Home > Donald H. Harrison, historic places, Uncategorized > San Diego County’s Historic Places: Mount Israel

San Diego County’s Historic Places: Mount Israel

the community of Mount Israel, nestled in the hills, is seen from Via Rancho Cielo and Via Ambiente.

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

MOUNT ISRAEL, California—This foothill in San Diego County has been “partitioned. ” Approaching it from Lake Hodges on its south and east, it still is known as Mount Israel. However, its more-rural northeastern slope overlooking Olivenhain Dam and Reservoir is described today as part of the Elfin Forest Recreational Area.

Mandy Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the Olivenhain Municipal Water District, said the change in nomenclature was pragmatic. People traveling between Rancho Santa Fe and Escondido on the Del Dios Highway often would try to turn north on Mt. Israel Place, only to find a gated community at the top, with no access to what previously had been named the Mt. Israel Recreational Reserve.

Mount Israel was named after 19th Century San Diego pioneer Robert Decatur Israel, a native of Pittsburgh whose father was described as Pennsylvania Dutch and mother as Scotch-Irish. He wasn’t Jewish, but because of his surname many people today mistakenly assume that he was, and that Mount Israel has something to do with Eretz Israel, which it doesn’t.

Robert Decatur Israel had fought in the Mexican-American War, including the famous Battle of Chapultepec, and when he was mustered out of the service, like other veterans, he received the right to a 160-acre federal land grant. He chose land in what then was known as the Aliso area of San Diego County, where he built an adobe home on a site that is now covered by 24,000 acre feet of water—the equivalent of 8 billion gallons—behind the Olivenhain Dam.

However, for most of his life, Israel lived either in Old Town San Diego, where he worked as a blacksmith and as a constable, or at the tip of Point Loma where he was the lighthouse keeper at what today is known as the Cabrillo National Monument.

When I wrote the biography, Louis Rose: San Diego’s First Jewish Settler and Entrepreneur, people with knowledge of local history would sometimes ask how I could be so certain Rose was the first Jew; hadn’t Israel arrived in San Diego even before Rose came in May of 1850?

Yes, he had, but clearly Israel wasn’t Jewish. As documented in a 1983 University of San Diego master’s thesis by Patricia F. Klenner, his mother was the former Mary Witherspoon of Scotch-Irish ancestry. Even if his father Joseph Israel had some Jewish forbearers among his “Pennsylvania Dutch” ancestors—and there is no evidence that he had—the very fact that Robert’s mother was not Jewish meant, as a matter of halacha, that Robert Israel wasn’t Jewish either.

Furthermore, Israel and a young Mexican bride, Marie Arcadia Alipas, were married by a priest in 1852 at the Casa de Estudillo in Old Town, and had four children: Henry Clay Israel, Joseph Perry Israel; Robert Lincoln Israel, and a second Joseph Perry Israel, born after his older brother had died. When Robert Decatur Israel died at age 81 in 1908, services were officiated by an Episcopal priest. Buried at the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery (known formerly as the U.S. Government Cemetery on Point Loma), his grave 74 in section 75 bears is marked by a stone with a Christian cross.

Early in his residency in San Diego, Israel became a member of the Fitzgerald Volunteers which set out in 1851 to capture Antonio Garra, leader of a local Indian insurrection. The Fitzgerald Volunteers came back empty handed, but after Garra was captured by another force, Israel commanded the firing squad that executed Garra right at his grave in the El Campo Santo cemetery in Old Town.

More than a decade later, Israel served on the school board that became embroiled in a fight after school teacher Mary Chase Walker dined with a mulatto woman at a local restaurant. It was a natural thing to do, as the woman had shown her hospitality on the ship that had brought the teacher to San Diego from San Francisco. However, a white woman dining with a woman with black parentage created an uproar in the town that included many residents originally from the slaveholding South.

Some parents withdrew their children from the school, and there were demands that the school teacher be fired. Israel was dead set against the idea, saying he wouldn’t give in to the prejudices of the southerners. The crisis eventually was solved when another school trustee, merchant Ephraim Morse, decided to marry the school teacher, thereby providing her with a face-saving departure and an alternative means of support.

Israel was best known as the lighthouse keeper. He and his family lived alone on the Point, making sure that the lighthouse was illuminated each night. Set atop a high palisade, the lighthouse sometimes was enshrouded in fog, and in such cases, according to Klenner, “Israel sounded his shotgun to warn approaching ships.” She suggested that he “doubtless spent many a cautious nightwatch in the lantern tower.”

There was a time that one of the rooms in the lighthouse—furnished by Cabrillo National Monument to reflect the life of Robert and Marie Israel—had as an “artifact” within it, a piece of cloth that looked like a tallit—perhaps put there by someone in the mistaken belief that Israel was Jewish and had kept a prayer shawl close by. The tallit no longer is there; modern-day curators now are well aware that the Jewish religious garment was out of place.

Eventually, another lighthouse was built closer to the Pacific Ocean shore line, in the area adjoining Cabrillo National Monument now occupied by a U.S. Coast Guard Station. After it was opened, Israel ran afoul of a government inspector, receiving a disciplinary notice about the lens being dirty and the grounds in disorder. Israel dashed off a reply criticizing the quality of water in the new rainwater catch basin—a reply that apparently was considered so insubordinate that Israel was dismissed as the lighthouse keeper in 1892. He had been the principal lighthouse keeper for nearly two decades.

He thereafter moved briefly to the home in the Aliso area, which his son Robert Lincoln Israel had named the “Hardscrabble Ranch,” but eventually returned to the Old Town area. The ranch area was examined before construction of the dam as part of an environmental impact report prepared by Brian F. Mooney Associates of San Diego.

Mooney noted that a previous archaeological survey of the adobe structure “recovered a vast and varied assemblage of artifacts as well as architectural information….The architectural remains and contents of one privy constituted the sole material legacy from the family of Robert Israel…. The Israel family sold the residence in 1896, and it passed through two families before being purchased by Eli Taylor in 1912. Most recovered cultural materials, including livery items, tools, armaments, furniture, consumer prodjucts and personal items are from the Taylor occupation.”

Park ranger David Sanchez informed me and friend Dan Schaffer that the Olivenhain Dam and Reservoir is the central feature of the 750-acre Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve. A graduate in history from California State College at San Marcos, Sanchez said an interpretive center eventually will be built from grant funds.

Sanchez, who grew up in nearby Encinitas, says his heritage is part Mexican and part Apache, and that he is looking forward to the opportunity to participate in the development of the cultural exhibits for the intepretive center.

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  This article appeared previously on examiner.com

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