The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1988, Volume 34, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

An Embarrassment of Riches: The Administrative History of Cabrillo National Monument.

By Susan Collins Lehmann. [San Diego] Cabrillo Historical Association, 1987. Bibliography. Notes. Illustrations. 157 Pages. $12.95 Paperbound.

Reviewed by Douglas H. Strong, Professor of History at San Diego State University, and author of Tahoe: An Environmental History and several publications related to the history of the national parks.

Cabrillo National Monument started inauspiciously in 1913 when Present Woodrow Wilson set aside a half acre on the tip of Point Loma to allow the Order of Panama to construct a proposed “heroic” statue of Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo to commemorate his discovery of the Pacific coast. Not until twenty years later did the National Park Service assume administrative responsibility for the monument. In recent years, this remarkable site, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay, has become a major attraction for tourists who enjoy its scenic vistas.

Susan Lehmann argues, “It is in dealing with the monument’s diverse attributes and its uniqueness among National Park Service properties. . . that administrators have found their greatest challenge.” The “embarrassment of riches” in her title refers to the tidepools, military fortifications, native plants and animals, annual gray whale migration, lighthouse, and the view-all of which attracted attention away from the presumed purpose of the monument: to commemorate Cabrillo. Added administrative problems resulted from the monument’s location next to military lands and within a rapidly growing urban setting.

For many years, Cabrillo National Monument received little care. In the 1920s and early 1930s, an army family occupied the lighthouse to help maintain the decaying building. Then an unofficial, unpaid caretaker maintained the premises, operating a tea room and curio shop. During the Second World War, the monument was closed to the public, as coastal defense took priority over tourism. Aided by such local interests as the Chamber of Commerce, the San Diego Historical Society, and newspapers, the monument reopened in 1947. Because of heavy visitation, the Park Service appointed a full time person (a “janitor” paid $2,020 annually) to care for the property. Finally, in 1956, Cabrillo gained recognition as a separate unit in the Park Service with its own superintendent. Important changes followed, including substantial expansion of the monument’s boundaries and construction of a visitors’ center and administrative headquarters. By 1961 visitation passed one million annually, and the Park Service developed a master plan to serve the public and protect the site.

While informative, Lehmann’s study has shortcomings. There is limited information to place the monument in the context of national park history and to reveal the “uniqueness” that Lehmann claims for the monument. Relatively more attention is given to the early history of the monument than to the history of the Park Service’s administration since 1956. For example, explanation of efforts to construct a commemorative statue to Cabrillo fills many pages, while later efforts to protect the tidepools and other natural features receive scant mention. Some questions remain untouched, such as who visited the monument and what they gained from their visits. Finally, the addition of maps and an index would have enhanced the usefulness of the book.

Throughout its history, Cabrillo National Monument has benefitted from the support of local citizens who, along with students of National Park Service history and visitors to the monument, will benefit in turn from this study.