The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1993, Volume 39, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Saving California’s Coast: Army Engineers at Oceanside and Humboldt Bay.

Susan Pritchard O’Hara and Gregory Graves, Spokane, Washington: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1991.

Reviewed by Professor Richard Steele, History Department, San Diego State University; author of The First Offensive, 1942: Roosevelt, Marshall and the Makinq of American Strategy (1973) and Propaganda in an Open Society (1985).

Saving California’s Coast provides us with two case studies of the unending struggle to turn nature to man’s purposes. The book, comprised of Susan Pritchard O’Hara’s discussion of Humboldt Bay and Gregory Graves’ account of Oceanside harbor, exemplify the short range successes and problematic outcomes that such efforts have usually entailed. The authors make no effort to link these rather disparate episodes. The unifying element is the involvement of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Humboldt Bay is the only deep water port on the Pacific Coast between San Francisco and Puget Sound and hence has always been critical to the commerce of an otherwise isolated Humboldt County and surrounding areas. However, nature dictated the continuous formation of a sand bar across the bay entrance making traffic hazardous and limiting the size of the ships that might use the port. Immediate relief was found in dredging. The quest for a more enduring solution would engage the lumber barons and other community leaders for decades. They turned to the federal government, and from the 1880s on the Army Corps of Engineers would achieve mixed success with jetties and other interventions.

The Oceanside situation was quite different. In 1942 the Marine Corps decided that it should have a harbor that would provide a staging area for the boats involved in amphibious maneuvers at the nearby and recently acquired training facility at Camp Pendleton. A breakwater and jetties were constructed at a point just north of Oceanside and the Marine Corps had its facility, called the Del Mar Boat Basin. As in Humboldt Bay, extensive man-made barriers provided only a temporary respite from nature’s claims, and not long after the harbor became operational, sand accretion severely constricted its use. Moreover, the construction of the harbor threatened to eliminate the sand from nearby Oceanside beaches. At the end of World War II, while Marine interest in the facility waned, city officials looked for ways of saving their beaches. They also sought to establish a small boat marina which would share the entrance from the sea that the Marines had provided. The challenge of constructing and ultimately expanding the marina, and keeping the channel to it clear while countering the adverse effects on adjacent beaches, would bedevil the city leaders from that day to the present. In this instance, as with Humboldt, the community turned to Army Corps of Engineers for help.

Saving California’s Coast is the (unintentionally) ironic title of a book that describes the Army Corps of Engineers attempts to thwart nature, and repair the damage that its efforts produced. The two studies were originally commissioned by the Corps and they focus on the technical problems the engineers encountered and their efforts to resolve them. Although the Corps has been much studied and criticized, neither of these authors finds much fault with the workings of this highly political and intensely controversial agency. Readers interested in a relatively uncritical examination of the Humboldt and Oceanside experiences will find them in this well-produced book. The Graves’ essay is a thorough account based on considerable research, and should be of particular interest and value to those concerned with San Diego history.

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