Empire Builder


Empire Builder

John D. Spreckels and the Making of San Diego

Sandra E. Bonura
Foreword by Uwe Spieckermann

440 pages
35 photographs, 3 illustrations, 2 maps, index


November 2020


$39.95 Add to Cart

December 2022


$27.95 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)

November 2020


$27.95 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)

November 2020


$27.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

"With exhaustive research and a storyteller’s flair, historian Sandra E. Bonura offers a sweeping narrative of one of the nation’s most important and unjustly forgotten industrialists. Bonura weaves a tale that is at once epic and intimate."—Charles Slack, award-winning author, journalist, and business editor 

2021 San Diego Book Award

Empire Builder is the previously untold story of a pioneer who almost single-handedly transformed the bankrupt village of San Diego into a thriving city. When he first dropped anchor in San Diego Bay on a warm June day in 1887, John Diedrich Spreckels set into motion a series of events that later defined the city. Within just a few years, this son of the German immigrant Claus Spreckels, known as the “Sugar King,” owned and controlled the majority of San Diego’s industry by demanding advanced techniques of building construction, water supply management, and energy production, as well as improvements in transportation—particularly by ship, rail, electric streetcar, and automobile.

After successfully building empires in sugar, shipping, and transportation and building development up and down the coast of California and across the Pacific, Spreckels rubbed shoulders with world leaders, bailed out royalty, and even successfully sued the U.S. government twice, all while contributing to numerous educational, charitable, and cultural institutions in San Diego and San Francisco.

Despite the fact that Spreckels created and owned much of San Diego’s early twentieth-century infrastructure, his name is unknown to many contemporary San Diegans. Nobody, especially not Spreckels himself, could have foreseen that his empire would be all but forgotten in so short a time. Sandra E. Bonura strives to correct this oversight by providing a behind-the-scenes look into the Spreckels family and its role in business and into the man himself. This deeply researched biography, which includes newly discovered family documents and photos, paints a realistic portrait of cultural, economic, and political aspects of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century California. 

Author Bio

Sandra E. Bonura is a historian, researcher, and writer and has taught in higher education for more than twenty years. She is the award-winning author of Light in the Queen’s Garden: Ida May Pope, Pioneer for Hawai‘i’s Daughters, 1862–1914 and An American Girl in the Hawaiian Islands: Letters of Carrie Prudence Winter, 1890–1893.


“Fascinating. . . . Through one man’s life, we learn the more general history of how cities in this young country developed, a story of the ‘one-man town’ commonly played out across the American West. . . . The author has resurrected the Spreckels name from obscurity and established its place in San Diego history.”—Rowena Gray, California History

“With exhaustive research and a storyteller’s flair, historian Sandra E. Bonura offers a sweeping narrative of one of the nation’s most important and unjustly forgotten industrialists. Bonura weaves a tale that is at once epic and intimate.”—Charles Slack, award-winning author, journalist, and business editor

"An interesting bit of California history."—Kevin Winter, Manhattan Book Review

“Here is the definitive book on John D. Spreckels, a titan who came [to San Diego] and ended up seeming to own or control everything in town. To read Sandra Bonura’s biography of John D. Spreckels is to understand how many of the very foundations of America’s finest city came to be.”—Ken Kramer, creator and host of Ken Kramer’s About San Diego on KPBS-TV

“A sweetly told story of not only an important figure in San Diego and California history but a fractious family that helped give America its sweet tooth.”—Roland De Wolk, award-winning investigative journalist and author

“Sandra Bonura breaks new ground exploring John Spreckels’s escapades and incredible accomplishments across the Pacific. Bonura has a penchant for finding history’s obscured truths and retelling them vividly and honestly. Empire Builder’s story does not disappoint.”—Edgy Lee, award–winning documentary film writer and director

“Bonura takes a deep and satisfying dive into the history of one of the leading families of the West’s Gilded Age. The narrative is accompanied by fascinating narrative tangents.”—Leon Fink, distinguished author, historian, editor, and recognized expert on labor unions and immigration

“Through masterful research and clear writing, Sandra Bonura allows readers to more fully understand the motives and genius of J. D. Spreckels.”—Iris Engstrand, recognized authority on San Diego’s history

“Bonura expertly conveys the passion and drive of a man who invested his fortune and energy in building San Diego, a sometimes herculean task that earned him praise but also the enmity of those who resented his dominance.”—Theodore “Andy” Strathman, coeditor of the Journal of San Diego History

“Although best remembered as a transportation magnate, John D. Spreckels led in almost every aspect of a developing southwest region, including water and agriculture. This work is long overdue and should be a must-read for anyone with an interest in our history.”—Bruce Semelsberger, archivist and historian at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations    
Foreword by Uwe Spiekermann    
Prologue: “It’s Hell for the ‘One Man’ in the One-Man Town”    
1. Chasing the Sweet American Dream    
2. Taking Hawai‘i by Storm    
3. Crazed Land Boom and Bust    
4. Sugar and Strife    
5. Aloha Hawai‘i    
6. Raising the Spreckels Clan    
7. Roots in San Francisco    
8. Building San Diego’s Infrastructure    
9. Earthquake, Death, and Legal (and Romantic) Chaos    
10. Influencing San Diego Politics    
11. Coronado’s Uncle John    
12. The So-Called Impossible Railroad    
13. Building Up Broadway    
14. John and the Wobblies    
15. Gifting the Panama–California Exposition and the Zoo    
16. Standing Up to the U.S. Government    
17. The Cruel 1920s    
18. The Departed Skipper    
Epilogue: Breaking Up the Empire    
Notes on Sources and Research    


2021 San Diego Book Award

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