lyons’ friends and supporters which illuminated a rumor that questioned Lyons’ citizenship. The rumor held that Lyons had neglected to become a naturalized citizen of the United States and that he assumed, due to his length of residency in San Diego, his right to run for the office would not be questioned. His supporters asked for a public reply to their question so that everyone would be aware of the answer. (147)
In a letter published August 29, 1857 in the Herald Lyons called the rumors malicious slander and replied that he was in fact a citizen of the United States and, therefore, “eligible to hold the office of Sheriff or any other the people may see proper to confer” on him. He did not, however, provide any documentation to this effect. (148) The register of voters of San Diego County, however, provides some insight. In order to register to vote, those of foreign birth needed to provide the date and location of naturalization, as well as produce documentation. In the 1866 and 1887 registers, George Lyons declared his date of naturalization to be August 28, 1857, and the locality, San Diego County. (149)
If this date is correct, George Lyons did not become a citizen of the United States until six days after the letter appeared in the Herald. It is possible that he simply went through the naturalization process to appease his opponents and quiet the rumors. Had Lyons’ father been naturalized while George was under the age of eighteen, George would have automatically become a citizen of the United States. If this did in fact occur, the documentation would be on the East coast where the Lyons’ had lived during George’s youth. These papers could have easily been lost or misplaced.
Although Lyons’ career as sheriff lacked “wild west” antics such as gunfights and manhunts, he did oversee numerous court-directed auctions which offered some of San Diego county’s most valuable real estate. Included in these sales was part of Warners Ranch, as the result of foreclosure against the owner, Jonathon J. Warner. The auctions also offered Rancho Santa Ysabel, a Mexican grant of 1844, and Rancho Tecate, part of Juan Bandini’s estate. (150)
In the 1860s Lyons again held the position of Postmaster. Considering his career as Sheriff, perhaps the post office proved more exciting! In May, 1860, he applied for an extra allowance from the Postmaster General. As of July 4, that same year, he had received no reply to his request. John Ferguson of San Francisco, perhaps Lyons’ attorney, wrote to the San Diego Postmaster and attributed the delay to the failure of Congress to make provisions for the post office. In Ferguson’s opinion, the Postmaster General opposed the Act of July 27, 1854 and would decline to make allowances under its provisions. (151) Despite this, Lyons undoubtedly made the best of the situation and succeeded at his post.
Lyons began his last job in the San Diego post office in November, 1885, as Assistant Postmaster of Old Town. Patrick O’Neill served as Postmaster, and one of Lyons’ sons, Daniel, held a position as a mail carrier. Assistant Postmaster would be George’s last position on the San Diego public payroll.
As all good Irishmen, George Lyons became involved in San Diego politics. In 1868, San Diego democrats chose Lyons to represent them at the Democratic County Convention held in San Pasqual on August 8. (153) Three years later, in 1871, they chose him once again for the same purpose. This time, the convention was held on August 5 and fellow San Diego Irishman, Andrew Cassidy, attended the convention as well. (154)
In addition to his public and political endeavors, Lyons opened several businesses in Old Town. In November, 1850, the Herald ran an advertisement for the George Lyons & Co. Variety Store. He had just returned from a trip to San Francisco and brought a “large and well-selected stock of general merchandise” including groceries, gun powder and shot, boots, shoes, Sarsaparilla, dry goods and watches. (155)
In 1856, an announcement appeared in the Herald that requested any persons indebted to George Lyons & Co. settle the debt with Deputy Sheriff Phillip Crosthwaite who held the responsibility of collecting the monies. (156) Lyons must have extended large amounts of credit to his fellow citizens and found himself in need of the money, perhaps for a buying trip to San Francisco. Or, perhaps he endeavored to close his store upon leaving the position of Postmaster.
In addition to the variety store in town, Lyons operated a saloon on Washington Street. Opened around February, 1854, the same month he began his first year as Postmaster, the saloon featured reasonably priced bowling and “some of the best arranged alleys in the southern country.” (157)
Lyons’ interest in carpentry and contracting, which stemmed from his career as a young man, carried on through his life in San Diego. In 1869, he became partners with Daniel Brown Kurtz (158) in the firm of Kurtz and Lyons, or, Kurtz and Co., Architects and Builders. In June 1869, an advertisement appeared in the San Diego Union which proclaimed their motto: “Promptly and neatly executed. Our work speaks for itself.” (159) The partnership probably did not last for more than a year or two, but Kurtz and Lyons were responsible for the design and construction of much of old San Diego. This work, however, is not documented. (160)
Lyons’ contracting experience included the construction of several roads in San Diego County. In 1883, the Board of Supervisors approved a transfer of the rights and interests in the San Diego-Poway Road contract from Mssrs. Hornbreck and Heuthley to Lyons. For the project, he received a $100 advance from the Board. (161) In 1884, Lyons put in two bids for constructing the Mussey-Matthews Road. He offered $4,500 for the entire project or $.50 per cubic yard of stone work and $.20 per cubic yard of earth work. The Board of Supervisors declined each of his bids, however. (164)
Financial records from San Diego indicate that George Lyons achieved a good amount of success in his various endeavors. Early assessment rolls show that Lyons owned several lots in Old Town and possessed a fair amount in taxable goods. The 1856 roll, for example, discloses that George owned six lots in Old Town on two separate blocks, as well as 27 head of cattle and 2 horses.
His total assessment equaled approximately $1200. (165) By 1869, his assessment had grown to $2014.50, which included 10 lots of city property, 20 head of cattle, 22 goats and 2 hogs. (166) Like any other entrepreneur, Lyons’ personal wealth increased and decreased over the years. Unlike James McCoy and Andrew Cassidy, Lyons did not own large ranches and herds. He managed to provide a comfortable life for his family, however, and made an impact on the San Diego community.
In November, 1899, at 10:15 a.m. Lyons’ wife of 53 years, Bernarda de Villar Lyons, died. According to a letter from Benetia Lyons Thomas, to her sister, Bernarda Lyons Harry, their mother remained conscious to the end, her last words to her husband being “goodbye.” (167) George lived nine years more, following his wife to the grave on March 10, 1908 at 4:30 p.m. Ill for just forty days, his death was precipitated by an attack of the grippe. Both Lyons and his wife were buried in the Catholic Cemetery, which is today Pioneer Park in Mission Hills. (168)
Lyons’ passing marked the end of an era in San Diego history. Very few American citizens resided in San Diego the length of time George Lyons did. In his sixty years as an Old Town resident, Lyons made countless contributions to the civic and economic growth of the small town as it grew into a city. Lyons rode out the ebb and flow of development and his efforts laid the foundation for the modern city of San Diego.
As an immigrant from one of the poorest counties in Ireland, it is likely that George Lyons arrived in the United States with little or no formal education. As a young man, he apprenticed with a carpenter in order to learn a skill and earn a living. Documentation shows that unskilled and semi-skilled laborers in the overcrowded Eastern cities did not achieve a high level of success. It is possible to assume, therefore, that had Lyons remained on the East Coast, he may not have reached the level that he did in San Diego.
Although little remains of George Lyons’ achievements in San Diego, he is still regarded as one of the most prominent Old Town residents from his era. He made an effort to succeed in almost every type of business and public office possible. In so doing, he made countless contributions to the development of San Diego.
(123) Joe Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’ to Make a Serious Contribution,” San Diego Union, May 29, 1977.
(124) Various sources were consulted in an effort to pinpoint Lyons’ exact date of arrival in San Diego. According to an essay submitted by Terry Lyons di Gangi, George’s great-granddaughter, to the San Diego Historical Society, Lyons arrived in 1842. An article published in the San Diego Union on May 29, 1977 by Joe Stone, however, indicates that he arrived around 1846. His death certificate, completed by his son, Benjamin, indicates that George lived in San Diego for sixty years. Since he died in 1908, this puts his arrival in 1848. It is possible, however, that his son approximated the number of years.
(125) Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’.”
(126) “Resided Here 60 Years, Now Dead,” San Diego Union, March 9, 1908: 7.
(127) Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’.”
(128) Lyons biographical file, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.
(129) According to Andrew Lyons’ memoires, the family lived on what is today San Diego Avenue near where Taylor Street joins it. The Santa Fe railroad bed now divides the lot in two. At one time the family also lived on the street between Taylor and Wallace Streets. In 1856 this street was known as Jackson Street. Lyons biographical file, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.
(130) Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’.”
(131) Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’.”
(132) Hayes, Pioneer Notes pp. 130-131.
(133) San Diego Herald, September 1, 1855, 2:2.
(134) Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’ .
(135) San Diego Union Weekly, Nov 14, 1868, 2:4.
(136) National ArchiveS, “Population Schedules of the Eigth Census of the United States - 1860, San Diego County, California."
(137) Original lease dated August 4, 1876, signed by the Texas and Pacific RR Company and Thomas L. Nesmith, President of the Bank of San Diego. Lyons vertical file, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.
(138) San Dieao Herald, Sept 3, 1853, 3:1.
(139) “Development of San Diego Mail Service Since Early Settlement Throws Light on Local History,” San Diego Union, June 30, 1939, 11:1.
(140) San Diego Herald, January 28, 1854 2:2.
(141) Hooff wrote a letter to the editor of the Herald prompted by his concern that the citizens of San Diego did not believe he had provided good accommodation for the post office. San DieQo Herald, February 4, 1854 3:2.
(142) Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’”; While Lyons served San Diego as Postmaster, a new postage law was enacted which required $.03 postage on any letter sent a distance of up to 3,000 miles. Anything greater than 3,000 miles required $.10 postage.
(143) San Dieao Herald, June 30, 1855, 3:1; July 28,1855, 3:1.
(144) San Diego Herald, February 23, 1856 2:1.
(145) San Diego Herald, July 5, 1856 2:4.
(146) Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’.”
(147) W.B. Couts, Esquire, replaced Lyons as Postmaster of San Diego. San Diego Herald, July 25, 1857, 2:6; San D±e~o Herald, September 12, 1857 2:4; _a Diego Herald, April 3, 1858, 2:1.
(148) Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’”; San Diego Herald, August 22, 1857 2:2.
(149) San Diego Herald, August 29, 1857 2:2.
(150) Great Register of Voters of California, San Diego County, Family History Center, San Diego.
(151) Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’
(152) John Ferguson, Letter to George Lyons, July 4, 1860, San Francisco, Lyons vertical file, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.
(153) Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’.”
(154) San Diego Union Weekly, August 4, 1868 3:2.
(155) San Diego Union Weekly, July 27, 1871 3:1.
(156) Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’
(157) San Diego Herald, Feb 2, 1856 2:4.
(158) San Diego Herald, Jan 28, 1854, 2:2.
(159) Daniel Brown Kurtz came to San Diego from Pennsylvania in 1850. A lawyer by profession, he became a self-taught architect and builder. He did a large amount of contracting in Old Town and his achievements included the Church of the Immaculate Conception in 1858 and the James McCoy house in 869. Lyons was probably involved in the latter project. University of San Diego Department of History, Graduate Division, San Diego Architects 1868 — 1939, San Diego, 1991, p. 104.
(160) San Diego Herald, Oct 6, 1869, 2:3.
(161) University of San Diego, Architects p. 110.
(162) San Diego Union, July 14, 1883 3:2; San Diego Herald, July 21, 1883 3:2.
(163) The Mussey-Matthews Grade once traversed the distance from Lakeside and Foster to to Rosemead and Ramona, via Shady Dell. The narrow, steep grade allowed for teamsters to cover only one mile per hour when carrying a large load. “The Old Mussey Grade,” California Rancher, Jan. 1958, np.
(164) San Diego Union, April 17, 1884, 3:2.
(165) Assessment rolls, May 28, 1856, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.
(166) Assessment rolls, May 17, 1869, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.
(167) Benetia Thomas, Letter to Mrs. G.Y. Harry. 9 November 1899. Lyons vertical file, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.
(168) Stone, “He Survived a ‘Joke’ “Resided Here 60 Years, Now Dead.” San Diego Union, March 9, 1908, 7.