The Incredible Wheelbarrow Survey of Porter Perrin Wheaton
By Bill Polick, Public Information Officer
His boots threw up dust as he pushed a wheelbarrow along the old wagon trail. Camping gear rattled, his canteen clanged and sloshed, the odometer connected to the wheel clicked off mile after mile.
Porter Perrin Wheaton, dressed in khaki and denim, a pith helmet blocking the sun, paused to jot down numbers in his notebook. It was May of 1894 and Wheaton’s job was to survey San Diego County’s roads. In that year, the County stretched from Pacific shores to the Colorado River, from the Mexican border to Riverside County.
The First Public Road
There were, of course, roads in the County in those days, some with names. Many were stage routes or roads to ranchos. In 1854 the Board of Supervisors declared Warner’s Pass at San Pasqual the first public road. It served as the main link between San Diego and the Colorado River.
By the time Wheaton began his eight-month trek over coastal plains, across the Cuyamaca and Laguna mountain ranges and through the Anza-Borrego Desert, San Diego County’s population had reached nearly 35,000.
Miles to Go Before He Sleeps
Wheaton’s journey started May 5, 1894, and ended December 29 after 2,328 miles. For his efforts, this 46-year-old surveyor was paid $80 a month. His map was published in 1900.
Looking at his 19th Century information in the 21st Century, it’s difficult to imagine the hardships this Vermont native faced in the Wild West. He carried all his gear in the wheelbarrow: bed roll, cooking gear and instruments. The latter included an odometer for measuring distance, compass and clinometer to measure elevation. Total equipment cost: $163.15.
County Surveyor R.M. Vail hired Wheaton after Riverside County split from San Diego County in 1893. Property owners reported their own holdings at that time, so maps showing owned parcels were rare. Part of Wheaton’s job was to identify as many structures as possible for tax purposes. San Diego County still had the same number of employees to pay, but a smaller County meant fewer tax dollars.
Nuevo? Where’s that?
The 1900 map doesn’t show homes and ranchos, but it does list communities still on maps today, some with different names. Nuevo is now Ramona, Bernardo is Rancho Bernardo, Flinn is now Flinn Springs. Many measurements were made between post offices. From San Diego to National City was 4.61 miles, National City to La Presa was 11.56 miles. Towns like Dulzura, Potrero, Valley Centre (sic) and Lakeside are listed. But others are gone; places like Lone Palm, El Nido, Grigsby, Oneonta and Escellier don’t show on your Thomas Bros. Guide today.
What Is, What Was
Take your favorite map of San Diego and Imperial counties. Erase all the solid lines that designate paved roads. Now, erase most of the dashed lines that indicate unpaved roads. Delete all housing tracts, business parks, airports, shopping malls, power stations and, well, you get the idea.
When Porter Perrin Wheaton began his trek in May of 1894, there were no accurate maps of the County. It was the Wild West where horse-drawn trolleys shuttled passengers through downtown San Diego, the Hotel del Coronado was five years old and a wooden flume carried fresh water to town from Cuyamaca Lake. New Town was new and Old Town wasn’t very old. Docks and piers lined the bay just south of the Stingaree (now the Gaslamp area), a few streetlights cast eerie shadows around town.
Dust and the smell of horse residue filled the air as this 46-year-old surveyor lifted the handles of his wooden wheelbarrow and began
his journey from the main post office toward National City. Out in the bay, sailing and steam-powered ships rested at anchor. Every once in a while, Wheaton set down his ‘barrow, counted the clicks on an odometer attached to the wheel, sited elevation with his clinometer and checked his compass making notes of his observations.
Mile after mile he trudged, probably thinking of his family left behind. Eventually turning east, he began a gradual climb toward the Cuyamacas, stopping often to take readings and make notes.
Dangers To Face
There were hazards in the backcountry in 1894 that we don’t face today. Bears, mountain lions and bobcats were around and there was danger in hiking alone: a sprain or broken bone in an isolated spot could be life threatening. There were snakes and scorpions to share his bedroll. Still, Wheaton pressed on.
There were people out there but, since his 11 notebooks offer only measurements, it’s difficult to know who he met or how he felt as he trudged up a hill or down a mountain pass. There were thunderstorms to deal with, bandits and loneliness. There was heat in the desert, cold in the mountains. There were sore muscles, blisters and sunburn to deal with. He climbed Palomar Mountain and clambered down the east face of the Lagunas, all the time pushing the wheelbarrow with his tools, food, bedroll and notebooks.
By the end of his journey, Porter Perrin Wheaton collected important information for both the County Surveyor and County Assessor. He was a County worker, hired to do a job.
Wheaton died in Los Angeles in1908 from complications of heat exposure while on a project in Death Valley. His survey of County roads paved the way for the freeways, country byways and city streets San Diegans enjoy today.