An American Family History


Ellar McKellar

“McKellar had many friends in this country
who looked upon him as a jolly Scotchman,
possessing many excellent qualities and one fatal vice."
Eliza McKellar quoted in the San Diego Union Tribune


"...never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced...-- Abraham Lincoln 1863

San Diego, California was incorporated in 1850, the same year California became a state. The original Old Town was located several miles inland. In the late 1860s, Alonzo Horton promoted a move to New Town on the bay. New Town grew quickly and became the city center. In 1915, San Diego hosted the Panama-California Exposition.

Ellar McKellar was born in Greenwich, Scotland in 1841. (Greenock according to his Civil War enlistment records.) He was Eliza Bridges Jones McKellar's husband and Matilda Jones’ step-father. In her application to receive her Civil War Widow’s pension Eliza said

. . . that the parents of said soldier died when he was about three years of age;  then he was sent to live with relatives in Canada, by whom he so was abused that he ran away from their home; this was when he was about 12 years of age. He never communicated with said relations afterwards.

According to his army enlistment records, he was a sailor prior to enlistment. He had grey eyes, brown hair, a light complexion and was five feet five inches tall.

Ellar enlisted in the Union army for three years at Cincinnati, Ohio on February 20, 1864 when he was twenty three years old. He served as a private in Company H of the 13th Ohio Cavalry. He was wounded and sent to the hospital on August 11, 1864. He was still in the hospital in October, 1864. He remained there until he was transferred to the hospital on Bedloe's Island in New York on December 2, 1864. He was discharged on June 5, 1865 in Amelia Court House, Virginia.

He again enlisted on on January 16, 1866. He served under McClellan and then under Grant according to Mrs. Catherine Hill in a 1910 letter to the General Land Office. He “served both in the Rebellion and 3 yrs after in Indian wars." He was discharged on October 22, 1868.

After discharge from the army, Ellar wound up in San Diego.

McKellar had been keeping horses at a place in South Soledad Valley for A.L. Seeley who operated the mail stage between the Cosmopolitan House (later Casa Bandini) in Old Town and Los Angeles. 

He married Eliza Bridges in May 1871 and was naturalized in San Diego on September 2, 1871.

Nancy Ewing wrote in Del Mar Looking Back that he arrived at Cocktail Springs in about 1874 when he was 32. 

McKellar heard of this piece of government land on the mesa between Cordero and San Dieguito valleys, and took it up, moving Seely’s horses there.

Ellar and Eliza ran the stagecoach station at Cocktail Springs. In the 1880 Federal Census, Ellar was listed as a farmer, age 38 in San Dieguito Township.

On July 30 1884 when he was 42 years old, he purchased land in San Diego County, Section 18, Township 14, Range 3.

In 1884 he and Albert Angier were named delegates to the Democratic County Convention.

Ellar McKellar was quite a character and Ewing called him “one of the most colorful figures in Del Mar’s history." 

McKellar had a reputation for the bottle. When he was making bricks he would say, “I am troubled with a pain in my shoulder, but if I had a drop of whiskey it would feel better.

He was appointed the deputy road-master in the San Dieguito Road District and was cited for good work according to the San Diego Union on August 6, 1884. On February 17, 1885 he paid a fine for his "Sunday misdeeds," which caused him to be booked on a change of disturbing the peace.

What started the brawl is unknown, but it may well have been Mac’s resentment of the encroachment of the Iron Hose on his transportation territory. At any rate, he got up to Encinitas where he apparently decided to take on the track-laying force of the California Southern Railroad. And even in the 1880s trackmen were robust. It was quite a fight while it lasted! A few days later McKellar was sitting out in front of the stage station nursing an assortment of bruises, black eyes, and what have you. A friend drove up and inquired as to what happened. “Oh," he replied with great dignity. “I tried to clean out that railroad gang-but 300 of them were too much for one man." (Davidson, chapter 2, page 3)

He died according to the Coroner’s Certificate

on the 5th day of Sept 1885 between the hours of 5 and 6 A M in the Bay of San Diego near the end of the P .C. S. [Pacific Coast Steamship] Wharf.

His death was described in the three articles below from the San Diego Union which mentioned that he was singing The Ship that Never Returned.

In the Civil War (1861 to 1865) eleven Southern states seceded from the U.S. and formed the Confederate States of America.


Seeley Station
Order your own copy of Del Mar Looking Back.

The first U.S. railroad opened in the 1830s. In 1869 the first transcontinental railway was completed.

The Public Land Survey System is used to survey and spatially identify land parcels in the United States.
  • Range is the distance east or west from a referenced principal meridian in units of six miles.
  • A Section is approximately a one-square-mile block of land. There are 36 sections in a township.
  • A Township is a parcel of land of 36 square miles or a measure of the distance north or south from a referenced baseline in units of six miles.



    The Ship that Never Returned
    by Henry Clay Work

    On a summer's day, when the wave was rippled
    By the softest gentlest breeze,
    Did a ship set sail with a cargo laden
    For a port beyond the seas.
    There were sweet farewells there were loving signals
    While a form was yet discerned;
    Though they knew it not, 'twas a solemn parting
    For the ship, she never returned.

    Did she never return?
    She never returned,
    Her fate, it is yet unlearned,
    Though for years and years there were fond ones watching
    Yet the ship she never returned.

    Said a feeble lad to his anxious mother,
    " I must cross the wide, wide sea,
    For they say, perchance in a foreign climate,
    There is health and strength for me."
    'Twas a gleam of hope in a maze of danger
    And her heart for her youngest yearned,
    Yet she sent him forth with a smile and blessing
    On the ship that never returned.

    "Only one more trip," said a gallant seaman,
    As he kissed his weeping wife,
    Only one more bag of the golden treasure
    And 'twill last us all through life.
    Then I'll spend my days in my cosy cottage
    And enjoy the rest I've earned;
    But alas! poor man! For he sail'd commander
    Of the ship that never returned.

      His wife, Eliza, was appointed the administratrix of his estate and he is buried at Mount Hope cemetery with Eliza.

    San Diego Union September 4, 1885
    As early yesterday morning as half past five a man fell or jumped from the Steamship Company’s wharf at the landing into the bay. Newton Baugh, tally-keeper for the Russ Lumber and Mill Company as he went out to the wharf to look for the schooner Jesse Nickerson, whose arrival was expected, had his attention called to the man by the splashing of the water. He first thought was that the man was bathing, but hearing him call to Captain Smith of the schooner Una lying two hundred yards off the wharf to the west, he (Baugh) seized a large rope near at hand and tried to throw it to the drowning man. 

    The tide was coming in and was nearly full and the man drifted out forty or fifty feet from the wharf. Baugh looked for a plank to throw the man and heard him say, “It is too late!" Captain Smith lowered and manned a boat and put out to save the man, but he sank when the boat was within a few feet of him. The boat picked up the man’s hat, a broad-brimmed, brown felt, and a long leather purse which was empty. The man wore a blue shirt and brown pants. He had no vest on. From the glimpse Captain Smith got of him he thought he was bald-headed and looked like a sailor. No one is missing from the vessels in port nor from the town, so far as we can learn, and the man’s identity is a mystery. 

    A fisherman who saw him to go out to the wharf said he seemed to be in good spirits and as he passed him was whistling “The Ship That Never Returned."  Coroner Risdon was notified and came over and arranged to have the bay dragged where the man went down. This was done yesterday afternoon, but without success. As the tide turned soon after he sank, his body would probably be carried out to sea, and if so, his identity will remain a mystery until the sea gives back the dead, if that ever occurs.


    San Diego Union September 9, 1885, p. 3
    Learning that the man who was drowned in the bay Saturday from the Steamship dock had been identified from the hat and purse recovered from the water, (the body has not yet been found), by his wife, who is now stopping in this city at the home of Frank Shaw, a reporter of The Union sought an interview with her and learned the following facts: That the drowned man’s name was Ellar McKellar, was a native of Greenwich, Scotland, about 48 years of age, had resided in the San Daguito Valley, at a point known as Cocktail Springs for several years and had a farm of 160 acres at that place, and had been on this coast about thirteen years. Also, that he sometimes drank very heavily, but had not been on a spree before for six or seven months" and that his wife usually came to the city with him —he never drank at home. That he left home last Thursday with a two-horse time, bringing some products of a colonist to market with him, and promised to return home the same day. When he arrived here he received six dollars in money, and with that must have got drunk, etc.

    Mrs. McKellar says herself and husband—the drowned man—lived happily together and that drink was his only fault. She does not think he intended suicide, but says that when drinking he was often attacked with blindness and must have unconsciously walked off the wharf. This seems probable, since the man called loudly for help, and kept himself above water for at least five minutes. Mrs. McKellar will remain in the city several days hoping the body may be recovered.


    The Bay Gives Up Its Dead, San Diego Union, September 9, 1885, p. 3

    Tuesday about noon an object was seen floating in the channel a short distance out from the steamship wharf, and as a watch was being kept for the body of McKellar, who was drowned Saturday, and was thought would probably rise to the surface to-day, a boat was in readiness and H. G. Doughtery and Alfred Elliott pulled out to the floating man and brought him to the wharf. At the time the tide was running out several knots an hour and had the discovery had not been made at an opportune moment the body would doubtless have been carried out to sea. Coroner Risdon was telephoned to at his home in National City, and in response came and held an inquest on the body. The dead man was badly swollen and disfigured, but was identified from his clothing by Mrs. McKellar, wife of Ellar McKellar, to be that of her missing husband.

    In accordance with the testimony adduced the jury identified the body as that of Eller McKellar, and brought in a verdict of accidental drowning.

    MaKellar had many friends in this county who looked upon him as a jolly Scotchman, possessing many excellent qualities and one fatal vice.Doubtless the now dead little thought as he walked along the whaft merrily whistling “The Ship that Never Returned," was waiting for him with black sails set.


    Tales & Details by Bill Wright
    San Diego Union, October 24, 1934
    Cocktail Springs on the Stage Line
    Charles Kelly of the Agua Hedionda Kellys, is full of stories about “Old Mac" McKellar, who ran the stage station just behind Del Mar on the San Diego-Los Angeles line. “Old Mac" was all the name he had so far as neighbors knew, but he called his depot Cocktail Springs.

    Old Mac cleared quite a piece of ground.  He would grub out a bush and say to anybody who was handy:  “Now, d-d-don’t that l-look from f-f-five to t-ten d-d-dollar b-b-better?"  No doubt it did, but Old Mac didn’t sell in time.

    McKellar’s says Kelly, consisted of the clearing, a corral for stage horses and a hotel that was mostly  dining room and kitchen. The kitchen and the mill-house behind it, still standing. There was also a fish pond.


    Came the Railroad
    In the early ‘80s the railroad came through and Cocktail Springs went out of action. Old Mac kept in the running for a while by making the adobe bricks for the two-story Las Kiotas ranch house, but he’d about rubbed through his lucky streak.

    If wasn’t so very long, says Kelly, that a sailor came up from the San Diego waterfront and said he’d met old Mac walking down there.Old Mac had been whistling “The Ship That Never Returned." Nor did Old Mac ever return.

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    ©Roberta Tuller 2020
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