Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is situated on an ancient terrace of the San Diego River. Some portions of the terrace may have been used as a temporary campsite by the Portola expedition in 1769, although they soon established the first Spanish presidio and mission in Alta California on a nearby hillside. Little is known about the activities on the terrace for the next 50 years, although it was probably used for agriculture.
By the early 1820s, retired presidio soldiers and their families began building houses there, in what soon became the Pueblo of San Diego (Hayes 1874:79).
San Diegos light rail system was recently extended to Old Town. Related developments include the construction of new tracks, a depot and passenger parking lots, as well as the realignment of streets and utilities in the vicinity of Old Town San Diego. This has changed visitor flow into the park. Most visitors will now enter at the northwest side of the park, through an area of parking lots and run-down 20th century buildings. The light rail project, along with state and federal grants, has provided funds to improve this area by recreating historic streets and landscaping, as well as reconstructing the McCoy House, which is situated near the new light rail depot (Helmich and Mills 1996; Baranowski 1995).
Park plans call for use of the McCoy House as a visitors center and focal point of the new entrance to Old Town. This large, 2-story residence was built in 1869 by James McCoy, a well-to-do Old Town resident who served as the towns sheriff and later as a state senator.
Earlier uses of the site are less well known, although historical records indicate the property was owned by Maria Eugenia Silvas, the descendant of a Spanish Colonial soldier who came to Alta California in the 1770s (Bevil 1995; Silvas and Needham 1996). There were 3 small buildings on the property when she sold it in 1851 (Davis, Felton and Mills 1997:22-27).