The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 2002, Volume 48, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

By Ed Gabrielson

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Today, in 2002, Mission Bay Aquatic Park is a recreation area that is visited and enjoyed by 5,000,000 people annually. It is difficult for today’s visitors to realize that in 1958, much of the area was a sea of ill-smelling and unattractive mud flats. It was the disposal area for a multitude of drainage facilities, overflows from sanitary sewers, and outlet of the San Diego River and Tecolote and Rose Creeks. Realizing the potential beauty of the area, San Diego Residents had for years planned to create today’s park. Their efforts are the subject of this essay. As a result of these efforts, today the park is now the site of Sea World, hotels, restaurants, boating, and swimming facilities.

Mission Bay Park, 4,600 acres of shore and water, is one of the world’s finest aquatic parks. Such a development does not rise easily. Nature contributed much, but the final result came about because far-seeing public officials, determined planners, and a generous public, all worked and dreamed together to create it. The history of the park divides naturally into four phases. First, from 1852 to 1929, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in order to save San Diego Bay from silting, diverted the waters of the San Diego River into Mission Bay by means of a dike running northeasterly from what is now Midway Drive and Frontier Street. Next, from 1929 to 1945, the State Division of Parks acquired miscellaneous lands by purchase and by contributions of public-spirited donors, but was unable to proceed with the park, because no money was available. Then, from 1945 to 1962, the City of San Diego, with State and Federal aid, undertook the dredging and compilation of land areas to fulfill its Master Plan for the area. Finally, from 1962 to the present, the numerous lease holdings were developed.

Early History

Before 1852, the San Diego River, then reasonably wet, did not confine itself to any one channel. Some years it emptied into San Diego Bay. In other years, it would flow across a wide delta into the smaller bay to the north. The silt it carried built sand bars and eventually blocked channels. To protect the main harbor from these deposits, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to make the Mission Bay route of the river permanent. Accordingly, they built a dike just south of the present flood channel, extending northeasterly from what is now the junction of Midway Drive and Frontier Street. The building of this dike decided the supremacy of San Diego Bay.

The development of Mission Bay as a recreational area was slow in coming. The State Harbor Commission was in charge of the tidelands but had no funds for recreational projects. Although there was some agitation for development-in 1923, local historian William A. Gross predicted that Mission Bay would some day be the Venice of America-it was not until 1929, that the State assigned the lands to its Division of Parks. In that year, the State bought 65 acres to the northeast of its holdings and accepted a donation of one and one-half miles of prime beach property from the Spreckels Company. The City of San Diego began planning for Mission Bay as early as 1930, when the City’s planning director, Glenn A. Rick, along with Kenneth Gardner and Allen Perry, submitted a Preliminary Plan for Mission Bay State Park. However, lack of money during the Depression delayed any action on the plan. In 1939, Rick and Perry submitted a Tentative Landscape Plan of the northeasterly portion of Mission Bay State Park, but still nothing was begun. A lack of labor and equipment during World War II effectively halted any real progress toward development.

In 1945, the State ceded its Mission Bay lands to the City of San Diego, under the conditions described in Senate Bill 1260:

To be forever held by said City and by its successors, in trust for the uses and purposes and upon the express conditions, following, to wit:

That said lands shall be used by said city and its successors solely for the purpose of establishing, improving and constructing a harbor for small boats and for the construction, maintenance and operation thereon of wharves, structures and appliances necessary or convenient for the protection or accommodation of commerce, navigation, and fisheries, and for the establishment and maintenance of parks, playgrounds, bathhouses, recreation piers and facilities necessary or convenient for the inhabitants of said city….

It went on to require that the “harbors and tidelands shall be improved by said City without expense to the State, and shall always remain public harbors and public tidelands.…” The Senate Bill reserved the right for the State to claim rights-of-way for highway construction. The State also retained mineral, oil, and gas rights in the Mission Bay area.

This acquisition of lands from the State renewed local interest in the aquatic park on the mudflats that Rick had been advocating for two decades. The end of war construction had brought an economic recession to San Diego, and the City was interested in any project that might promote tourism. Accordingly, the City Council took steps to secure State and Federal aid to put its ambitious plans into effect. Rick came up with an updated Preliminary Development Plan of Mission Bay, which was revised in 1946, 1948, 1949, and 1950. Finally, in 1955, the City Planning Commission adopted the 1953 version of the Master Plan for Mission Bay. That was again revised in 1956, and approved by the City Council on May 29, 1958. Drawings for the 1939 plan and the final 1958 version show the changes in thinking and development over the years.

Land Acquisition

The tidelands and surrounding area that had been ceded by the State in 1945 included the early donation of beach land by the Spreckels Company. The City immediately proceeded to buy up adjoining lands. Five hundred acres had been bought in 1924, by Mission Bay Lands, Inc., a corporation composed of R.E. Hazard, Henry Fenton, and Harry Schnell, at a price of $300 an acre. The corporation’s title to the land was contested by the State in a lawsuit that lasted for seven years and was finally settled in favor of the landholders. Twenty years later, these public-spirited owners sold the 500 acres to the City at the original $300 per acre price. The City had then acquired all land in Mission Bay, with the exception of the small parcel on which Pikes Airport was once located. This parcel was under condemnation for years, but the owners could not be found. The total cost of land purchased by the City amounted to $1,330,000.

City Agreement with the Federal Government

The City of San Diego, by resolution of the City Council in January, 1948, formally guaranteed and assured the Secretary of the Army that it would undertake and perform all of the conditions required by the Acts of Congress in the acquisition and construction of the multi-purpose project for flood control and navigation on the San Diego River and Mission Bay. This included providing, without cost to the United States Government, all lands and rights-of-way, including soil disposal areas necessary for construction of the improvement. It also included making all necessary alterations to highways, bridges, utilities, and side drainage structures. The City would purchase and hold in the public interest the lands between the flood control channel and Mission Bay west of Highway 101. It would also maintain and operate the entire project, except for maintenance of jetties, stone revetment constructed by the Federal government, and project depths in areas dredged by the Federal government. The City agreed that the project would protect the carrying capacity of the floodway from future encroachments or obstructions.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calculated the drainage area of the San Diego River to be 435 square miles. The peak flow with a standard project flood is estimated at 115,000 cubic feet per second and the maximum rainfall average on the drainage area in a 24-hour period at 10.4 inches. The peak flow for a maximum probable flood is estimated to be 160,000 cubic feet per second and the maximum rainfall average on the drainage area in a 24-hour period to be 14.4 inches. The jetties were designed for a minimum freeboard above the water surface computed for the peak discharge of the design flood of 115,000 cubic feet per second at .5 feet for the entire right, or north levee, 2.5 feet for the left levee from the south jetty to Highway 101, and 3.5 feet for the left levee from Highway 101 to Morena Boulevard. The difference in the freeboard insures that if flows exceeding the channel capacity occur, they would overflow to the north over the right levee (through an overflow channel 1,000 feet wide) into Mission Bay, over land reserved for recreational development, with few permanent structures. This would provide added security to the area behind the south levee, which is highly developed with residential, industrial, and military improvements.

Actual work by the Federal government started on May 14, 1948, when Macco Construction Corporation started construction on the south jetty of the Flood Control Channel. Three jetties were built under the federal part of the program. These jetties form the outlet for the San Diego River Floodway and the entrance channel to Mission Bay. Quivira Basin and a portion of the main channel were dredged in 1956-1957, and in 1958, the remaining portion of the main channel and all of San Gabriel Cove (now Mariners Basin) were completed. The last work performed by the Federal government was a contract to pump a fluid grout into the core of the middle jetty to prevent sand from the floodway channel from filtering through the middle jetty into the entrance channel.

The City of San Diego, in order to fulfill its commitments to the Federal government and the State of California, earmarked certain post-war funds for their portions of the project. In addition, voters approved bond issues to fund the construction of Mission Bay for a total of $10,500,000, in bond issues that went to the voters in 1945, 1950, and 1956. A proposed bond issue of $12,600,000 was rejected by the voters in 1962. The issue received a 64% “yes” vote, but lacked the necessary 66 2/3 % for approval. At various times since 1956, the City has appropriated additional monies from Capital Outlay funds, for various projects on Mission Bay, including roads, erosion control, utilities, and maintenance.


The City’s first dredging operation commenced early in 1946, and created the area then known as Gleason Point, now Bahia Point. Between 1946 and 1956, the City completed dredging in the West Bay, west of Ingraham Street, at the same time creating some new land areas with dredged material. In addition, a narrow channel was dredged in the east bay to De Anza Cove, the point of which was created by dredged material.

In 1956-57, the City Engineering and Planning Department prepared preliminary drawings of a master plan for the area, showing that millions of yards of undesirable soils and unsatisfactory materials would be disposed of in the ocean. Public hearings were held, and it was evident from the vigorous public protest that disposal of the undesirable material at sea would not be acceptable, so it was decided to add an island in the bay (Fiesta Island), and make this a disposal area. The island would have, as margins, 200-foot-wide sand levees, and would be covered with a minimum of three feet of sand. After the hearings and the addition of Fiesta Island in 1958, the author, Ed Gabrielson, and his staff, proceeded to prepare the contract drawings for the completion of dredging of Mission Bay and the creation of subsequent infrastructure.

The original material that had been pumped onto De Anza Point was a mucky silt, which would not hold up equipment of any type. Although this material set for approximately three years, it never gave up its water content, and nothing could be built on it. As a remedial action, it was decided to pump good sand over this area, three feet deep. After a few months, tests showed the area to be fairly stable. Shortly thereafter, contracts were let for sewers, water mains, and a trailer court. Trouble had been expected in the construction of sewer mains, but, fortunately, the work went very well, and construction was completed. Later on, the lessee desired some higher ground on the undeveloped portion. In 1963-64, the lessee, with permission of the City, let a contract for additional dredging to place another three feet of fill on the remaining portion. The sand was pumped by dredging from the west side of Fiesta Island.

Upon completion of the Federal work, the City decided to advertise for bids for completion of all remaining dredging and creation of all needed land areas. The first contract drawing directed the contractor to complete the bay dredging to a depth of minus eight feet mean lower low water, to cover all proposed beach areas with three feet of sand and to provide at least three feet of sand to underfoot at a water depth of minus six feet mean lower low water. It also directed the preparation of a disposal area for the undesirable fine silts. This disposal area became Fiesta Island.

The engineering proceeded before the final dredging operations could begin. First the area was surveyed to create a horizontal and vertical control system, with control lines every 50 feet. Washed borings were taken throughout the area to be dredged. Line drawings were then prepared to outline the dredged areas. Contract drawings were prepared, showing future shorelines, shoreline slopes, and the 200-foot levees around the perimeter of Fiesta Island. Contract drawings also outlined the locations of the different types of sands and silts. In addition, the drawings showed shorelines to be built to a minimum of plus 12 feet mean lower low water, with an interior slope of 2% to 4%. After the dredging contract drawings were completed, the final stage of dredging operations began.

Actual dredging under the contract started May 6, 1959, in the remedial dredging area labeled C (see 1984 Mission Bay Park map). This dredged material was moved to a disposal area to grade the east side of Vacation Isle. The dredge then moved into area A and the sand was pumped into the dike on Fiesta Island. The dredge then moved into area B, where better sand than anticipated was found in one section. This material was used to extend Santa Clara Point. The poor material from area B was pumped as bottom fill into Fiesta Island, behind the dikes. All of the work in West Bay, west of the Ingraham Street Bridge, was completed by early December 1959. The dredge was moved under the bridge to the east side to area D. Excellent sand was obtained in this area, and the material was pumped into dikes on Fiesta Island.

Considerable difficulty was experienced in forming the dikes on the north side of Fiesta Island. Since this area was known to contain the poorest material in the bay, a silty clay, trouble had been expected. The sand settled into the silty clay as much as six to eight feet, causing a mud wave on the outboard side of the dike. The width of the dike in this area was increased, and the excess yardage caused by the mud wave was removed. The dredge then moved on to area E, and the resulting poor material was pumped into the bottom of Fiesta Island. In a similar manner, areas F, G, and H were dredged.

Western Contracting Corporation completed dredging work on August 1, 1961. Considerable work remained to be performed with bulldozers and draglines. This was completed and the job accepted by the City in November 1961. From January 1962, until July 1965, the pace of construction in Mission Bay slowed down. Improvements constructed during this period include roads, shore revetment, parking lots, rest rooms, utilities to various points, and landscaping. These improvements cost in the neighborhood of $1,437,000, which was appropriated from City Capital Outlay funds.

Erosion and the formation of sand bars in Mission Bay, caused by tidal currents, surge, wind fetch, and waves from boats, will be a continual problem. The one certain way to cure erosion, rock revetment, is not feasible or desirable in most locations. In most areas, erosion and the formation of sand bars must be taken care of by dredging or by dragline to restore the beach to its original condition. Dragline work, provided the sand is not too far out from the top of the beach, is sometimes cheaper than dredging. Where the sand is over 120 feet from the top of the beach, or from the position in which the dragline can cast, a Sauerman bucket may be used. By this method, the bucket merely brings the sand into shore, where it can be reached by the dragline. It is important to restore beaches before they deteriorate too much. If erosion is allowed to continue, the sand moves further into the bay, and it costs more to restore the beach.

Mission Bay, as we know it today, reflects decades of planning and years of work to bring it to its current state as a major recreational aquatic park. And since the bay is a dynamic, constantly flowing entity, it will require continued maintenance to keep it useable for future generations.