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DPW Decade-by-Decade History

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A Decade-by-Decade Summary

1890 | 1900 | 1910 | 2010
1920 | 1930 | 1940
1950 | 1960 | 1970
1980 | 1990 | 2000


Agency Title: Board of Public Works (there were only three employees so they didn’t call themselves a department).

Responsibilities: During the 1890's, the responsibilities of the Board of Public Works included fire stations, streets and road conditions, disposal of sewage and the storage of water.

Geographic Size of County: 1851-1893: 14,800 square miles. Everything south of San Bernardino extending from the Pacific Ocean to the Colorado River. 1893-1907: 8,400 square miles. Present day’s northern border from the Pacific Ocean to the Colorado River.

Road Conditions: Until the Board of Public Works was formed, most public thoroughfares were unpaved. The Board's first step to improve these roads was to finance ‘sprinkling’ of the roads to keep the dust down. In the mid 1890's they began to finance plans to pave roads with a concrete-like substance. They started placing sidewalks on heavily trafficked streets and also agreed to contracts with San Diego Gas and Electric to place street lights along busy roads.

Milestones: The first Public Works board meeting was held at 2 p.m. on May 29th, 1889. A land boom was drawing more and more people west and creating a need for adequate transportation accommodations.

1888-1889 Henry Langrehr, County Surveyor
1891-1892 W.W. Allen, County Surveyor
1893-1898 R.M. Vail, County Surveyor
1899-1902 S.L. Ward, County Surveyor

Notes: The Board of Public Works began with three people: Joseph Sinks, James Schuyler, and Joseph Folkenhain. They hired their first employee Johann Tetzel, who quit three weeks later. They named a superintendent of streets and a superintendent of sewers and supplied them both with two laborers. Most of the early labor was done by contractors instead of county employees.

In 1894 Porter Wheaton completed an eight-month, 2,328-mile survey of the County pushing a wheelbarrow.


Agency Title: The Board of Public Works (although it was the Board of Supervisors that actually was in charge of road construction)

Responsibilities: Public Works retained control over sewage disposal, water storage, road improvement and construction, and continued to fund the fire stations.

Geographic Size of County: 1893-1907: 8,400 square miles.  1907-present- 4,200 square miles. In 1907 the area was cut in half, the eastern section became Imperial County while the western remained San Diego.

Road Conditions: Street lights put up more frequently at busy city intersections. Sidewalks more and more frequent, first gutters added to streets to aid in sewage disposal and water collection.

Milestones: City purchased all water systems in San Diego County and diverted water from the Colorado River to irrigate the Imperial Valley area.

1899-1902 S.L. Ward, County Surveyor
1903-1908 A.F. Crowell, County Surveyor
1908-1923 George Butler, County Surveyor

Notes: In 1909, a highway commission was created to meet the public’s growing transportation needs. The founding members were A.G. Spalding, E.W. Scripps, and John D. Spreckels.  445 miles of dirt roads were covered with disintegrated granite, which outlined the roads but gave little protection from the elements.


Agency Title: Board of Public Works (although the Board of Supervisors-Highway Commission was in charge of the roads)

Responsibilities: Public Works retained control over sewage disposal, water storage, road improvement and construction, and continued to fund the fire stations.

Geographic Size of County:  4,200 square miles. 

Road Conditions: The highway commission constructed more than 60 miles of paved roads throughout the decade but the pace at which they were working did not keep pace with the amount of cars being sold or the rate at which people moved to San Diego County.

Milestones: Major flooding of San Diego river, Lakeside, Oceanside and Sweetwater. Bridges and roads were torn apart, creating extensive repair work of the Public Works department.

Directors: 1908-1923 George Butler, County Surveyor

Notes: Another highway commission was formed by the Board of Supervisors to pave the roads they had created ten years before. The amount of traffic had quadrupled since 1909 and the concrete roads were crucial in areas with the most cars.


Agency Title: Board of Public Works (although it was the Board of Supervisors, Paving Commission that was in charge of the road construction).

Responsibilities: Still retained control over sewage disposal, water storage, road improvement and construction, and continued to fund the fire stations.

Geographic Size of County: 4,200 square miles

Road Conditions: By 1929, 250 miles of paved highways existed throughout San Diego County. The two main paved thoroughfares were the state highways running along the western coast and along the Mexican border.

Milestones: 1929 - Control of honor camps is transferred from the Sheriff's Department to the Public Works Department.

1908-1923 George Butler, County Surveyor  
1923-1946 Ernest Childs, County Surveyor

Notes: The Southwestern Water Conference is held to plan the future water development in the region.


Agency Title: Pre-1938, three departments, County Roads, Welfare, and Special Districts, did most of the work of today’s Public Works (post 1938- County Property Department)

Responsibilities: County Roads was in charge of roads maintenance and construction. Welfare was in charge of housing the elderly. Special Districts was in charge of sewage disposal and water storage.

Geographic Size of County: 4,200 square miles

Road Conditions: Ernest Childs, the newly appointed Road Commissioner, decided that the best surface for construction and repair of new roads was asphalt. 457 miles of asphalt road was paved by the end of the decade and there were also 308 miles of concrete paved road. While many of the major highways were paved, 850 miles of dirt roads still remained throughout San Diego County.

Milestones: In 1938, the County Administration Building was dedicate and the County Property Department, with 44 employees, was created by the Board of Supervisors. 

1923-1946, Ernest Childs, County Surveyor and (1935-1946) Road Commissioner

Notes: In 1934, citizens voted to make the County Surveyor the Road Commissioner, making one man in charge of all county roads. The road commissioner hired men and combined forces with the Public Works department to construct and maintain the roads.


Agency Title: County Property Department

Responsibilities: Parks and Recreation, Honor Camps, road maintenance and construction, sewage disposal and water storage.

Size of County: 4,200 square miles

Road Conditions: All major thoroughfares are paved and most streets are well lit. Sidewalks and gutters go hand in hand with any urban street construction. Continued growth rate of cars, though, forces roads to be expanded into more lanes. Dirt roads still plague the less populated desert areas of San Diego.

Milestones: To compensate for the increased population, now more than 200,000 people, the County spends twenty million dollars on water facilities and ten million dollars on road construction and improvement.

1923-1946 Ernest Childs, County Surveyor and Road Commissioner
1947 John H.L. Voigt, Road Commissioner (temporary)
1947-1958 Joe Mack, Road Commissioner

Notes: In 1946, the Parks and Recreation Department is formed. San Diego County is one of three counties in the entire country with a such a department.


Agency Title: County Property Department

Responsibilities: Honor camps, airports, building services, sewage disposal and water storage.

Geographic Size of County: 4,200 square miles

Road Conditions: Width and length of roads become a problem to ever increasing traffic rate. Five times the expected traffic travel upon the highways each day.

Milestones: At the Honor Camps, Mr. Ray Belnap is hired as the new director. He is a graduate of the California School of Correction and strives to improve the behavior and temperament of the inmates instead of just working them on the road projects.

1947-1958 Joe Mack, Road Commissioner
1958-1959 Fred Rhoads, Road Commissioner (temporary)
1959-1969 D.K. Speer, Road Commissioner


Agency Title: Department of Public Works/Surveyor-Road Department

Responsibilities: Building services, airports, solid waste, liquid waste, water storage, road maintenance and construction

Geographic Size of County:  4,200 square miles.  In 1966 the San Diego County area was extended to include three miles of ocean off the coast. This brought the San Diego mileage area up to 4,511 miles.

Road Conditions: In 1965, the County maintained 1994.72 miles of roads. In 1969, the total had risen to 2073.23 mainly through the expansion of highways.

Milestones: 1969- The first female honor camp is opened in Viejas.

1959-1969 D.K. Speer, Road Commissioner
1969-1975 Howard Taylor, Road Commissioner

Notes: 1962 There were three departments in existence: Special Districts (liquid waste and flood control), Public Works (Building services, airports and solid waste) and the Surveyor-Road department. In 1966 the Surveyor-Road department became the Engineering department.


Agency Title: Department of Public Works/Department of Engineering

Responsibilities: Building services, airports, solid and liquid waste, road maintenance and construction, water storage.

Geographic Size of County: 4,200 square miles

Road Conditions: Bikeways and carpool lanes first introduced to San Diego. In 1970 there were 2083.37 county maintained roads. At the end of the decade, that total had risen to 2215.42 miles.

Milestones: Honors camps are too expensive to keep in use, they are released from the control of the County and the buildings are left vacant.

1969-1975 Howard Taylor, Road Commissioner
1975 Jackson Settles, Road Commissioner (temporary)
1975-1988 Rudy Massman, Road Commissioner

Notes: 1972- Department of Transportation is formed. In 1975 the Department of Transportation then joins County Engineering.


Agency Title: Pre-1982 Public Works Agency/Department of Engineering (post 1982- Department of Public Works)

Responsibilities: The Department of Public Works took control of roads maintenance and construction, liquid and solid waste disposal, water storage, airports and building services.

Size of County: 4,200 square miles

Road Conditions: All the roads are paved with dividers, street and traffic lights, gutters and . Bikeways become more common in urban areas and car pool lanes become more common on freeways and highways. In 1980 there 2241.62 miles of maintained roads, in 1989 that total had dropped to 1852.09 due to the relinquishing of highways to State control.

Milestones: DPW accepts greatest amount of responsibility and has largest number of employees after it’s merger with the Engineering department.

1975-1985 Rudy Massman, Road Commissioner
1985-1992 Granville Bowman, Road Commissioner

Notes: 1980- County Engineer added Sanitation and Flood Control. 1982- Public Works took over the Engineering department, mainly due to the faith of the Board of Supervisors in Rudy Massman’s ability to control such a large department.


Agency Title: Department of Public Works

Responsibilities: Public Works oversees the following divisions: Transit, Roads, Solid Waste, Wastewater, Airports, Land Development, Flood Control, Special Districts, Engineering.

Geographic Size of County: 4,200 square miles

Road Conditions: Roads are fully paved with sidewalks, street and traffic lights and gutters. Bikeways and car pool lanes are prevalent across the 1,874 miles of paved roads in San Diego.

Milestones: SAFE call box system implemented along 550 miles of highways in San Diego County. This was the latest in road improvement strategies.

1985-1992 Granville Bowman, Public Works Director
1992-1993 Bruce Boland, Public Works Director
1993-1994 Roger Walsh, Public Works Director
1994-1996 Tom Garibay, Public Works Director
1996-1999 Steve Thunberg, Public Works Director
1999-2010 John Snyder, Public Works Director

Notes: From 1990 to 1995, a series of changes in division titles affected the department: Field Operations was re-named the Roads Division, Program Development was renamed Engineering, and a new Management division was added to supervise the department.

McClellan-Palomar Airport was designated as a "Part 139" facility by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1996. That move allowed commercial aircraft carrying up to 60 passengers to use the airport.

In 1997 the County sold its landfills and Public Works formed a new section, Inactive Landfills, to monitor and maintain closed solid waste sites.

In 1998 the department was re-engineered into four divisions (from five): Management Services, Engineering, Transportation and Land Development. The department also moved to a project-centric style of management, making sure that project managers develop and implement private development and public improvement projects “from cradle to grave.”  In Private Development Teams, this change reduced plan check time by 80%. 

Two non-core DPW functions, the SAFE call box and Abandoned Vehicle Abatement (AVA) Program, and commercial/industrial wastewater inspection program, were divested.


In 2002, County Transit Services was divested to the San Diego Metropolitan Transit Development Board.

In 2003, the watershed protection and stormwater management functions were transferred from the Department of Environmental Health to DPW. In DPW these functions are now called WPP or Watershed Protection Program. The County’s WPP is the lead co-permittee for region-wide compliance with the State and Regional Water Quality Control Board’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit.

A Decade of Disasters:

In October 2003, the County of San Diego experienced devastating firestorms. The Cedar and Paradise Fires killed 16 people and destroyed more than 2,400 homes. DPW played a major role in restoring guardrails and other road facilities destroyed in the fire, as well as protecting lives and property before and during winter storms that followed the fires and threatened to cause debris flows down denuded hillsides.  DPW also managed debris removal, both in road rights of way and on private property.

In 2005, County streets and roads were hit hard by winter storms.  DPW responded with a full set of repair and slope stabilization tasks. Since hillsides were still recovering from the 2003 firestorm, DPW’s flood control section used a beeper system to warn residents near vulnerable hillsides during peak rains.

In 2007, the County again experienced a major fire disaster. Wildfires raged throughout southern California, but of all the fires, the two biggest were in San Diego County. The largest, the Witch (Creek) Fire, burned areas north and northeast of San Diego. The second largest, the Harris Fire, burned northwest from the U.S–Mexico border towards San Diego. Though individually the fires did not surpass the Cedar Fire, if combined as one, they did. Again, DPW performed a large share of the emergency repairs, conducted slope stabilization activities, and managed debris removal.

2009 – The County’s new award-winning McClellan-Palomar Airport terminal opened in January 2009. Designed by Ginsler, key features include a streamlined flow to expedite passenger arrivals and departures; upgraded services and amenities; accommodation for regional jet aircraft; and the implementation of sustainable design strategies to reduce lifecycle costs.


2010-Present, Richard Crompton - Director of Public Works

Winter storms: From December 7, 2010, to January 4, 2011, San Diego County experienced such severe winter storms, President Obama declared a disaster on January 26. DPW responded with crews working round the clock clearing roads of debris including uprooted trees and large boulders, repairing roads, clearing culverts, and distributing sand bags to residents.

Narrative Version 

 DPW History