The Journal of San Diego History
October 1959, Volume 5, Number 4
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By George Ruhlen
(Colonel, United States Army, Retired)

Images from this article

Two small tracts later were set aside for lighthouse purposes, one at Ballast Point and one at the tip of the reservation, and a third was reserved for the Quarantine Station, near La Playa. On Sept. 24, 1901, the northerly part was transferred to the Navy for a coaling station.1 The reservation was first used for military purposes by the United States on Feb. 28, 1870, although it previously had been so used by both the Spaniards and Mexicans.2

By general acts of the California Legislature on Mar. 2 and 9, 1897, the state ceded to the United States exclusive jurisdiction on all lands held for military purposes, including the parcels of land from high-water mark to 300 yards beyond low-water mark, lying adjacent to shore-side military reservations. The state reserved the right to serve civil Processes not incompatible with this cessation, and such criminal processes as may lawfully issue against persons charged with crimes committed outside of such lands.3

As early as 1792, the Spanish authorities realized the defenseless condition of their California ports, and issued orders to take all steps to keep foreigners from becoming cognizant of the fact. The matter was brought home forcibly by Capt. George Vancouver of the British Navy, who called here in 1793 and concluded some unfavorable observations about their Presidio by the remark that “With little difficulty it might be rendered a place of considerable strength, by establishing a small force at the entrance of the port; where at this time there are neither works, guns, houses or other habitations nearer than the Presidio, five miles from the port and where they have only three small pieces of brass cannon.”4

Thus aroused by the Britisher, and somewhat perturbed by encroachments of the Russians in the north, they projected a fort at Punta de los Guijarros. Workmen and materials were sent from Monterey and Santa Barbara while brick and tile were hauled from the Presidio to the beach
and taken across to the point by flatboat. In 1797 the engineer, Capt. Alberto de Cordoba, advised changing from the proposed circular fort at the end of the point to an adobe fort with two wings mounting ten guns, sited near the shore end. The fort was built on ground later to be occupied by Fort Rosecrans’ Battery Fetterman, of two 3-inch seacoast guns. This battery has been razed and a storehouse erected on the site.5

Fort Guijarros’ baptism of fire occurred Mar. 22, 1803. The Yankee brig Lelia Byrd, after some contraband dealings with the inhabitants, was seized and put under armed guard. Overpowering the Spaniards, the crew raised anchor and stood out to sea, carrying the guard with her. The fort opened fire, scoring several hits. Abeam of Ballast Point, the brig fired a broadside from her six 3-pounders, driving the defenders from their batteries. Once out of range, the Yankees put the terrified guards (who had been forced to line the rail during the engagement) into a boat and let them row ashore.6

Time passed. The fort fell into disuse and disrepair; by 1839 only two serviceable cannon were left. Early in 1840 the remnants of the fort and casa mata were sold to Juan Machado for $40. One of the guns now is mounted on a pedestal in the Old Town Plaza, another is at the site of Fort Stockton on Presidio Hill. The rest are gone. One story is that they were spiked by an American sea-captain in 1842 and thrown into the bay, another is that they were moved to Los Angeles or Santa Barbara. Some of the tiles went into the “Old Spanish Lighthouse” built on top of Point Loma by the Americans in 185 5.7

It was not until May of 1873 that work began on earthen seacoast batteries for fifteen guns of the largest caliber, to protect the harbor of San Diego. The work continued through the following year and considerable progress was made when the funds gave out and work stopped. Faces of the batteries had been raised to parade level and one magazine was partially built. Things remained in this unfinished, utterly worthless state for twenty years, as Congress made no appropriations for seacoast defense from 1875 to 1890.8 In 1885 President Cleveland, by direction of Congress, appointed a board of distinguished Army and Navy officers and civilians to “examine and report at what ports fortifications or other defenses are most urgently required.” San Diego was one of the ports listed.9

Construction of emplacements for two 10-inch seacoast guns on disappearing carriages began at Ballast Point in January of 1897 and continued for several years. A third emplacement was completed Feb. 7, 1898; the guns were mounted by artillery troops of the garrison between Apr. 9 and May 21 the same year.10

The submarine mining casemate was finished about this time. The Engineer Corps in those days was charged with submarine mine operations, and the engineer officer in charge of construction, Capt. J. J. Meyler, organized a volunteer company of citizens to plant and operate the mine-field. There were about 80 men – carpenters, electricians, civil engineers, surveyors, telegraphers, boiler-makers, steam engineers, boatmen, mechanics, and a few soldiers from the local Engineer Battalion. On May 23 and 24 they planted fifteen electrically-controlled mines in the channel, an open passage marked by buoys being left. The minefield was protected by two smooth-bore muzzle-loaders of Civil War vintage and patrolled by the Revenue Cutter Corwin. The two guns now ornament the headquarters building at the fort; in September 1898 the mines were taken up, cleaned and stored.11

It was appropriate that Battery D, 3rd Artillery, was the first to occupy the new fort, for Battery D had been the last military unit to occupy the San Diego Mission, then a military post. That was back in 1858, when the battery was ordered into Washington Territory to fight Indians. Now, forty years later, a detachment of twenty soldiers from the same old battery arrived from San Diego Barracks, under 2nd Lt. George T. Patterson. That was on Feb. 2, 1898; on Feb. 15 Capt. Charles Humphreys and the rest of the battery arrived. In July 1900 the battery was ordered to China and saw action in the Boxer uprising. Duty in the Philippines and in France during World War I intervened before the battery returned to Fort Rosecrans, on July 1, 1924.12

The fourth emplacement for the 10-inch gun battery was completed Feb. 13, 1900. Originally called Battery Wilkinson, it later was divided into two batteries; the left pair kept the same name, and the right pair was named Battery Calef. At the same time Battery Fetterman of two 3-inch guns, and Battery McGrath of two 5-inch, were built. The buildings were erected from 1901 to 1904 and are frame construction except for the Post Exchange, where post headquarters is now located, which is brick.13

The fort was named for Maj. Gen. William Starke Rosecrans, U.S.V. (Brigadier General, U.S.A.). He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy July 1, 1842, was commissioned Bvt. 2nd Lt., Corps of Engineers, and resigned April 1, 1854. He went back, served with distinction in the Civil War and resigned Mar. 28, 1867; appointed Brigadier General Feb. 27, 1889, retired Mar. I and died Mar. 11, 1898. He visited San Diego in 1871 in the interests of the Texas & Pacific Railroad and is purported to have offered Alonzo Horton $250,000 for New San Diego.14

On Aug. 20, 1901, the 115th Company of Coast Artillery was organized at San Diego Barracks and then transferred to Fort Rosecrans, where it remained until July 1, 1924, when it was sent to Puget Sound. On the same date the 28th Company of Coast Artillery (formerly Battery E of the Third Artillery) was transferred to the Columbia River, having served at Rosecrans from July 2 5, 1905.15

Service at Fort Rosecrans was considered highly desirable, and applications for transfer or re-enlistment of discharged soldiers into its companies were being received constantly. As a result, the garrison was maintained at full strength with capable and experienced soldiers. It was jokingly called an “old soldiers’ home” and many of those who served there, when discharged or retired from the service, became substantial citizens of San Diego and the surrounding community.

From 1911 to the outbreak of World War I the garrison was active in patrolling the Mexican border, housing and guarding interned military prisoners captured at the border while fleeing from Mexico, and assisting in the training of the California National Guard.

Two 12-inch mortar batteries (Whistler and White) were constructed in 1915-16, White in a ravine just west of the post and Whistler in a ravine on the bay side of the peninsula ridge, a short distance south of the gate on the upper road.

During World War I, in addition to its own complete garrison, the 1st Battalion of the 65th Coast Artillery, the 54th Ammunition Train and the 1st and 2nd Antiaircraft Batteries were organized and trained at Rosecrans, and dispatched overseas. In 1922, the Coast Artillery did not have enough men to fully garrison all of its stations in the United States and also maintain the overseas garrisons at sufficient strength; the latter task took almost half of the manpower of that arm. Consequently some of the home forts went on caretaker status, Fort Rosecrans among them.16

Fort Pio Pico, a sub-post of Fort Rosecrans, was built on North Island opposite Ballast Point, in 1906. It was abandoned in 1919 and its two 3-inch guns were installed in Battery McGrath, whose 5-inch guns had been sent overseas.17

While it was in caretaker status, Fort Rosecrans, on two occasions, provided quarters for troops other than artillery. In 1930, it became headquarters for the Sixth Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Ralph H. VanDeman, who moved his headquarters here from the interior. A troop of the 11th Cavalry was stationed at Fort Rosecrans from October 1931, following the abandonment of Camp Hearn at Imperial Beach. In August 1932 they moved on to Monterey.

Impending war in 1941 resulted in strengthening the defenses of San Diego. The 1917 cantonment buildings had been razed, and now new buildings took their place; some were close to the post and others were on the upper part of the reservation. The latter ones later were turned over to the Navy and became part of the Naval Electronics Laboratory. Battery Strong’s emplacement, on the ocean side of the point near the upper gate, was finished in 1937, and its two 8-inch guns on barbette carriages were mounted in April 194 1. A 6-inch battery — Humphreys — was situated on the bay side, near the tip of the point.

Battery Ashburn, two 16-inch guns in casemates, was completed Aug. 26, 1943, on the seaward side just north of the Old Lighthouse. Antiaircraft batteries, mobile batteries, searchlights and fire-control installations were placed along the coast from La Jolla to the Mexican border. In 1942 the 262nd and in 1943 the 281st Coast Artillery Battalions were organized and trained at the post and sent overseas, while other units used the fort for special training.18

With the passing of the battleship and its counterpart, seacoast artillery, Fort Rosecrans again has been placed on a caretaker status and its armament scrapped. On July 1, 1959, the reservation was transferred to the Navy Department. However, the headquarters for Army Reserve components in the San Diego area remain there.

Several historical landmarks are within the reservation, some accessible to the public and others in restricted areas. The point always has been a mecca for tourists, and in 1910 a road surfaced with decomposed granite was built along the crest of the point, out to the Old Lighthouse. It was sprinkled with salt water pumped up from the bay to a tank on top of the point, and distributed to sprinkling-carts. It was entirely satisfactory for the traffic of the period.19

A presidential proclamation on Oct. 14, 1913 set aside about half an acre surrounding the Old Lighthouse as an historic landmark, and the site for a monument commemorating the discovery of California by Cabrillo on Sept. 28, 1542. The area recently has been increased to about 35 acres.20

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, on the crest of the point, first was used as a burial-ground for San Diego Barracks and was known as “Post Cemetery, San Diego Barracks (Point Loma)”. The first burial there was that of Pvt. John T. Welch of Company 1, 8th Infantry, Oct. 5, 1879. When the fort was established it became Fort Rosecrans Post Cemetery and was so designated until 1935 when it became Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Originally about one acre, it now is over forty times that size. Inside the stone wall of the original area lie the remains of the soldiers of the First Dragoons who were killed at the Battle of San Pasqual, Dec. 6, 1846. A granite boulder from the battlefield bears a bronze plaque with the names of the soldiers, while nearby are the graves of the two company commanders, Capt. Benjamin D. Moore and his brother-in-law, 2nd Lt. Thomas C. Hammond, killed while leading the attack. Beside is the grave of Bvt. Lt. Col. Louis S. Craig, 3rd Infantry, murdered on the Colorado desert by two Army deserters whom he was trying to persuade to return to their station; Fort Craig, N. M., a famous frontier post, was named in his memory. Nearby is buried Albert B. Smith, who spiked the Mexican guns at Old Town Presidio and nailed the American flag to the flagpole in the Plaza, while under fire by Mexican snipers. The tall granite obelisk marks the last resting place of the many American sailors who died in the boiler explosion aboard the U.S.S. Bennington in San Diego harbor July 21, 1905.21

In early days whalers set up their try-pots on the bay side of Ballast Point; the spot was marked in 1933 but since has been covered with sand from a dredging project. Ballast Point is where Cabrillo landed in 1542, where the name San Diego first was applied by Vizcaino in 1602, where the first permanent settlers of California landed in April 1769, and the first Pacific Coast beacon was established the same year. The Quarantine Station was at La Playa, site of the hide houses of the Mexican period; the area now is occupied by a part of the Naval Electronics Laboratory.22

In a restricted area on the west side of the point is what is left of a coal mine which was worked in 1847 by soldiers of the Mormon Battalion. It was worked again as late as 1891, when the Commanding Officer of the Barracks was instructed to eject trespassers who were operating there without authority.23 Other registered landmarks are Fort Rosecrans itself and its predecessor Castillo Guijarros.

Point Loma, rising clear and majestic against the western sky, unfolds from its crest one of the most magnificent panoramas in the world. The serene, curving bay, flanked by the white-bordered Silver Strand and the rising terraces of San Diego, is set out in the picture of the distant mountains as a background. Standing at the Old Lighthouse, absorbed in the beauty and splendor of nature’s picture, one can well vision it as it was when first seen by the explorers, and the words of Winifred Davidson, San Diego’s historian, come to mind:

“It matters not greatly that the world in general does not remember … That the place where the West began was the place wbere California began; and The place where California bcgan was the promontory of Point Loma . . . the sun-drenched, unspoiled acres where in California be whom we incorrectly name Juan Cabrillo in 1542 first walked; where in 1602 Sebastian Vizcaino built on smooth sands a temporary house of prayer … where unofficially and with insolence to the government under whose laws its makers were living, the Stars and Stripes, the American flag, first welcomed into California ships from Yankeeland…. These and other beginnings take old Loma out of the class of the accustomed and The expected. Its history is actually world history.”24


1. QMG, US Army, Outline Description of Military Posts and Reservations in
the United States
(Wash. 1904), p. 423.

War Dept. United States Military Reservations, etc. (Wash., 1916), P. 33.

2. Report of Secretary of War, 1872, Vol. 2, p. 24.

3. U.S. Mil. Res., op. cit., p. 24.

4. H. H. Bancroft, History of California (S. F.) Vol. 1, p. 649.

5. Ibid.
Records of Fort Rosecrans.

6. R. J. Cleveland, In the Forecastle or Twenty-five Years a Sailor , pp. 194-9.

7. Jerry MacMullen, “Action at Ballast Point,” Westways, Vol. 3 1, No. I I (Nov.

Jerry MacMullen, “Southwest Corner,” San Diego Union. Mar. 23, 1958.

8. Reports of Secretary of War, 1872-1888.

9. Ibid. 1896,Vol. 2, part 1, pp. 19-20.

10. Ibid, 1897, Vol. 2, part 1, pp. 7-8, 20, 744-8.

11. Ibid., 1898, Vol. 2, part 1, pp. 30, 775-8.

12. Records of Fort Rosecrans.

13. Mil. Posts. and Res., op. cit., p. 422.

14. F. B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of The United States Army
(Wash. 1903) Vol. 1, p. 846.
Wm. E. Smythe, History of San Diego (San Diego 1907), p. 337.

15. Records of Fort Rosecrans.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

Smythe, op. cit., pp. 203-4.

22. Register of California Historical Landmarks (San Francisco).

23. Records of Fort Rosecrans.

24. Winifred Davidson, Where California Began (S. D., 1929) pp. 5-6.

Images from this article