History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART SEVEN: CHAPTER 2: San Diego Bay, Harbor and River

The advantages of San Diego’s remarkable harbor have been appreciated by a few wise spirits from the days of its earliest discovery. Father Serra writes of it as “truly a fine one, and with reason famous.” The wise Goethe understood the strategic situa­tion of the port with reference to the Pan­ama Canal and the inevitable expansion of the United States. In 1827, he said in conversation:

“But I should wonder if the United States were to let an oppor­tunity escape of getting such work [the construction of a canal] into their own hands. It may be foreseen that this young state, with its decided predilection for the West, will within thirty or forty years, have occupied and peopled the large tract of land beyond the Rocky Mountains. It may, furthermore, be foreseen that along the whole coast of the Pacific Ocean, where nature has already formed the most capacious and secure harbors, im­portant commercial towns will gradually arise, for the further­ance of a great intercourse between China and the East Indies and the United States.”

Professor George Davidson, of the United States Coast Sur­vey, wrote of San Diego Bay as follows, and has since repeated and emphasized his opinion: “Next to that of San Francisco, no harbor on the Pacific Coast of the United States approxi­mates in excellence the Bay of San Diego. The bottom is uni­formly good; no rocks have been discovered in the bay or approaches; the position of the bay with relation to the coast, and of the bar with relation to Point Loma, is such that there is rarely much swell on the bar; as a rule, there is much less swell on this bar than on any other bar on the Pacific Coast. There is less rain, fog, and thick haze, and more clear weather in this vicinity than at all points to the northward, and the entrance is less difficult to make and enter on that account. Large vessels can go about seven miles (geographical) up the bay, with an average width of channel of 800 yards between the four fathom lines at low water. This indicates sufficient capac­ity to accommodate a large commerce.”

Commodore C. P. Patterson, superintendent of the United States Coast Survey, says: “The depth over the bar (at low water) is 22 feet. The bar remains in a remarkably permanent state. The distance across the bar, from an outside depth of 27 feet to the same depth inside, is 285 yards, so that the removal of about 60,000 yards of material would give a channel of 300 feet wide and 28½ feet deep over the bar at mean low water. I have crossed this bar at all hours, both day and night, with steamers of from 1,000 to 3,000 tons burden, during all seasons, for several years, without any detention whatever. Ample accommodations can be had in this harbor for a very large commerce. There is no safer harbor on the Pacific Coast for entering or leaving, or for vessels lying off wharves. It is the only land-locked harbor south of San Francisco and north of San Quentin, Lower California, a stretch of 600 miles of coast, and, from a national point of view, its importance is so great that its preservation demands national protection and jus­tifies national expenditure. Fortunately, these expenditures need not be great, if the stable regimen of the harbor be preserved,”

During a storm in February, 1878, when the wind reached the highest point ever registered at San Diego, the United States Coast Survey steamer Hassler lay directly upon the bar taking soundings and surveying the harbor. During that same storm the Orizaba was obliged to pass by every stopping place between San Diego and San Francisco, and to lie off the latter port three days before attempting to cross the bar. It is not uncom­mon to see large full-rigged ships sailing into San Diego har­bor and tying up to the wharf without a pilot.

Admiral Ossipee, who was here in 1870, was of the opinion that San Diego harbor is “amply capacious to accommodate twice the present commerce of the Pacific Coast.”

Lieutenant A. B. Gray, one of the first to appreciate its capac­ity and advantages, said of it:

In 1782 it was surveyed by Don Juan Pantoja, second pilot or navigator of the Spanish fleet. In the summer of 1849 the shore line was accurately measured and triangulated under the direction of Hon. John B. Weller, United States Commissioner, in connection with the initial point of the Mexican boundary; and in the spring of 1850, while encamped there awaiting in­structions from Washington, I sounded the harbor thoroughly; and in conjunction with the officers of the U. S. Steamer Massachusetts, extended the soundings into deep water. . . .In 1851-2 it was again surveyed and sounded by the United States Coast Survey. From the results of the three examina­tions, it appears that the conformation of the shore line was very little if any changed; and the soundings are identically the same. The average rise and fall of tide is 6¼ feet, and six fathoms at low water is carried in over the bar, for a dis­tance of eight miles up the bay; when five, four and three fathoms are extended for seven miles further. The channel of deep water is half a mile wide for over eight miles; at one place a little less (near the entrance). On either side of the four fathom curve, which is distinctly marked, the bank being very precipitous, are flats having from one to three fathoms, generally averaging two fathoms, and at one bend of the bay nearly two miles broad. No difficulty is experienced in getting into the harbor day or night, with a chart or pilot; the wind from any quarter. For nine months of the year the prevailing winds are from the northwest, and during the months of Novem­ber, December and January the south-easters make their ap­pearance on the coast; occasionally very heavy storms lasting several days at a time; but when fairly in the harbor it is as smooth as a mill-pond, and a vessel will ride more securely at anchor than in the harbor of New York, so completely land­locked and protected from all gales as it is. There are no heavy swells upon the bar and the channel is very regular. A strong current sets in and out of the harbor, and so long as the tides continue to ebb and flow, that long will the deep channel remain the same, unless by some sudden disturbance in nature a change takes place in the form of the bay.


It is simply necessary to examine a correct chart of the port of San Diego to observe at once its capacity. From a residence of several years there, and close observation, I feel satisfied that for all the ocean traffic of the Pacific, from the islands and the Indies, it is amply capacious, being large enough to hold comfortably more than a thousand vessels at a time.


It is not because personally interested, as a resident of San Diego, that I am thus particular in describing the harbor, for its geographical position with the great facilities which the parallel of 32 offers for the construction of the Pacific railway, must in the event of such being accomplished, insure for it prominency in a commercial view. But, it is because misappre­hension has been felt by many that the harbor is not sufficiently capacious. This surmise has been based upon statements of persons who have not spoken understandingly, or at least have not had correct information. One in particular, to which I refer, is calculated to mislead, because of the high rank and position which the officer has held. He of course had no in­tention of misinforming, but must have formed his opinion upon the common impression existing previous to the accession of California and without examination. This idea, of its being a small harbor, arose from the fact of the very little or no traffic at San Diego except for one or two ships a year putting in for hides and tallow, and occasionally for water. Inside the natural pier, so perfectly formed that it seems almost artificial, and immediately at the entrance of the port, was the common anchorage, because it afforded safety, and a fine beach for drying and curing hides. There was no necessity for vessels going further, and so long had it been since the old Spanish fleets visited it, that no one thought of the deep channel exist­ing to such an extent up the bay. I am satisfied that the author of the statement referred to, if at San Diego at all, was never fairly in the harbor, but at its entrance opposite La Playa, the narrowest part in eight miles of five and six fathoms of water. Though this lower part of the bay is perfectly safe and land-locked, it is nevertheless but a small portion of the harbor, which nay be said to have a shore line on each side of four leagues at least. The Spanish fleet anchored seven miles above the entrance, and at a point where the channel lies close to the shore, which they named Punta de los Muertos (Point of the Dead), from burying a number of the crew there, who had died from scurvy, contracted on the voyage.


I do not hesitate to say that in climate it cannot be sur­passed by any in the world, and for capacity and safety there are few harbors on either coast of North America superior to San Diego, admitting the largest class ships of water, and at all times.

POINT LOMA AND THE SILVER GATE, SAN DIEGO. Showing the Lighthouse on Ballast Point, the Government Quarantine Station and Marine Hospital on the site of the Hide Houses, La Playa and the road to Old San Diego.

The Bay of San Diego is 12 miles long and from 1 to 2 miles broad. The total area is 22 square miles, and the available anchorage 6 square miles. On San Francisco bar there is a depth of 5¼ fathoms; on Humboldt bar sometimes 3 fathoms, but at other times not exceeding 15 feet; on the Umpqua bar, 12 to 13 feet; on the Columbia River bar, 4½ fathoms; on Shoal­water Bay bar, 4½ fathoms. All of these bars change much, except that of San Francisco. The depth of water on the bar also compares favorably with harbors on the eastern coast of the United States. Boston has about 18 feet; New York, 23½ Philadelphia, 18; Charleston, Mobile, and New Orleans, 18 feet. The water frontage available is almost as great as that of New York City, and far greater than that of any other harbor on the Pacific Coast.

On the west, the bay is protected by a long, narrow strip known as the Coronado Peninsula, which terminates on the north in the townsite of Coronado and beyond that, next to the channel, in North Island. The entrance to the harbor is fur­ther protected by the peculiar formation known as Point Loma, which is a high, rocky promontory stretching out into the ocean from a point opposite Old Town southwesterly and southerly, a distance of about five and one-half miles, with a width of from two and one-half miles to half a mile. The formation is a crumbling sandstone, but it is covered with soil for the most part, and with an adequate supply of water the Point will one day be made a place of beauty.

The first board of harbor commissioners of San Diego con­sisted of Clark Alberti, W. W. Stewart, and J. H. Barbour. Their appointment dates from March 18, 1889, and they met and organized on May 15th. Alberti was made president; his term was for four years. Stewart’s term was three years. Barbour acted as secretary; his term was two years. Harry L. Titus was appointed attorney to the board; M. G. Wheeler, chief engineer; and Nestor A. Young, chief wharfinger.

April 14, 1893, D. C. Reed and C. W. Paul were appointed, vice Alberti and Stewart. Pauly resigned on September 14th following, and was succeeded by W. W. Stewart. The board then consisted of Reed, president; Barbour, secretary; and Stewart.

On March 31, 1896, F. H. Dixon and N. H. Conklin became members, succeeding Barbour and Stewart, whose terms had expired. The board then consisted of D. C. Reed, president, term expiring December 31, 1897; N. H. Conklin, term expir­ing June 6, 1900; and F. H. Dixon, secretary, term expiring June 6, 1900. The attorney of the board was D. L. Withington.

During 1895 and 1896, little was done, partly on account of the tide land troubles. The board say in their biennial report:

“Nearly all the tide lands adjacent to the Bay of San Diego over which the Board is supposed to exercise control, are claimed by Private parties. This property is rapidly increasing in value. Every year new complications are arising from this disputed ownership. Therefore, the Board anxiously await the decision of the Supreme Court, which we trust will be ren­dered before the convening of the next coming session of the State Legislature.”

W.J. Prout succeeded D. C. Reed in December, 1897, and served to June 6, 1900. The tide land troubles continued, and in the biennial report of the commissioners (Conklin, Dixon, and Trout), dated October 29, 1898, they say: “Since the present board has come into office they have been diligently striving to secure possession of the tide lands adjacent to the Bay of San Diego. . . . A large portion of these tide lands have been brought under our control, and we are confident that in the near future the decisions of the courts will give us pos­session of the remainder.” Conklin was president and Dixon secretary.

June 20, 1900, G. B. Grow, George M. Hawley and J. E. O’Brien became commissioners. Grow was president. He died in office February 7, 1903; O’Brien and Hawley served to November 20, 1901. Robert B. Benton was appointed to suc­ceed O’Brien and served from November 20, 1901, to March 13, 1903. Charles P. Douglass succeeded Hawley, serving as sec­retary from November 20, 1901, to March 13, 1903. Hawley and O’Brien resigned and Benton and Douglass were appointed to succeed them. The biennial report of Commissioners Grow, Benton, and Douglass for the years 1900-1902 shows no receipts and no disbursements.


The present board consists of Charles W. Oesting, president; Capt. W. H. Pringle; and Eugene DeBurn, secretary. They were appointed March 13, 1903. Capt. Pringle is harbor-master; Eugene Daney, attorney; and G. A. d’Hemecourt, engineer.

Within the administration of the present board, their work has entered upon a new phase. The tide lands question was settled some years ago and the jurisdiction of the board established. A number of franchises have been granted, and the importance of the board’s work has steadily grown.

The San Diego River rises in the Volcan Mountains, about sixty miles from the city, and flows in a general southwesterly course through the El Cajon and ex-Mission ranchos, and the pueblo lands of San Diego, into False Bay. At Capitan Grande, thirty-five miles from its mouth, it is joined by a branch rising to the southeast in the Cuyamaca Mountains. It is also fed by numerous springs along its course. From its sources to Capitan Grande or a little farther, the river flows all the year round; but thence onward, it sinks into the sand in the dry summers, after the curious fashion of California rivers, and disappears from sight. For this peculiarity it has been much lampooned, from the days of John Phoenix downward; but the explanation is very simple. Above the point named, the bed-rock formation is near the surface and keeps the water in its visible channel; while below, the rock lies deeper and the channel is filled with light sand into which the water sinks and continues to flow under­ground to the sea. Water can be had in large quantities by dig­ging in its bed. For many years the city of San Diego depended entirely upon water pumped from wells in the river bed, near Old Town. This peculiar construction forms a natural filter, and has many other points to recommend it and to compensate for the disadvantage of non-navigability.

It is probable that, at one time, San Diego and False bays were one body of water, and Point Loma an island. The low land between Old San Diego and Point Loma bears every appearance of having been carried in by the river. At the time the Spanish settlement at Presidio Hill was made, the river was emptying, into False Bay, and it continued to do so until the second decade of the nineteenth century. Exactly when it broke into San Diego Bay is a matter of dispute. It has been stated in this History, on the authority of Blas Aguilar, that it was in the autumn of 1821, but Juan Bandini said it was in 1825 and it is frequently so stated. Pio Pico thought it occurred in 1828, and this is supported by the statement of Duhaut-Cilly that the river was flowing into False Bay in 1827. However, it is possi­ble that both are correct, since Aguilar stated that the flow was not all diverted into San Diego Bay, but was divided; and we may therefore suppose that the flood in the fall of 1821 marks the time when any part of the water first began to flow into San Diego Bay, and that within a few years after it was totally diverted into the new channel, either by another flood or by slow accretions of sand.

From this time on, the river continued to flow into San Diego Bay for nearly fifty years, with only one slight interruption, and steadily filled up the shallow waters lying on the side toward Old Town. The danger to the harbor was early recognized. In 1846 Emory wrote: “Well grounded fears are entertained that the immense quantity of sand discharged by this river will mate­rially endanger, if it does not destroy, the harbor of San Diego but this evil could be arrested at a slight cost, compared with the objects to be attained.” In September, 1851, A. D. Bache, superintendent of the Coast Survey, wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury: “It is believed . . . that unless the course of the river be changed, the channel will be ultimately filled, which will have the effect, I think, of destroying the bay entirely as a harbor. . . . The only remedy for the evil is to turn the river into False Bay again. This is an excellent harbor and its loss would be severely felt.” Several attempts were made by the people of San Diego to turn the stream by erecting barriers of sand and brush, but they all proved ineffectual.

September 30, 1850, an ordinance was passed by the city trustees for the turning of the San Diego River by the construc­tion of a pile dam at a cost of $1,000. A committee of the coun­cil reported October 10th that nothing could be effected toward turning the river by the means proposed, and the project was dropped. The matter continued to be strongly urged, by peti­tions, newspapers, and congressmen, and finally in 1853 an appropriation was secured and Lieutenant George H. Derby sent on to construct a dam.

Derby seems to have had correct ideas about the way in which the work should be done. He proposed to straighten the chan­nel and build a substantial dam, but the appropriation was too small and he was instructed to follow the old winding channel, merely throwing; the sand out upon the south bank, and con­structing a bulkhead of timber at the old river crossing. The work was commenced in September and completed in November, 1853. It was done by Indian laborers, and the irrepressible Derby had a good deal of fun while it was in progress. It proved a good dry weather dam, but was worthless to resist a flood. It stood for two years, but gave way in 1855, and the river again flowed unchecked into the great harbor.

Beginning in 1869, several reconnaissances were made with a view to ascertaining the extent of the trouble and the best means of remedying it. One engineer distinguished himself by report­ing that no damage was being done, and that the diversion of the river into False Bay was not urgently demanded. But better counsel prevailed. In 1875 an appropriation of $80,000 was obtained for carrying out the work, and in 1877 it was done in a thorough-going manner. The channel was straightened, an adequate earthen embankment constructed, and a substantial bulkhead built. These works have stood every test, including the unusual flood of the winter of 1905-06, and are undoubtedly permanent. The failure to construct them in a proper manner was a waste of money and a serious menace to San Diego’s prosperity.

False Bay has never been navigable within the memory of liv­ing men, although there are traditions that one or two Spanish vessels found their way into it at flood tide. It is used to a cer­tain extent for navigation by small boats, and is a favorite resort of duck-hunters, but has no commercial value.

The extent of the damage done to San Diego Bay by the river is not as great as might have been anticipated from Roseville easterly, there is a stretch of waters which were always rather shallow and are now largely bare at low tide. Old residents can remember sailing boats over this ground, and it has been related how the Spanish soldiers navigated a boat across it, between Pre­sidio Hill and Fort Guijarros. But it is now substantially what it has always been—marsh land.

The valley through which the river flows after leaving El Cajon is a remarkable one. It has a length of about six miles. extending in almost a straight course from the mission to Old Town, with an average width of more than half a mile, and is flanked on north and south by steep and rugged hills rising to a height of 300 feet or more. Through this valley the river sprawls and winds its sluggish way, except at times of flood, when it sometimes fills a large part of the floor of the valley with a turbid stream. The soil along the channel of the river is sandy, but is cultivated to some extent; a little higher, on the mesa lands at the foot of the hills, is fertile soil on which lie some of the most comfortable and productive homesteads in the county. It was in this valley that a large part of the agriculture of the Mission Fathers was carried on.

The floods in the river have been many, and at times consid­erable damage was wrought. The first great flood of which there is any record occurred in 1811; the second was in 1821 according to Aguilar, or 1825 by other accounts; the third took place in the winter of 1839-40 ; the fourth in 1855; the fifth in 1857; the sixth in 1862; and the seventh in the past winter of 1905-06. Some particulars of these earlier floods have been given. The most recent overflow is fresh in the public mind, when farms were flooded in Mission Valley which had not been over­flowed for many years. The embankment at the north end of the Old Town bridge was washed away and the river changed its channel at that point and began flowing several yards far­ther north. It was only by the most energetic work that the bridge was saved and the river restored to its old channel. In many other places, the channel was completely changed. The water continued to flow visibly, in a considerable stream, to the ocean until late in the summer of 1906—a most unusual phenomenon.

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Main Page
Author’s Foreword
Introduction: The Historical Pre-Eminence of San Diego

PART ONE:   Period of Discovery and Mission Rule

  1. The Spanish Explorers
  2. Beginning of the Mission Epoch
  3. The Taming of the Indian
  4. The Day of Mission Greatness
  5. The End of Franciscan Rule
    Priests of San Diego Mission

PART TWO:   When Old Town Was San Diego

  1. Life on Presidio Hill Under the Spanish Flag
    List of Spanish and Mexican commandants
  2. Beginnings of Agriculture and Commerce
    List of Ranchos in San Diego County
  3. Political Life in Mexican Days
  4. Early Homes, Visitors and Families
  5. Pleasant Memories of Social Life
  6. Prominent Spanish Families
  7. The Indians’ Relations With the Settlers
    List of Mission Indian Lands
  8. San Diego in the Mexican War
  9. Public Affairs After the War
  10. Accounts of Early Visitors and Settlers
  11. Annals of the Close of Old San Diego
  12. American Families of the Early Time
  13. The Journalism of Old San Diego
  14. Abortive Attempt to Establish New San Diego

PART THREE:   The Horton Period

  1. The Founder of the Modern City
  2. Horton’s Own Story
  3. Early Railroad Efforts, Including the Texas and Pacific
  4. San Diego’s First Boom
  5. Some Aspects of Social Life

PART FOUR:   Period of “The Great Boom”

  1. Coming of the Santa Fe
  2. Phenomena of the The Great Boom
  3. Growth of Public Utilities
  4. Water Development

PART FIVE:   The Last Two Decades

  1. Local Annals, After the Boom
  2. Political Affairs and Municipal Campaigns
  3. Later Journalism and Literature [new material in second edition]
  4. The Disaster to the Bennington
  5. The Twentieth Century Days
  6. John D. Spreckels Solves the Railroad Problem

PART SIX:   Institutions of Civic Life

  1. Churches and Religious Life
  2. Schools and Education
  3. Records of the Bench and Bar
  4. Growth of the Medical Profession
  5. The Public Library
  6. Story of the City Parks
  7. The Chamber of Commerce
  8. Banks and Banking
  9. Secret, Fraternal and Other Societies
  10. Account of the Fire Department

PART SEVEN:   Miscellaneous Topics

  1. History of the San Diego Climate
  2. San Diego Bay, Harbor and River
  3. Governmental Activities
  4. The Suburbs of San Diego

Political Roster, City of San Diego
Political Roster, San Diego County