DPW Narrative History



When the state of California was accepted into the Union in 1850, the state was promptly divided into 27 counties. San Diego County was the largest and the southern-most, covering 37,400 square miles. It was a sprawling expanse of mountains and desert larger than the state of Virginia.

Over the next four decades, reductions were made to allow for other counties and by 1889 the county’s size had shrunk to 14,800 square miles. The population, however, continued to increase. The County Board of Supervisors represented a population of 16,159 at the time, but that number quadrupled by 1920, reaching 200,000 by the beginning of the 1940's. The Board, recognizing the responsibility for providing public assistance to so many people spread over an area so vast, created the Board of Public Works on May 29th, 1889.

The newly formed San Diego Board of Public Works was originally made up of only three members, Joseph Folkenhain, Jonathon Sinks and James Schuyler. An unpaid secretary, Johann Tetzel, the county’s first true employee, transcribed each word of that first meeting.

The Board of Public Works duties were quite simple. Their primary responsibility was ensuring that all streets and thoroughfares were properly watered, to reduce the dust menace, and that all roads were kept clear of debris and waste. Since there were few paved county roads at the time of their creation, the Board of Public Works had little problem complying with these demands: A few days after the boards first meeting, they hired the first Superintendent of Roads and supplied him with two horses, a carriage and wages for two more workers.

The Board’s other responsibilities included solid and liquid waste disposal, funding of the firefighting units and construction of public structures. For example, the Board’s first attempt at Solid Waste disposal involved the construction of a large scow (a flat-bottomed boat used for freight shipping) that could carry waste out to the ocean for dumping. The Board also funded the construction of portable toilets throughout the county.

Most of the Board’s time was given to the contracting of engineers for a number of needed public structures throughout the county. Instead of hiring employees to work for the board, contractors bid for projects and then supplied their own labor.

These public structures were sidewalks along heavily traveled streets, streetlights at crowded intersections, road signs and dividers along busy roads.

In wasn’t until the Board of Supervisors, who still oversaw the construction of roads in the San Diego County, made a push for an large, organized network of roads that the Board of Public Works attention focused on street maintenance.

The size of the County was cut in 1893, from 14,800 to 8,400 square miles. In 1894, Porter Wheaton completed the first coordinated survey of County Roads as a result of the split.  And then it was reduced once again in 1907, to today’s size, 4,261 square miles. Although these reductions lessened the area that the County had to work within and supervise, the miles of roads continued to grow. 

In 1909, the Board of Supervisors created a Highway Commission to aid in the construction of roads in the county. A plan was made to carve 461 miles of roads into the desolate background of the County of San Diego. The three-man commission included A.G. Spalding, E.W. Scripps, and John D. Spreckels. A.B. Fletcher served as highway engineer, and later as county engineer. $1,250,000 was given to the Commission for the purposes of construction. When the plan was completed, 445 miles of dirt roads had been constructed that provided farmers and rural residents to access to population centers. The Board of Public Works employed workers and prison laborers to maintain the expanding County roads system.

By 1919, though, the dust menace became unmanageable due to the growing abundance of vehicles. Another Highway Commission was formed, headed by Colonel Ed Fletcher, an advocate of better roads. This commission received nearly $3,000,000 for paving sections of highly-traveled roads throughout the County. In all, the commission paved close to 80 miles of roads.

The need for more paved roads exceeded the rate at which paved roads could be constructed. In 1929, though, the road construction got a boost. The Board of Public Works took under its wing the Honor Camps system, which had formerly been under the control of the Sheriff’s department. Criminals housed in Honor Camps were used for labor purposes. Public Works put these men to work constructing roads.

It was becoming obvious, though, that more money and manpower was needed to adequately supply the County with its transportation desires. Instead of selling bonds to pay for the roads as they had done in the past, in 1934 the state of California imposed a "pay-as-you-go" gasoline tax that provided a dramatic funding increase for road construction.

Also in 1934, the citizens of San Diego County voted to make the position of County Surveyor into the Road Commissioner. The man who was County Surveyor at the time was Ernest Childs, who held his position for 11 years. He would hold the Position of Road Commission for another 12. As Road Commissioner, his job was to oversee all road maintenance and construction in the county. One of his first decisions as Road Commissioner was to begin using asphalt, an oil-based paving substance, instead of the hard concrete. Asphalt required more maintenance-- which is where Public Works came in-- but was cheaper, easier to lay down, and wasn’t as difficult to expand into extra lanes when needed.

Public Works had its Honor Camps laborers working at Road Stations across the County paving roads. They also had a number of employees maintaining the roads and keeping them free of debris.

In 1938, Public Works joined the Road Commissioner and a number of other services to formed one agency known as the County Property Department. This department would also include the Parks and Services Division, the Special Districts Division (which handled waste disposal), the Welfare Department and the Honor Camps. The County Property Department of the 40's and 50's might be a predecessor of today’s Department of Public Works.

At the time of its creation, the County Property Department, 2,546 miles of roads existed in the unincorporated area. Of that, 600 miles were state highways that were maintained by the state. The County maintained 430 miles of paved highways and 850 miles of dirt roads. The rest were ‘mule-paths’ and back streets that did not require County maintenance.

The County Property Department existed through the 1940's and most of the 50's without change. A steady growth in County population offered more waste, more need for roads, and demand for public structures.

In 1946, San Diego became just the third County in the entire Country (more than 4200 counties) to have a Parks and Recreation Department. The General Foreman of the County Property Department, Rufas Parks, gave the OK for the creation of the department and he also headed most of the original work for the department.

The Honor Camps continued to be a source of labor for the County Property Department. In 1953, Ray Belnap took over as Honor Camp Director after a series of controversies caused the previous director to retire. Mr. Belnap was the first director that was not a civil engineer. Instead, he had graduated from the California School of Corrections and was skilled at reforming individuals. His tenure at the Honor Camps was a long and effective one, achieving unparalleled harmony with the prisoners.

Joe Mack and D.K. Speer each spent a decade as Road Commissioner, ensuring stability within the organization. The County Property Department goes 20 years without much change until 1962, when the department split up into three separate departments. These departments were the Road Department, the Special Districts Department and the Public Works Department. The Public Works department was in charge of building services, solid waste, and airports. The Road Department was in charge of road construction and maintenance, as well as some engineering on specific projects throughout the county. The Special Districts Department was in charge of liquid waste and flood control.

In 1966, the Road Department renamed itself the County Engineer Department but retained the same responsibilities. It was also in 1966 that the number of county maintained roads exceeded 2000 miles. The number would continue to grow, eventually reaching 2241.62 miles in 1980, before shrinking due to the incorporation of more cities within the county.

Throughout the 1970's, a number of changes affected the three departments that were once the County Property Department. The first change was the formation of Department of Transportation in 1972. This department stood alone for three years before joining the County Engineer Department in 1975. The County Engineer Department then absorbed the function of the Special Districts, which had been renamed Sanitation and Flood Control.

The Director at that time, Rudy Massman, had developed a great deal of trust and support from the Board of Supervisors. His lengthy tenure and rapport with the Board enabled him to bring together the Public Works Department and the County Engineer Department into one department. This collaboration of resources and manpower, named the Department of Public Works, boasted nearly 800 employees. It’s responsibilities included everything the County Property Department handled except the Parks and Recreation Department (which had become it’s own department in 1946) and the Honor Camps program (which ceased in the mid-70's).

The Department of Public Works originally divided the department up into five divisions: Field Operations, Land Development, Public Services, Program Development, and Solid Waste. In the mid 1990's, Field Operations was renamed Roads, and Program Development was renamed Engineering. A new management division was also added.

Presently, the Department of Public Works handles nearly 2,000 miles of roads and 4 billion gallons of liquid waste.  It also manages relations with 80 various engineering firms and 5,000 land development applicants and manages eight County airports. A department that started with an unpaid secretary and two horses as its only assets now, more than 100 years later, is working with an annual $200 million dollar budget and is providing service to nearly 3 million people.