History of Bonita, California

The rural town of Bonita, California, known for its ranches, orchard farms, and dairies. Bonita is only eight miles away from San Diego and less than ten miles away from the Mexican border. Today, just over 12,000 people call Bonita, California, home.

History of Bonita: Early Years

Bonita has had a long history of ranching. In the 1700s, Spanish soldiers utilized much of this land for grazing their cattle. Later, after the gold rush in the middle of the 17th century, many Chinese immigrants began using the land for vegetable farms, dairies, and orchards. Some of these orchards included citrus, eucalyptus trees, olive, and other vegetable farms.

Bonita Ranch

The name Bonita originally came from the name of a citrus ranch in 1884. An American lawyer by the name of Henry Ernest Cooper, Sr. owned the ranch at that time, which was primarily used for growing lemons. The postal office next to the Bonita Ranch eventually took on the same name, also calling itself Bonita. The word Bonita means ‘pretty’ in Spanish.

Bonita became home of the Bonnie Brae Lemon, a popular lemon ranch at the time when the lemon industry in San Diego was thriving. Due to droughts, a deep freeze, and flooding, the lemon industry took a hit in San Diego, causing the demise of brands such as the Bonnie Brae Lemon. 

History of Bonita: Flooding

Flooding has always been somewhat of an issue in Bonita’s history. The most significant flooding incident occurred in 1916 when the Sweetwater Dam, a large dam bordering Bonita, broke. The heavy and intensive rains caused massive flooding in the Lower Sweetwater Valley. The failure of the dam caused damages to communities, bridges and ultimately killed eight people. Since then, the dam after redesign and construction now sits at 108-foot high.

The Sweetwater Dam in Saved Bonita
The Sweetwater Dam in Saved Bonita

Maintaining the Rural Life

Citizens of Bonita have been fighting to retain their rural way of life throughout their history. Pressures of urbanization began in 1949 when a major highway construction built running right through present-day Bonita Road. Citizens clearly expressed their displeasure by forming the Sweetwater Valley Civic Association (SVCA) – a group specifically focused on staving off this highway. Their efforts were successful, and the highway ultimately came to be north of Bonita instead. 

The SVCA also staved off efforts of annexation to the town of Bonita. In 1960-1970,

surrounding towns such as National City and Chula Vista had annexed large swathes of lands in the Sweetwater Valley, such as parks, golf courses, and other ranch lands. Chula Vista made an attempt in the 1970s to annex the entire town of Bonita. A vote of 2:1 in favor of keeping Bonita separate ultimately won.

In 1986, Chula Vista made one more attempt of annexing Bonita through new state laws. However, this attempt was staved-off once again with over 6,000 signatures from residents of Bonita, (65% of all voters) all wanting to keep this town separate. 

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