The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1982, Volume 28, Number 1
Edited by Thomas L. Scharf

Edited by Trudie Casper
Freelance author and editor and frequent contributor to this journal.

Photographs from this article

Author, reporter, sailor, historian – Jerry MacMullen was a San Diego personality dubbed by his peers “An Uncommon Man”. Four months before his death on February 15, 1981, Bob Wright, chairman of the San Diego History Center’s Oral History Program, and Sylvia Arden, the Society’s head librarian and archivist, interviewed Jerry at his old family home – 382 Glorietta Boulevard, Coronado. They recorded on tape his delightful reminiscences of the city he loved. The first installment of the interview was published in the Fall, 1981 edition (Volume XXVII, Number 4) of The Journal of San Diego History. The concluding installment follows.

Let’s go back to 1926. Was it your idea to buy the Star of India?

Well, the birth of the idea was a little story on page one of the Union one day that the ship, the Benjamin F. Packard, was going to be broken up. It had been bought by a group of people who were going to convert her into a maritime museum in New York. And I thought, “Gee, that’s a wonderful idea!” At that time I was mixed up with the San Diego Zoo. That was when Dr. Harry Wegeforth1 was living and I was one of the directors. So I mentioned it to Dr. Harry one day and he said, “Gosh, why not get an old sailing ship and convert her into a floating aquarium here in San Diego.”

So it was his idea?

Yeah. And I said, “Gee, that’s simply great, let’s go!”

We held a meeting over at the San Diego Yacht Club,2which, at that time, was located about where the Amphib Base is now. And there was Dr. Harry and, I think, Capt. (W.C.) Crandall3 from the Scripps Oceanographic outfit, Howard Morin,4 of the San Diego Union, and a couple of retired and active Navy commanders. We kicked the idea around and finally decided, “Yes, let’s go ahead; let’s get a sailing ship.” Sailing ships were easily available in those days, you could pick them up for a song. I was delegated to find out what the possibilities were around San Francisco. So I wrote letters and what-not and found out that we could have the Santa Clara for $7,500; we could have the Star of India for $9,000; we could have the Star of France for $12,000; we could have the Dunsyre for $15,000, and the Celtic Monarch I forget what the price tag was on her. But anyhow, it was obvious that we were going to have to work on the low end of the list, if we expected to do it at all.

We finally settled on the Star of India. We turned down the Santa Clara even though she was an American ship – she was the only American ship in the bunch. But she was wooden and a wooden ship wouldn’t last too long in this kind of a climate. We were very harshly criticized here in San Diego. But anyhow, we decided on the Star of India.

Then came the burning question: “Where the hell were we going to get $9,000, plus maybe another thousand or so to get her down here?” So James Wood Coffroth,5? who was the owner of Agua Caliente he’d been a fight promoter – and he and my father had been quite well acquainted in the early days in San Francisco – (was a possible source). So I was detailed by this committee to twist my father’s arm until he would go and call on Jimmy Coffroth.

Much against his will, my father did go over to see his friend Jimmy Coffroth and he told him about the screwballs who wanted to buy an old sailing ship for a museum in San Diego. Coffroth didn’t seem to think it was too bad an idea. “But,” he said, “you know, Jim, there is only one way that I can think of your getting that $9,000; because money, you know is tight; people don’t have too much of it.” My dad said, “What’s that?” Jimmy pulled open the desk, leaned over and got out his checkbook and wrote a check for $9,000! So that is how we got the Star of India. She lay in San Francisco for many months after that because we didn’t have enough money to get her towed down here.

All of this took place in 1926, didn’t it?

Yes, The Red Stack Line wanted $375 a day for a tug and that was from the time they left San Francisco with the Star of India until they got back to San Francisco, or they would do it for $1,750 flat fee. We didn’t have $1,750. But, about that time, there was a master mariner by the name of Walter Brunnick, better known as “Gimpy” Brunnick because he walked with a slight limp – he had fallen from the yard of a sailing ship when he was a young man. He was out of work and he said, “Look, you grubs take me to San Francisco and I’ll get her down here for a hell of a lot less than that.”

So, we bought Walter’s ticket to San Francisco, sent him up there, and we got back word pretty soon that the McCormick Steamship Company had a steam-schooner that had a towing winch on her that had been used for the Balclutha, the one that has since been restored in San Francisco. He [Walter] said, “It will tow her to San Pedro for $500. Of course, I’ll have to get a crew and I’ll get as few of them as I can and I’ll have to pay them off as soon as we get to San Pedro. You’ll have to get her from San Pedro down.”

So then we brought in Harry Wegeforth who had great influence with the Navy. Harry got busy and it was arranged that if we could get her to San Pedro the Navy would pick her up and bring her on down here. So Walter brought her down to San Pedro, paid off the crew except for the cook and the “donkey man” – he kept them – she still had an operating steam donkey engine at that time. Of course, we needed that for getting the anchor up and all that sort of thing.

Then at 11 o’clock one night I got a phone call to be ready over at North Island at 7 o’clock the next morning as one of the crew was bringing the Star of India down to San Diego. I got over there and there was Ernest Dort6 who was postmaster at the time – I don’t know, maybe he had become sheriff by then. [Dort was postmaster.] Well, anyway, he was one of the public officials. He was there and so were two chief petty officers from the Naval Reserve training ship. They had their own ship then even to ’34. These two chiefs were there and Ernie and myself. The Navy flew us up to Long Beach and we boarded the Star about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The USS Tern came along side – we had the anchor up by then and we came on down to San Diego. The USS Tern was a World War I minesweeper. The Navy had a whole hatful of them left over from the war and used them for tugs. They were good tugs; beautiful ships.

How did you manage to carry a Viking ship aboard?

Oh, that was the incorrigible Harry Wegeforth. When Harry was on the make for something for the Zoo, nothing was safe. Up in San Francisco – or rather in Alameda – in the Alaska Packers yard, he spotted this wretched Viking ship and he said, “Gosh, that is just what we need down at the Zoo.” And somebody in the Alaska Packers yard said, “It’s yours! Take it!” They were so happy to get rid of it, they even went to the expense of getting a barge and lifting it aboard the Star of India. So we came down with this atrocious looking thing pooped on the Star of India and it was finally unloaded here in San Diego.

The story was that it had been built as an exact replica of a Norse Viking ship that had sailed across the Atlantic and subsequently wound up in the St. Louis Fair in 1904. We had a keeper on the Star of India for several years – old Gus Larson. I’d like to tell you a lot of things that Gus said but, unfortunately, they are not suitable for repetition. Cleaning up the story a bit, he said, “That Norwegian long boat that you’ve got there, who in the hell said she was built in Norway?” So I said, “Gus, why do you say that?” He said, “If she was built in Norway why in the hell was she built out of Douglas fir?” So she had been built for the St. Louis World’s Fair.

Wasn’t it up by the Ford Bowl for years?

Yes, they had it up there in the Park [Balboa] for a number of years. I know Joe Brennan7 worked some sort of shenanigans to get rid of the thing. It was right alongside of the Star of India. Of course, it was just used as a receptacle for trash and everything else. And Joe finally pawned it off on the Park Department in some way. And there is a nasty story that the fire was not strictly an accident.

When did it burn?

Oh, gad, years ago.

Was the Star ever really used as an aquarium?

No. By that time people realized that an aquarium aboard a sailing ship was not the most practical thing in the world. An aquarium is something that should be very, very specially built. It isn’t just a bunch of tanks in any kind of enclosure. You just don’t build aquariums that way any more. The first ones were like that, but, gosh, now you look at those things – like the Steinhardt in San Francisco and the gorgeous aquarium in Seattle where you go through the tanks and have the fish looking at you out of the windows all that sort of thing. So the idea finally petered out.

The Zoo became increasingly disillusioned with the Star of India. She was under the wing of what we called the aquarium committee of the Zoological Society. So the Zoo got together – Dr. Harry and Belle Benchley8 – and formed the Aquarium Society of San Diego. They gave the Star of India to the Society and said, “Good-bye, good luck, God bless you, we hope we never see you again.” So that was how that came about.

And, of course, along about that time we were still at the tail-end of the Depression. You couldn’t raise money for anything anywhere and the Star just started going downhill. She went down at an accelerating pace. And when the war came along, the final blow was that the Navy declared her to be a menace to aerial navigation. They sent a crew of Navy so-called riggers, bos’n-mates, who, no doubt, were perfectly competent in their line, experts in their field, but their field had always been destroyers. There is little similarity between a destroyer and a square-rigged ship. So a lot of things were done which were perfectly terrible. We were forced to sign a release that the Navy was at liberty to go aboard the Star of India and take down and dispose of the ship’s rigging, according to their discretion. Somebody saw through that and got down there and pounded on the back of this rig-down party and told them, “You can take this stuff down but you can’t have it.” So the stuff which was salvageable was done up and was tagged and put down into a blower hole.

So – when the great day came when we had some money to go ahead and do things with her, why that stuff all came in very handy. Of course, some of it didn’t because – well – there were staves which had been cut when they could have been unrolled. We had to have new staves because there wasn’t enough left that you could long-splice it together which we would have had to do. So, as I say, she just went down and down and down.

What really started her uphill again: Alan Villiers – he is the most famous of the modern marine historians – came to town. I think this was in 1957. He came here on a lecture tour. He had just brought the Mayflower II across the Atlantic and was touring the United States lecturing about the Mayflower. His visit to San Diego was terribly handled, publicity-wise, because nobody knew he was coming. I wouldn’t have known about it if it hadn’t been for Jim Mills,9 who happened to see a little notice on a bulletin board, somewhere, that Alan Villiers was speaking at the Russ Auditorium. He has written a couple of dozen books. He has been around Cape Horn many times himself as a sailor. He was a former newspaperman and finally got into sailing ships when they were still running the Grainrace from Australia. He was an Australian actually, although he had been in England.

Alan came out here on this lecture tour. I had one of Alan’s books – I had always been a great admirer of his – so I tucked it under my arm and went over to the lecture. Afterwards, I went up onto the stage and I said, “Captain Villiers, would you mind autographing this book?” He said, “I’ll be most happy to, old chap, just hand it to me. What do you want me to write?” I told him who I was and I said, “You know, there is an old sailing ship here in San Diego. She is an old British ship. As a matter of fact, she is the old Euterpe.” He said, “Oh, yes, yes. I’ve heard of her, you know. I’d like to see her.” I said, “I’m sure that can be arranged; what time would you have available?” “Well,” he said, “about nine o’clock tomorrow, shall we say?” I said, “Fine. But I won’t be able to be there, I’ll be working myself, but I will see to it that you are taken care of.”

I called up the Star of India – this was about ten o’clock at night. They were madder than hell; I had got old Ed Fox out of bed and told him what was coming. Then I called up John Bunker – he was the waterfront reporter on the Union. That didn’t make a big hit with him for he had to get up early in the morning to go to work and here I got him out of bed at about eleven o’clock.

But, anyhow, the next morning at nine o’clock Alan Villiers shows up at the Star of India and so does John Bunker and a photographer. John Bunker, who was a thorough, technically-competent waterfront reporter, went to work on Villiers and they came out in the Tribune that afternoon with a three-column cut. They were looking up toward the fo’c’sle and here is Alan Villiers standing there looking down at the deck of the ship with a disgusted look on his face, and three-columns wide were (the words), “She’s a bloody mess!”

Well, that did it! About a week or so afterwards I got a call from John Bate,10 the port director. He said, “Look, we’re getting a bunch of people together to see if it is possible, still possible, to salvage the Star of India. (Jack) Donnelley11 is very sea-minded and a great fund raiser. He is going to be there.”

So came the first meeting of what became the “Star of India Restoration Committee.” Jack Donnelley went out and raised the money. I don’t know what his methods were and I don’t want to know. He did a perfectly fantastic job. We met every week while the Star was being restored and those weekly meetings were at seven o’clock in the morning! And when you can get retired vice admirals and heads of shipyards and so on to attend meetings at seven o’clock in the morning in the wintertime, it shows what kind of an organizer he was and that is what Jack Donnelley did! San Diego’s debt to Jack Donnelley will never be repaid. He did the job and, by golly, we got her restored.

What year was this again?

This was about ’59. Of course, the first thing was to get her into drydock and see if she was still capable of being restored.

Was C. Arnholt Smith12 on that board, too?

Yes, he was. That is why we got a very nice rate at National Steel because he owned National Steel at that time. And they did the work at cost. And the Star and Crescent Boat Company gave us free tug hire. That was when Hall13 was on the committee. Harbor Boat – Dave Carsten14 they did a lot of work for us, too.

It was a funny thing. The contributions down here were strictly, you might say, from big business and professional people. In San Francisco, when they restored the Balclutha the big contribution up there was by organized labor, free labor. They went and worked on that ship at no cost. But down here – well there were a couple of locals, unions, went down and spent a day at work, a shift, for which we were very grateful. But the big turnout of labor was not here. It was just the other side of the picture.

In the beginning we got the last master rigger on the West Coast, Jack (John) Dickerhoff, known as “Smiling Jack” because he had a very sour face. If he spoke three words in one day, it was a big day. But he was the last master rigger on the coast and he did the initial work on the Star of India. Then, later, he moved to Honolulu where he did the initial work on the Falls of Clyde. That’s a four-rigged ship.

Why did Jack leave? Seems like he had a job for life there.

We had a hell of a time keeping him away from San Francisco that long. He loved San Francisco and the Bay Area. As a matter of fact, when he came down here it was the first time he had ever been on a plane. He would not travel on a train. And Karl Kortum – there’s another guy who deserves a great deal of credit in the restoration – at the time he was director of the Maritime Museum of San Francisco. They had restored the Balclutha and he came down here and did the initial survey on the Star. All he charged was his plane fare and his hotel bill while he was here. It was a job that any surveyor would have charged us a couple of thousand for. That started us on our way and he arranged to get Jack. He actually shanghaied Jack aboard a United Airlines plane to get him down here. He got off the plane madder than hell because he had to ride in one of those terrible things. A very difficult man at times but, of course, a superb rigger. He was an old square-rigger man. He sailed in the Moshulu; he sailed in the Star of England; the old Centennial, and I don’t know how many others.

You say he was a rigger. But, as I understand it, you took the masts out and cut down to the bare hull and started from the inside out.

That was one thing about this committee; they insisted on doing things right. There was a certain element on the committee who said, “Listen, let’s just go ahead and get the job done, to hell with it!” Paintbrush restoration! But we were able to fight that off successfully and that is why the Star of India is in the shape she is in today. Because they wouldn’t settle for anything less than the best. So they got it, thanks to the stubbornness of some nasty old men who wouldn’t settle for anything less.

What research was done on the restoration? Is the captain’s cabin legitimate?

Oh, I’m very dubious about the captain’s cabin. Research on the Star of India was the most frustrating thing that I have ever encountered in my life.

For example: When we wanted to drydock her down here, naturally, we wanted a docking plan. Well, of course, she had been hauled out dozens of times in the San Francisco bay area – or at least a dozen times so we tried by telephone every existing shipyard in San Francisco Bay: Bethlehem; Moore Drydock was still in business; and there were a couple of other yards that were left where she might have been drydocked. We came up with the hull plan of every Alaska Packers ship except the Star of India. There wasn’t one available anywhere. The shipyard, of course, was gone. Basically, the only thing we had to go on – and I’ll admit this was rather shaky to work on – was a newspaper clipping.

The people back at the National Museum at the Isle of Man were simply wonderful. They went all out to help us. Here was an old banked ship and, by golly, these people way out in California are doing something about her. We got the “red-carpet” all the way through. Got the “red-carpet” from Lloyds’ Register (but) Lloyds had no plans; they had no specifications.

But, finally, the people back on the Isle of Man came up with this newspaper clipping on the launching of the Euterpe. It was a small page. It ran about three columns on that small page, a great detailed description of the crowd and the speeches and who said this and who said that – and then some description of the ship.

The description said that at the forward end of the poop was the captain’s cabin; adjoining it, a combined chart room and library; and, adjoining that the mate’s room. And that’s all we had to go on, because when we got her the captain’s cabin was aft where it normally is on a sailing ship.

We were greatly surprised by this description which, apparently, puts the stateroom way up in the forward end of the poop where it has no business being. Because if the captain wants to get out and get on deck at night and it is rough weather and that whole rolling deck is full of water, he couldn’t open the door and step out on deck. He would have to go all the way aft to that ladder and get up there by the wheel.

But that is all we had to go on. And that question has been raised since by serious-minded researchers like Carl G. Bowman, president of the Maritime Society, who is an old Coast Guard retired captain and former skipper of the Eagle. He has always questioned that captain’s cabin being up there.

So did Waldo Johnson, who came out here and did a more-or-less technical museum survey of the Star of India some months ago. He’s leery of it and I can see his point. It doesn’t make sense. The captain’s cabin can’t be there. And yet, according to this newspaper article – either it is sloppy reporting or they may have planned it that way and then changed their minds later on. Because when we got the Star the captain’s cabin was way aft on the port side. The whole aft end there, back to that bulkhead which now divides the office from the rest of the ship, was divided into two sections with the bulkhead down the middle. The starboard side was the lazarette and the port side was the captain’s cabin. You can tell by the paneling in there which, obviously, didn’t belong, that a lot of paneling had been shifted around from time to time. They had really cut her up atrociously.

Was the aft end a sail locker? If not where would the sails normally have been stored?

That I would like to know – where they would have been stored originally. That was the sail locker. I can’t, for the life of me, see why people would expend four big expensive port lights in a sail locker. You don’t need a port fight in a sail locker. And the only hatch in the iron framing of the deck above that space is a little bit of a hatch. It’s only about two by three feet. Why that’s not big enough for a hatch for a sail locker. You could get sails through it but it would be an awful job. So I am dubious about that thing.

Another thing that has never been settled: According to the original description there were a couple of deluxe family staterooms aboard. We’ve found no trace of them; we’ve found no trace of any bath or any toilet, except the existing one which is obviously the Alaska Packers’, anywhere in the aft end of the ship.

They probably all used thunder-mugs in those days, anyway.

Well, the captain would have had something more than a bucket over the side. No, it is very confusing, very frustrating and very annoying. But we went (ahead) on the best we had.

Are you reasonably satisfied with the restoration?

Oh, yes. Well, there are some things that have got out of hand. For example: The steering binnacle makes me very unhappy. It’s obviously not a steering binnacle; it is a standard binnacle because it has big cast-iron balls on each side [of] the compensators. That couldn’t have been. An old lady who lives out in the country – up around Fallbrook or someplace – called up one day and said, “I’ve got the Star of India’s original binnacle, would you like to have it?” So they went out and got this thing and brought it back and it is obviously not the Star of India’s original binnacle.

I say, obviously, because of the fact it has compensators. The Star of India was built in 1863 and Lord Kelvin didn’t get around to inventing compensators until 1876. So it couldn’t be her original binnacle. And, besides, I have never seen a sailing ship with compensators on the steering compass.

The compass that was there – it was a beautiful old thing – it was sort of a concaved curve in a plain wooden box with a brass ring on each side and it was held down to the deck by lashings to another brass ring on each side. Gosh, how much more primitive than that can you get? It had a little door that opened up and there was a shelf inside which had some little strips of steel, about the size of hacksaw blades fastened on it. In other words, an early attempt at compass compensation. That thing was there. But they got this ornate thing which I think is the standard compass off the Star of France. I have seen a deck view of the Star of France and her standard compass is identical with this. Anyhow, they smashed up the old original binnacle because here was something more ornate.

Of course, the restoration of the wheel box also is way, way overboard. The original wheelbox was perfectly plain and it stood on four posts which were merely four-by-fours. They weren’t close-turned like the legs of a grand piano – and they didn’t have seats on the side of it – and they didn’t have gratings around it. In other words, that was restored about 1890.

Wasn’t she a real working ship when you brought her down from San Francisco? They didn’t go for fancy work.

The Packers went to the other end of the extreme. They were brutally plain in everything.

But utilitarian?

Very much so.

Should Reynard get a lot of credit for doing some of the tough, tough jobs on that ship?

Yes. And give him15 credit for being the leader of the stiff-backed people who would not go for paint-brush restoration. For example: After they had torn up the deck, if he saw a diagonal that was all rusty he didn’t say, “Well, let’s just slap a bit of paint on it.” He’d say, “Here you – take your torch and burn it out here and burn it out five or six feet back at the other end and take that out. And then we’ll weld in a new piece of steel and go on from that point.” It was Reynard’s insistence which put the Star where she is today.

Will you tell us the story about the time – I think it was in the ’30’s – when the fleet came in and the night watchman allowed the Star to be used?

Oh, don’t get the Navy blamed for that! It wasn’t because the fleet came in; it was because this guy saw a chance to make a fast buck. He got in touch with the taxi drivers and said, “Look, if you’ve got some guy and a gal who are looking for a place for an hour or so, we’ve got a lot of staterooms down here on the Star of India.”

What year was this?

This was – gad – this was about ’27 or early ’28.

That was right after the Star was brought down, then?

Yes. This was going on down here and we didn’t know anything about it. I was still working on the newspaper.

You didn’t know about it?

Of course not. I didn’t know about it. I was sitting in the press room one afternoon and in came the famous police character named Mike Shea.16 Mike was, I think, a sergeant of detectives at the time. He was an ex-Navy Warrant Officer, tough as nails. He said, “Look, Jerry, I’m going to get right down to the point. You have something to do with the Star of India, don’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Do you know they are running a whorehouse down there?” I said, “Oh, no, Mike!” He said, “Oh, yes, Jerry! “

Then he explained what was going on. The guy who was the caretaker at the time had a nice arrangement with the taxi drivers; he got so much for each one they brought down there. “I’ll tell you,” he said, “we’re going to have to go in there and clean that place up and when we do, naturally, it means some very bad publicity. So,” he said, “I’m going to give you about two or three days to get rid of that guy down there.” So I immediately got in touch with Dr. Wegeforth and gave him the glad tidings and we had a new watchman the next day.

Is that when you called up Bert Shankland?

Yes. I think that was about the time that Bert17 went down there. Oh, we had some dillies down there. Bert stands out because he wasn’t one of the dillies.

One was a religious fanatic. I went down there one day and every porthole down between decks had been smashed. So I turned to this guy and said, “Who broke all the portholes?” He said, “I did.” I said, “You broke them? Why?” He said, “It was God’s will! God came to me and told me that if I broke those portholes, the air would be better down here between decks. So when God tells you to do something, you do it!” We got rid of him pretty fast, too.

Where was the Star anchored when she was first brought down?

Exactly at the foot of Ash Street.

And how long did she stay there?

I don’t know – five or six years I guess. Then they moved to about the foot of State Street. There was part of a wharf there because they had brought the City of Los Angeles and the City of Honolulu down and had them tied up there. And there was a little bit of wharf space available so they beefed it up a little bit to extend it and moved the Star over there.

Were you open to the public then and what were you charging for admission?

A terrible price! We were charging 25 cents by that time! It started out at 10 cents.

Grace Hoff was on there for a long time, wasn’t she?

Yes. Grace18 was on there up until the time of the restoration. Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep Grace on while the ship was being restored. But Grace being the kind of person who was never out of a job very long, the first thing we knew she was in the gift shop of the Star and Crescent, the harbor excursion ship. And she stayed there until she died. Grace was the niece of old Ed Fox19 who had been the keeper for a number of years. When Grace just took over. She stayed on the ship all by herself. She was very unusual gal.

Were the Sea Scouts often on the ship?

The Sea Scouts used her as their headquarters almost from the time she got down here until the time of the restoration. Then we had sort of a falling out with the Sea Scouts. There was a very strong sentiment among the leadership of the Sea Scouts that she should be restored not as a museum but as a Sea Scout training ship – and that the museum would be purely incidental to that. We just didn’t see it that way. So that was the end of that chapter.

Who kept the ship going during these periods of time?

Two bits over the gangway kept her going. That’s the only thing we ever had.

How about the board of directors – were you one of them?

Yes. I had the holy experience of being president of the damn thing for twelve years because they couldn’t find anybody else stupid enough to take it.

Were you president of what is now the Maritime Museum Association?

What is now the Maritime Museum Association started out as the Aquarium Committee of the Zoo and wound up as the Maritime Museum Association. And, as I say, everybody else was too smart to take the honor, so I stayed in there as president for twelve bloody years until the restoration was well on its way. Then people didn’t mind because it was a going deal and we didn’t have too much trouble getting people to serve on the board of directors.

When did they decide to change the name from Aquarium Association to Maritime Museum Association?

That was – I think – just before the restoration. We made the change so we would have a corporate name on which you could hang things.

I understand the Maritime Research Society donated something like $5,000 at more with the proviso that they could meet on board. Is that in writing anywhere?

Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. That has been something that has worried me over the years because there is a devoted group. It was the Maritime Research Society that really kept the Star of India alive before the restoration started.

Did you know there was a movement to get the Research Society off the ship?

Yes, I know there was.

Can you tell us more about the Maritime Research Society?

That was formed, oh, roughly around 1930. Or, it may have been back in the late ’20s, because, as I say, there was no group here who was interested in preserving local harbor history.

The leading spur of the thing [was] a very delightful fellow by the name of Dave Marvin 20,who was a retired lieutenant junior grade in the Revenue Cutter Service, which is now the Coast Guard. He had been the librarian at the Coast Guard Academy but retired because of a very bad heart. He was one of those guys who was lucky [so] when World War Il came along the Coast Guard reached out and grabbed him. At the end of World War II he retired again and this time he came out as a lieutenant commander, which he should have been the first time.

Anyhow, he was the leading light. Joe Brennan was in the thing. We had elected Joe as our treasurer because as harbor master Joe had a safe and we could keep our money in his safe. So that is why Joe was elected treasurer.

Was John Davidson part of that, too?

Oh, yes. John Davidson 21 was right in at the start. We started holding our meetings aboard the Star of India. Then the Star started going downhill further, further, further – aside from a few casual tourists coming aboard (this group) was the only thing which held it together.


Well, yes. For example: somebody said we can’t do anything aloft until we get new rattlings on the foremast and mainmast. We found that for $450 we could get the air-dried hickory for the rattlings. So we emptied our treasury – we had about $500 – and got the rattlings. Then something else came upand we emptied our treasury again.

Then, one of the members died and by the time the court costs were paid we found he had left us $932 or something like that. Somebody had said that would be a nice thing to donate to the Star of India so that went into the treasury. Then it was little bits and bites feeding the kitty off and on. That’s why I say it was a verbal agreement that they could – from here on in – hold their meetings aboard the Star of India. The group is actually older than the Maritime Museum Association.

Then the Maritime Research Society and the Maritime Museum Association are two separate entities?

Yes. Completely separate organizations. There was a movement here a couple of years ago to kick the Maritime Research Society off the Star of India unless they paid the regular rate. As a matter of fact, we had one wild man, who was sort of poobah and director-in-chief – whatever you want to call him – and he said, “Sure, they can come aboard for $2.50 apiece for each meeting, plus so much for cleanup fee and so on.” So Ken Reynard and I did some desk pounding and back pounding and veiled threats here and there and got that one ironed out.

Do you really feel the Society should have a lifetime use?

Why, of course they should. They’ve earned it! Not only did they keep a spark of life into it but I’ll tell you one thing they can thank the Research Society for:

During the war some well-meaning local patriot got in touch with the United States Government and said that there was a disgraceful, rusting old sailing ship down here in San Diego that has gotten to be an eye-sore and she contains 6,000 tons of the finest steel which was needed for the war effort. So some chair-warmer from Los Angeles quick like a mouse said, “Oh fine! We’ll come down and see about cutting up this old ship for scrap.” They got a marine surveyor from Los Angeles to come down and take a look at her.

Fortunately – and here is just another place where LUCK was the only thing that saved the Star of India: Just by luck the marine surveyor they picked out was Captain Albert Wilvers, a San Pedro marine surveyor, who was also a member of the Maritime Research Society of San Diego, who came down here regularly – he never missed a meeting.

So Captain Wilvers looked her over and reported back to this governmental jack-in-office that it was ridiculous to think of cutting up the Star of India. He said, ‘Why she is nothing but a rust. You’d spend more than the cost of 6,000 tons of steel just cutting her up and you’d have nothing when you got the rest. She is all pitted; she’s all worm-eaten with rust; she is about to sink!” And so the government dropped it like a hot potato.

One of our members in some bar in San Pedro ran into Wilvers a little while later and said, “God, it’s terrible to think about the Star.” And Wilvers said, “Why, what do you mean?” He said, “She is in such terrible shape, she is going to sink any minute.”

And he said, “Shut up, you goddamn fool, I’m the one who told them that. She could go to sea tomorrow!” So there is a debt to Maritime Research Society which they can never pay off. Wilvers is one of the most accomplished liars I’ve ever listened to – and knowing a lot of old sea captains I know a lot of pretty good liars.

Was it a real thrill for you to sail her out on July 4, 1976?

Oh, yes! You know, ten or fifteen years ago if you would have told me that someday the Star of India would sail, I would have said, “Listen, you go out and get a committee to examine your head. There is something wrong somewhere.” But, by golly, we did it!

That must have been a proud moment in your life.

It certainly was. It was THE big moment in my life when I stood there on the poop and the Star of India was underway and there were no tugs alongside – just the wind.

Well, there again, you have a good example of doing things right when you do them. If we had done any paint-brush restoration she would never have sailed.

That’s what’s wrong with San Francisco, the Balclutha is in bad shape. The last I heard was that her masts had settled. They were advised, when they had her in the shipyard working on her, to take the masts out to see what sort of condition the keelsons were in; to see what sort of condition the masts’ steps were in; see what sort of condition the heels of the masts themselves were in.

But, “Oh, no, let’s get her out of here. All of that will take three weeks more in the shipyard.” Just for three weeks more in the shipyard they could found out what was wrong, as we did on the Star of India. When we got the masts out we found that the heel of the foremast was shot and it was about to start settling. So they welded doublers out of it, ordered the mast back in, or we wouldn’t have sailed. Just because of our insistence on doing a right or not doing it at all.

What do you think about the future of the Star?

Well, I hope they will drydock her regularly and – if they find anything wrong – take care of it.

I will tell you another big thrill I got was when they docked the Star before she went sailing and they cleaned off the plates. And there – stamped into the plates – was the plate-maker’s mark – over 100 years ago.

Now about the Berkeley and the Medea? Do you feel they are coming along nicely?

Yes. The dear little Medea is bankrupt. But she is such a beautiful little thing particularly to the women visitors. How they go nuts over the Medea! Just completely nuts! And I don’t blame them; she is simply a beautiful little thing

The Berkeley is the same way. There, again, we were lucky. You know Old Lady Luck has had her arms around us a lot of times. The fact is that the Berkeley was the last San Francisco ferryboat left and she was the only am which has never been extensively rebuilt. The other ferryboats were mostly rebuilt during the 1920s and all that beautiful old joiner work in the cabins had been ripped out and replaced by typical 1920 carpentry. They no longer had the 1898 carpentry and stained glass work that you find in the Berkeley.

You know, when this fellow bought the Berkeley from the Southern Pacific he was going to make a floating trade fair out of her and he did – with the lower deck.

Was the trade fair on board while she was in Sausalito?

Yes. And he intended to rip out everything in the upper deck and put a trade fair up there, too. But – I think it was the Sausalito Fire Department said, -No soap! The public is not going up there at all.”

Consequently, the upper deck was just locked up and left intact through all the years. Then we came along and bought her – double plate glass mirrors, stained glass around the clerestory, benches of teak and walnut and all that sort of thing – just the way she had been in 1898.

Some San Diegans were in favor of acquiring her and some against it. How did you feel?

Well, at the time I was a little afraid of it because I thought it would be a terrible white elephant. But, fortunately, we have got people in there who are willing to work their fool heads off for nothing. They have stayed with her and built her up. I’m amazed every time I go aboard how that grand old boat has been kept. I think the job that Ed Paxton22 did in the engine room is simply fantastic.

Was it terrible down there – grease everywhere?

I went down in there and saw it. It was a gloomy black cavern down there You didn’t know what was going to jump out at you from which dark corner. And look at the thing now; just shining; and bright new paint; and the engine turning over – it’s unbelievable.

So, we’ve got there [in San Diego’s Maritime Museum] three superb examples of their own times. We’ve got the old deep water sailing ship; we’ve got the steam yacht – I think the Medea is the last steam yacht operational I don’t think there is another one in the world – and we’ve got this beautiful, old, unrestored ferryboat.

Now, when did you get involved with the Serra Museum – the San Diego Historical Society?

Oh, let’s see. That was in 1954 when I took over out there. How did you happen to become the director?

I had heard a couple of years before that the job was coming up. [John Davidson, the director, was planning to retire.] That was while I was still in the Navy. I heard of this job – that there was going to be a vacancy there – so I did a little research on it.

I talked to John about it and he didn’t think it was too bad an idea. And I talked to Col. Ruhlen 23, who was president of the Historical Society, and he was interested in the idea. So, the upshot of it was when John finally did leave, I was appointed to take the job. I had worked there one or two summers, parttime, during vacation relief, so I wasn’t completely foreign to the place.

Ben Dixon was curator when he was there?

He24 was the curator for quite a while. I think, at the end, he had the title of archivist.

When you came, was he still there, or had he gone?

Oh, he was still there.

Then you were the director and Ben took care of the library?

There were only three of us on the staff: Ben, Fred Reif and myself. Ben was practically co-equal with me so he took charge when I was gone. He was, you might say, just the relief captain.

Please tell us about the development of the Society under your directorship. We know it did grow.

When I first came in, the first thing I did was to go over the membership list and throw out all the “freeloaders,” of which there were nearly a hundred. When I got through, the Society had 197 members, that was all.

So it was a small Society?

That was the way it was supposed to be. Have you ever looked at the blueprints for the Museum? The little room upstairs, which was the library for a while, was designated as the meeting room for the San Diego History Center. In other words, the San Diego History Center was supposed to consist of about twenty-five members. Once a year they would meet and have tea and talk about Father Serra and Mr. Marston and then they would go home until the next year. Well, you can’t run a show that way.

They had an atrocious publication called Historics, very badly mimeographed. And that was because the mimeograph had been discarded by the City and John Davidson found it out in the trash at Twentieth and B. John was very careful about spending the Society’s money. I suggested right away that we get out some acceptable kind of a publication. But John argued against it saying, “Oh, no, no! That’s a perfectly good mimeograph; mimeographing is good enough. That’s a good mimeograph if you know now to run it.”

But I kept on arguing about it. Finally, Don Driese25, who was on the committee [publications] said, “Look, if we’re doing the job at all, let’s go first class. First class, or don’t go at all. Either a suitable publication or drop Historics.” And so the committee reluctantly decided to go ahead and that’s how the San Diego Historical Society Quarterly came about.

And you were the one who did that?

Yes. The first letterpress job they had ever had. When I left the Society the membership had gone from 197 to approximately 1,400.

The attendance at the Museum was guessed at at first. They had a guest book they used to use and based on the number of people who signed it – and by counting the number of people who actually came in on a certain day – you could get a rough idea. The attendance at the Museum was around 30,000 to 35,000 a year. I put in an electric eye to count the people when they came in and when I left the attendance was around 150,000 a year. So I don’t think I was too wrong.

Were you the director for about 15 years?

Ten years.

What was the research activity like during that time?

Oh, I would say, if they were real busy, maybe a half dozen persons in a week.

And you would have to take care of them – plus your job as director?

As a matter of fact, one reason that I moved my office up to the library was so that there would be somebody there all the time, to take care of the “light-fingered” people who come into libraries.

Please tell us how you helped the growth of the Society’s membership with a small staff and not a lot of pay.

Well, at the height of our glory we had four employees out there. You give those employees a five-day week and, at the same time, maintain a schedule of being open 365 days a year. That takes a little doing, sometimes. But we were open 365 days a year. I always took the duty myself on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

You didn’t close on those holidays?

Oh, no. I loved it on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. We had good attendance. Generally, instead of the 150 to 200 we would have during the week, we would have 400, maybe 500.

Did they think the Serra Museum was the Mission San Diego de Alcala?

Very, very few of them did. We got the best class of visitor, you might say, on those days. There weren’t any people eating hot dogs, or going around in bare feet, or anything of that kind. They were all good solid people.

During this period the staff started to grow and the Journal (Quarterly) was doing fine. What else was happening with the Society?

Oh, just normal growth. It was getting older and bigger, as we all do.

Were you getting active volunteers? Support from the Board?

Not from the Board. But I did from some of the members. Volunteers who worked on indexing and rearranging the books. Well, that was the first thing I had to do out there – get some sense into the library. The first thing I did was to get all the books down and separate them by categories. Then I went through them alphabetically by author in each category. I wrote to this library supply outfit and got shelf labels to put over them so you could see what was in the shelves.

After you left the San Diego History Center, did your main interest lie in writing your books and in the Star of India?

Most of it was with the Star of India and the column I did for the Union every week.

And you did some books: They Came by Sea.

There were four of them all told. Mostly, I’ve been just lazy since then.

Do you miss writing for the paper?

Hell, I miss writing, PERIOD. But you can’t write very well when you can’t see any more. With the sun shining right on the keyboard I can pick out one letter at a time by using one of those jeweler’s spyglasses. It is pretty difficult; I’ve practically given it up.

Your interest in the fire department is pretty big – or was. Is this because it goes back to your early days as a reporter?

It goes back further than that. It goes back to the friendly neighborhood firehouse at Fourth and Laurel Streets and the kindly firemen who would let kids come in and shine the nickel plate on the fire engine that the firemen were supposed to do themselves. They would let us kids come in and do it. We thought it was wonderful. As a matter of fact, during a drill one day I even got to ride on the back step of the hose cart.

Did they ever ask you to ride with them when they went to a fire?

They did in my reporter days, many times. Because in those days they allowed reporters to ride on fire engines. If you were in a fire station when the bell hit, you just grabbed on and went along with them. Of course, the result of that, very frequently, was when the poor old shorthanded fire department got to a fire you turned to with the firemen. I’ve been up the big stick with a hose roller on my back. I’ve been on the knob with the first due with a two-bagger and a sawmill.

Do you remember any outstanding fires that you covered?

Oh, I think the outstanding fire I covered was the Civic Auditorium fire in 1926. That is when the Civic Auditorium burned down the night of the Firemen’s Ball. It was to have been held in the Civic Auditorium. It was caused by a defective oil furnace. It overflowed.

There was a funny thing that night. This alarm came in about a quarter to eight in the evening and, of course, the off-duty shift of firemen were all getting dressed up to go to the Firemen’s Ball at the Civic Auditorium. So, the on-duty shift figured, well, this is somebody’s idea of a bum joke when the alarm comes in for the Civic Auditorium. But they rolled anyhow.

Charley (Charles C.) Lambert26 was the battalion chief that night and Charley told me the story afterwards. They got to the front door and they looked around and there was no sign of fire anywhere. He opened the front door and the wind went ssshhhh past him into the building. He shut the front door, trotted out to the fire alarm box and pulled in the second alarm. He came back, opened the front door, and this time it was a roaring wind going by him into the building and he could hear rumbling overhead. He shut the door again, ran out to the box again and pulled in the third alarm. And just as he did so the fire came out through the roof. The fire burned almost all night. They finally got it out – rather it burned itself out – round about two or three o’clock in the morning.

Where was the Civic Auditorium?

Right where the Natural History Museum is now (in Balboa Park). That was built on the site of the old Civic Auditorium. The Civic Auditorium had been, I think, what they called the Southern Counties Building in the 1915 Exposition. It was a beautiful building but, of course, afterwards it was nothing but thin timbers.

When did you get married and what is your wife’s name? Any children?

In 1926. Roberta Ridgeway. No children. Her father was, for many years, the head of the Department of Illustration for the Department of the Interior. He was in charge of all the illustrative work for the geological surveys and so on. John Ridgeway was her father and her uncle, Robert Ridgeway, was one of the world’s most famous ornithologists. He was with the Smithsonian for many years. Also – and this gets back into early California history, he was a member of the famous 38th Parallel Expedition that surveyed the 38th parallel along about the time of the Civil War.

Did you move into this house in Coronado after your father died?

Well, my father died first, then my mother died, then my brother died in ’64. And they all lived here. After we got married, my wife and I moved over to the west side of the Island. Then, for a while, we lived in San Diego. Then we moved back here after my brother died. We came back here and moved into this place. [And that is where Jerry MacMullen continued to live until his death.]




1. Physician and founder of the San Diego Zoo died, aged 59, June 25, 1941. See unidentified clipping, Biography File, San Diego Historical Society Library & Manuscripts Collection. (Hereinafter SDHC.)

2. Located from 1923-1963 south of Hotel del Coronado. See Charles LaDow, The Ships, The House and The Men, A History of the San Diego Yacht Club (San Diego: Frazee Industries, 1977.) p. 21.

3. City Councilman 1937-1939. Executive secretary and director, Ellen Browning Scripps Foundation. Died, aged sixty-eight, January 13, 1947. See San Diego Union, January 14, 1947.

4. Aviation and waterfront reporter, San Diego Union. 1912-1972. Died, aged eighty-five, March 6, 1972. See San Diego Union, March 8, 1972, p. B-6.

5. James Wood Coffroth, ex-San Francisco bon vivant, sports entrepreneur, president, Lower California Jockey Club, president and owner of Agua Caliente, Tijuana Race Track. See San Diego Magazine , May 1967, p. 78. Died, age seventy, February 6, 1943. See San Diego Union, February 7, 1943, p. 1.

6. Ernest Dort, died age fifty-three, August 14, 1941. See San Diego Union, August 15, 1941, p. 1.

7. Port director for Port of San Diego. See Jerry MacMullen, Star of India. (Berkeley: Howell-North, 1961), p. 91. Died, age ninety, January 13, 1974. See San Diego Union, January 14, 1974.

8. Belle Benchley, director of the San Diego Zoo for twenty-five years, 192871953. See Margaret Poynter, The Zoo Lady (Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1980), passim. Died, aged ninety-one, December 18, 1973. See San Diego Union, December 19, 1973, p. B-1.

9. James R. Mills served in the State Legislature longer than any Democrat in San Diego history. With an M.A. degree in history from San Diego State College, he is author of several historical texts and articles and served as curator for the San Diego History Center at the Serra Museum 1955-1960. See James R. Mills, “San Diego … Where California Began,” The Journal of San Diego History, XIII (October, 1967), p. 3.

10. Port Director. See San Diego Tribune , May 15, 1958.

11. Jack (John A.) Donnelley, San Diego attorney. See San Diego Tribune , August 18, 1961.

12. Banker and industrialist. See Richard F. Pourade, City of the Dream (San Diego: Copley Press, 1977), Vol. 7, p. 116.

13. Oakley J. Hall, Jr., Star & Crescent Boat Co. See MacMullen, Star of India , p. 109. Died, aged eightynine, September 24, 1967. See San Diego Union, September 25, 1967.

14. David H. Carsten, Harbor Boat & Yacht Co., Boat Builders & Repairs. See 1958 San Diego City Directory , p. 402.

15. Capt. Ken Reynard, skipper and restoration superintendent of Star of India. See San Diego Union, November 10, 1978, p. B-3.

16. See MacMullen, Star of India, pp. 87-89.

17. Retired from the City of San Diego Fire Department in 1938, Bert Shankland donated his photographic talents and time to the Title Insurance Photograph Collection, Star of India , Humane Society and San Diego Historical Society. Biography File, SDHC.

18. MacMullen, Star of India , pp. 87, 97, 104. Died aged sixty-three, September 1966. See Grace Hoff Biography File, SDHC.

19. Ibid . pp. 91, 97, 98. Died, June 1955. See Grace Hoff Biography File, SDHC.

20. Commander David P. Martin died, aged seventy-four, October 27, 1960. See San Diego Union, October 28, 1960, obituary page.

21. First curator of Serra Museum in Presidio Park. Died, aged ninety-eight, January 7, 1975. See San Diego Union, January 8, 1975, p. B-1.

22. Current member, Maritime Museum Association Board of Directors. Collector of antique steam engines. Telephone interview with Ed Paxton.

23. Retired Army Col. George Ruhlen, onetime commanding officer of Fort Rosecrans, and an authority on western military history. Died, aged eighty-six, March 13, 1971. See San Diego Union, March 14, 1971.

24. Curator of Serra Museum, Presidio Park, 1949-1955. San Diego historian and teacher. Died, aged seventy-eight, June 27, 1970. See San Diego Union, June 29, 1970.

25. Second Vice-President, San Diego History Center, 1956-1957, President, San Diego History Center, 1958-1960. San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, II (January 1956); VI (October 1960).

26. Charles C. Lambert, Battalion Chief, Fire Department. San Diego City Directory, 1928. Second generation fireman and one of a family of firefighting brothers. Jerry MacMullen, “The Civic Auditorium Fire,” Southwest Corner , October 13, 1961, typed ms., SDHC.