The San Diego Land & Town Company was initially set up in 1880 to sell land to finance the California Southern Railroad, a thwarted attempt to make San Diego a Pacific terminus of a transcontinental railroad. Despite California Southern's failure to directly link San Diego to the East Coast, the well-financed Boston-based syndicate that controlled the SDL&T Co. shaped the company into a major force during San Diego's 1880s land boom.
With offices in National City and Boston, the SDL&T Co. focused its efforts on large tracts of mostly undeveloped land south of downtown San Diego, particularly in Chula Vista and National City. The genesis of the company's South Bay promotional efforts had its roots in the dreams of San Diegans to have a railroad connection direct to the East Coast. According to Glenn S. Dumke, in his classic book, The Boom of the Eighties in Southern California (1966):
Perhaps no town in southern California was so eager for a boom as San Diego, and, clearly, no other town realized so well that a railway would help bring prosperity... Not until 1880 did a group of San Diego citizens, headed by Frank and Warren Kimball of National City, obtain sufficient encouragement from Santa Fe interests to start a railway of their own, the California Southern Line - page 132-133.
The Kimball brothers initially traveled to Boston in 1879 to convince the leaders of one of the transcontinental railroads to choose San Diego for its Pacific terminus. They eventually struck a deal with the Santa Fe wherein the Kimballs gave the railroad a subsidy of $10,000 and 10,000 acres from their National Rancho in exchange for forty miles of railroad construction eastward from San Diego. Due to railroad mergers and other unplanned events, the Santa Fe eventually located its shops and general offices in Los Angeles, crushing San Diego's dreams of becoming the great commercial metropolis of the Southland.
Despite being sidetracked by Los Angeles, San Diego managed a certain level of regional rail communication, and, with the help of vigorous promotion by locals and eastern investors, experienced a real estate boom of its own in the 1880s, largely fueled by speculation. The San Diego Land & Town Company, financially linked to the Santa Fe Railroad, was one of the most active land promoters at this time.
To bolster their well-funded real estate ventures and appeal to potential investors and settlers, the company invested heavily in promotional publications. These pamphlets and brochures, usually printed in eastern cities, often incorporated fine lithographic illustrations, panoramic views, and detailed maps that showcased the region's topographical allure and possibilities for farms and homesites. Such titles as San Diego, Southern California, the Italy of America (1892), painted a picture of San Diego as a burgeoning paradise of unmatched potential for the prospective settler. San Diego's climate was favorably compared to "any known place in the world, not even excepting Nice in the South of France."
By the 1890s the San Diego Land & Town Company owned at least 40,000 acres of land situated in and around San Diego and National City. Beyond their well-known promotion of National City and Chula Vista, the company purchased significant tracts of undeveloped land throughout San Diego, including parts of present-day Bird Rock in La Jolla, as well as the Sweetwater River Valley, which it touted as suitable for orange and lemon orchards.
One of the company's most significant contributions to the region was the construction of the Sweetwater Dam. Completed in 1888, this dam was vital in ensuring a reliable water supply, thereby making sustained development and habitation viable in the area.
Through strategic infrastructure development and nearly unrelenting promotional work during the latter part of the 19th-century, the San Diego Land & Town Company contributed to the steady growth that characterized San Diego's early development. Irene Ladd Phillips published a brief history of the company, San Diego Land & Town Company, 1880-1927 (1959). However, an in-depth study of the company's outsized role in early San Diego land and water resources has yet to be written.