Guy Fleming

From Notes from the Naturalist

by Hank Nichol
Torrey Pines State Reserve, 1994

I try very hard to get people to hike the Guy Fleming Trail. I tell them how easy a walk it is. I tell them it has great views of the ocean. Ten minutes later I see them out on the Beach Trail. The Fleming Trail is a much better choice, especially if you come with high heels or flip-flops, or if you may have to lug a tired kid, or if you are as old as I am and can’t hike so fast anymore. But even if you have the determination of Dennis Conner, the strength of Dennis McKnight, and the endurance of Juli Veee, the Fleming Trail has a lot to offer. You can hike it in ten minutes or an hour and a half. It just depends on your mood. The path is mostly smooth and free of erosion. There is hardly ever a puddle to mar your path after a rain. It has great views of the ocean, of Peñasquitos Marsh, of Del Mar, and of La Jolla. In Spring it has fields of flowers. It has twisted and picturesque trees.

The trail is a loop six tenths of a mile long. If you start off to the right you will soon see the bird bath. It is not a natural feature, but the birds seem to like it…mammals too. Foxes and bobcats have been seen here. Once I saw six quail chicks having a drink, mama was hiding in the bushes. I made myself inconspicuous. She came out for a drink too. When they were all satisfied and safely out of sight, papa finally came out to get his share. Another time I saw three ravens taking a bath…not much water left when they were through.

At the North Overlook you can inspect the Torrey pines up close. You can count the needles to make sure they really do come five to a bundle. You can see cones from their golf-ball sized first year to their mature third year and beyond. To the north there is a view of Peñasquitos Lagoon. This is one of the few brackish water wetlands left in Southern California. It is a breeding area for many invertebrates, fish and birds. Three rare birds live in the marsh: the California clapper rail, Gelding’s savanna sparrow, and the least tern.

The South Overlook is a popular spot for smallish weddings. You can see La Jolla (to the south), San Clemente and Santa Catalina Islands (on a rare clear day), dolphins (with luck) and gray whales (in season).

Guy Fleming guided thousands of people around this path. The trail was mostly just trampled into place. The Great State of California took over. The planners and the landscape architects could not do much to improve the route. Mainly, they just formalized it. Years later it was named for the man who started it. Who was Guy Fleming?

Guy Fleming was born in Nebraska in 1884. When he was 12, the family moved to Oregon. In 1909, at the age of 25, he came to San Diego. He got a job as a gardener for the Little Land Colony which had founded San Ysidro a year earlier. It was a confederation of farmers who would work small plots of less than an acre. Fleming laid out and planted the village park. The County Horticultural Commissioner, George P. Hall, was very interested in the colony. He inspired Guy to take up the study of botany.

In 1911, San Diego began work on a great exposition to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. The canal was to be completed in 1914. Guy got a job in the nursery. Before long he was promoted to foreman of one of the landscaping crews. When the fair opened he became chief guide. He gave talks on plants and landscaping, and he was able to meet botanists and gardeners from all over the world.

After the exposition closed in 1916, Guy went on to other things. Among these was an interest in preserving the rare tree that grew just south of Del Mar. Some of those Torrey pines grew on land belonging to the City of San Diego, but the best stands were on property belonging to Miss Ellen Scripps. She had bought the land specifically to preserve the trees. In 1921 she hired Guy Fleming to be custodian and naturalist. At the same time the city hired him to be the caretaker of the city-owned portion. He had no uniform and no badge. He protected the trees through diplomacy and by force of character. He was usually able to persuade those who might do damage to have their fun on the beach.

Guy and landscape architect Ralph Cornell developed a plan for preserving the Torrey pines. In 1922 they went to Santa Rosa Island to study the Torrey pines there. In 1923 Guy Fleming was made a fellow of the San Diego Society of Natural History. This was an honor limited to 50 active members. And Guy was active. He studied the pines of Baja California. He made a timber survey of Cuyamaca. He made a study on the proposed Kings Canyon National Park. In 1927 Guy married Margaret Doubleday Eddy. Most people called her “Peggy”. The newlyweds lived in a house at the George Scripps Biological Station. Since then it has become a well known school of oceanography. The Flemings stayed in a tent while they built a house on Miss Scripps’ Torrey pines land. San Diego’s first Natural History Museum had recently burned. Guy scraped charcoal off the beams and built them into the house…The original wrought iron chandeliers and curtain rods are still in use. Some of the original door latches are still in working order. There is an upstairs office which has no connection with the residence. One story is that there wasn’t enough money to build a stairway. Another is that Guy liked it that way…quieter.

In 1928 Fleming did a little moonlighting. He helped the very young state park system acquire several parks. He did such a good job that, in 1932 he was appointed District Superintendent for all the state parks in Southern California. He was in charge of 20 parks and, during the depression, six CCC camps.

Guy Fleming didn’t win every battle. In 1930 the city cut down trees to build old Highway 101, which is now North Torrey Pines Road. 710 acres at the south end were leased to the army in 1940. After World War II this “Camp Callen” became the golf course. It is beautifully landscaped with Aleppo pines, Stone pines, Monterey pines, and very, very few Torrey pines.

Fleming retired from State parks in 1948, but he didn’t give up working to save Torrey Pines. In 1950 he and a few friends founded the Torrey Pines Association. This organization worked to get Torrey Pines City Park into the State Park System. From the time he had gone to work for the state, Fleming was no longer caretaker of Torrey Pines, but, by Ellen Scripps permission and later by terms of her will, the Flemings could stay in the house as long as they liked. When the state took over he was satisfied that the Torrey pines would be preserved. Guy and Peggy finally built their dream house in La Jolla. Guy Fleming died on May 15th, 1960, at the age of 75. Who was Guy Fleming? What did he do? “…look about you.