The Journal of San Diego History
July 1955, Volume 1, Number 3

By the Staff

Bell was mounted on tower behind engine-house
Getting the old bell of the local Volunteer Fire Department up to the Serra Museum without damaging the dawn was one of the minor engineering triumphs of 1955, but it develops that it was not the only bit of rough-and-ready mechanics involved in the bell’s long life.

George Hensley has supplied the details of how, in the absence of diesel trucks with power winches, and of long cranes, they got the bell atop its tower (about where Jessop’s jewelry store now stands) in 1885. It seems they used jacks, and six-by-six cribbing. They would jack up one edge of the bell, slip a timber under it, and then jack up the other side and repeat the process, thus painfully gaining six inches at each operation. It was a slow way of getting the bell up to the top of the 50-foot tower, but it seems to have worked.

When the city traded the lot for the one on which the Public Library now stands, the problem of getting the bell down was faced. But local engineers had become more daring by that time. Louis Almgren, retired fire chief, recalls the simple process by which the bell was lowered

“They took out the clapper, so that the bell couldn’t hurt itself,” he says, “and then they spaded up the earth, around the foot of the tower. When they had it nice and soft, they just pushed the bell off the top of the tower and down it came. It landed in the soft earth without a scratch.”

It was a bit of a shock when John Lyman, formerly at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and now with the Navy’s Hydrographic Office, found that a 1935 issue of the British Admiralty Sailing Directions made no mention of Mission Bay; they still called it False Bay. By 1950, he found, they had hedged to the extent of listing it as “Mission (False) Bay.”

The bay’s original name, of course, had a sound foundation in history. A party of Spanish sailors, coming back to their ship, arrived at the smaller body of water by mistake. They were frightfully annoyed at finding – they thought – that their ship had left. So they started to walk to La Paz, only some 800 miles off, and within an hour came upon the real San Diego Bay, with their ship peacefully lying at anchor. So they named the scene of their error Bahia Falsa.

During the Eighties, when the romanticists (and the real-estate promoters) were in full bloom, the very idea of the word “false” became repugnant. A local magazine editor, it is said, conducted a contest for a more romantic name, and some housewife came up with Mission Bay.

But the U.S. Coast Pilot for 1917 still had it False Bay and 18 years later so did the Admiralty. The intriguing thought arose: Had the name ever been legally changed? A letter to the U. S. Board of Geographic Names brought a prompt reply: On Oct. 6, 1915 the board named it Mission Bay, at the request of William Tomkins, then Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, who was backed up by a resolution passed by the City Council on Nov. 23, 1914. And so, while the good old name of False Bay still has its historical foundation, the later title is official.

The “Smoking Lamp” is out.

For years a small brass hand-lamp at Serra Museum has been labelled “Sailor’s Smoking Lamp” — the identification supplied by an early WPA researcher. Although accepted in good faith, this designation raised certain doubts, and those doubts crystallized one day when Capt. George Ely of the G. P. tanker Syosset dropped in. His knowledge of such things is wide, but he had never heard of a smoking lamp other than a sturdy affair, securely fastened on one place so that Jack would have to go to it to light his pipe. Neither he nor anyone else seemed able to envision so Utopian a vessel that each sailor had his own little lamp with which to light off; matches were, of course, taboo in ships of wood and pitch and canvas. And what would the Mate have been doing, while some Jolly Tar was wandering about with that flaming petard in his hand? So we sent its photo to the Peabody Museum, at Salem, Massachusetts. They replied by air mail: It was a small household lamp, once obtainable from itinerant peddlers in New England. They were kind enough to conceal the horror they must have felt at the very thought of using it aboard ship.

The label has been removed.