View from the end of our street, February 22nd, 2019

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Mountains and the Bay

          This is the story of how this magnificent harbor...

...and these unforgiving mountains...

...combined to make San Diego the jewel of California.

Even in 1934, the bay's shifting traps for the
unwary mariner can be seen in aerial photos
          When Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into the mouth of San Diego Bay in the early fall of 1542, he didn't find much to write home about; like so many to follow, he stayed for a week and then moved on, naming the place San Miguel in his records.  The so-called bay was little more than an estuary, formed and dominated by silt draining down the San Diego River, a not particularly impressive stream that drained the equally unimpressive mountain range that began to rise some thirty miles inland.  It had the general shape of the bay we know today, but was shallow, and plagued with shifting sandbars and hidden shoals.  It was sufficient to provide decent shelter to the tiny ships of the period, but how the bay was valued by the Spanish is highlighted by this fact:  During the Golden Age of Exploration, at a time when Spain had a complete monopoly on the coast of California, the next European to visit San Diego was born six years after Cabrillo's little layover.

Though taken in the mid-1800s, this photo of the
La Playa area shows the terrain that would have
been encountered by the first explorers and
residents alike.
          On November 10th, 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino arrived at the head of a larger expedition.  He lounged in the tourist-trap weather for a full ten days, getting around to changing the name to San Diego before he departed, and recorded the "good wood and water, many fish of all kinds... much game, such as rabbits, hares, deer, very large quail, royal ducks, thrushes, and many other birds," and that "...the country surrounding the port was very fertile and near the beach there are very fine meadows."  They were met peacefully by about 100 Kumeyaay Indians with whom they exchanged the obligatory gifts and sailed away.  Continuing up the coast, the Great Explorer missed finding San Francisco Bay entirely, but he did manage to blunder into Monterey, and based on his gushing reports of the magnificence to be found there, Monterey would be the First City of California into the 1840s.

          San Diego is finally brought sharply into prominence by the dual stimuli of greed and protectionism.  California was well "known" in Europe long before it was discovered.  It's very name is taken from Queen Calafia, the mythical ruler of a mythical island off the North American coast where a vast matriarchal society lives in a land so rich, the streets are paved with gold, and, well aware of these "facts," King Charles III demanded that the government in New Spain (the Pacific Coast of the Americas) start producing some of it.  The other impetus was provided by the Spanish Ambassador to Russia, who reported that the Russian fur traders who were established in Alaska were about to push their territorial claims south all the way to California.  That this was not idle speculation is witnessed by the existence of California towns today with names like Sebastopol and Fort Ross.

          Suddenly feeling the sting of urgency after 230 years of who-could-care-less, the crown dispatched a Franciscan priest whose name would soon become immortal among Californians, be they Spanish, Indian, Mexican, or Americano:  Father Junipero Serra.  Arriving at San Diego in 1769, he established the first of the 21 California Missions, a day's walk apart, from San Diego to San Francisco, which meant in practical terms that Russian expansion past San Francisco could only come at the risk of war with Spain, a risk Russia wasn't prepared to take.  Despite the existence of the Mission, and the little presidio, or fort, nearby to protect it from the often hostile Indians, life in the tiny settlement wasn't easy.  The residents, mostly clergy, soldiers, and the hardier members of their families, were dependent on crops grown in their gardens, trade with the Indians, and the sporadic visits of supply ships for their very survival.  British navigator George Vancouver paid a visit in 1793, staying long enough to describe the settlement as "dreary and lonesome," and surrounded by "barren and uncultivated country."  Contrary to the legends of gold lying on the ground for the taking, San Diego's commerce consisted of otter skins, cattle hides, and homemade candles that were traded in small quantities for bare sustenance.  Most of the American Southwest was originally explored by greedy swashbucklers searching for these legendary treasures, tales perpetuated by exasperated Indians who quickly learned to tell these guys that the City of Gold was somewhere over the next hill.

The city of San Diego in 1869, 100 years after
the establishment of the first mission.
          The decades came and went, and San Diego changed hands, ownership passing first to Mexico following a revolution, then to the United States following a war whose merits are debated to this day.  Through it all, San Diego remained a quiet backwater, a prisoner of its own geography.  Water can be found around the county, though it is never plentiful in the way a resident of Indiana or Alabama thinks of it; there is enough to use, but never to waste.  The grandly named San Diego River was never a full-time stream; now it is an empty channel lined with concrete known hereabouts as the Flood Control Channel, and it becomes a raging torrent that can wash away cars for a few hours after a winter storm, but certainly nothing that residents can rely on.  Nonetheless, the gentle, rolling hills of what are today the eastern and northern parts of the county were given away as giant ranchos to supporters of the various governors of the little town.  The names and general outlines of many of these ranchos are preserved today in communities with names like Rancho Penasquitos, Rancho Bernardo, Otay, Jamul and Santa Ysabel.  By all accounts, this period was marked by the fiesta as a lifestyle, and San Diego began to take on its modern look as the home of the good life, ruled by wealthy captains of industry.

San Diego in 1900, still sleepy, with no sign of the massive
military presence to come, and still trapped by its geography.
          By the end of the 1840s, the United States had added California to its ever-growing territory, granting statehood in 1850, even though many future states west of the Mississippi remained Territories, in order to protect the northern gold deposits.  In San Diego (and Monterey), the Yankees added whaling to the growing list of industries, not even needing ships, but simply rowing out into the Gray Whale migrations from Whalers' Bight, now filled in and part of the U. S. Naval Air Station at North Island.  Growth and diversification of industry, plus that superlative harbor notwithstanding, San Diego continued to languish as a sleepy little backwater, trapped in a place that offered one great thing, but nothing else to support it.

Goat Canyon trestle in Carrizo Gorge.  Typical of
the terrain the railroad men were up against in the
 southern Laguna Mountains.
          Here are the factors that kept San Diego's harbor from lifting it to prominence in the history of California.  It sits on a coastal plain that runs inland for about thirty miles before the Laguna Mountains rear up from the ground in a relatively low (5000 foot average), but wide and rugged range that cuts the city off from the rest of America to the east.  The plain itself is coastal desert, receiving an official average of ten inches of rain per year, but those mountains shove the incoming storms up the slopes and wring the water out them like a sponge.  This water rockets down the steep slopes, carving slab-sided canyons and razorback ridges that a jackrabbit can barely navigate.  For most of the 19th Century there were three known passes through this barrier, and the only one usable by anything heavier than a man on a horse was Warner's Pass, which was much more favorable to Los Angeles than to San Diego.  The only thing one could do with a cargo landed at the spectacular harbor at San Diego was to load it on wagons and freight it up the easy coastal route to Los Angeles for further distribution from there.  Why not simply have the ship unload at Los Angeles to begin with?  That is exactly what was done.

Aerial view of a fraction of the SD&AE Railway route.
          A rail line to Yuma and points east was finally pounded through these mountains by men whose heads were harder than their sledgehammers in 1932, and its construction is one of the epic stories of the industrial age.  By that time, the Port of Los Angeles had been in operation for 25 years, and San Diego had seemingly been bypassed by the flow of history.

This is North Island in happier times.  Those carriers
have a bit more to do now...
          But the story doesn't end there, not by a long shot.  Some of our closest friends today were our most bitter enemies in 1941, and they came a'calling on a clear December morning at a little port in Hawaii called Pearl Harbor.  For the next four years, we were engaged in some of the most knock-down, drag-out, no quarter fighting the world has ever seen, abetted by the support of the combatants' modern industries.  The U.S. Navy needed a haven beyond the reach of Japanese submarines and aircraft carriers.  With the Bremerton facility largely undeveloped, and the choicest bay frontage in Los Angeles and San Francisco long-claimed by commercial interests, the Navy's eye fell upon sleepy little San Diego, with its spectacular, and hitherto virtually useless harbor.  They dredged the bay, piped in water from the Colorado River, laid claim to the unwanted mud flats around the perimeter, and built what is today one of the two largest Navy and Marine Corps complexes in the world (the other is Norfolk, VA).  I can't lay my hands on the exact figures (the Internet is way too literal when you ask for a search) but my gut feeling is that about 50% of the money coming into San Diego (including mine) comes from the Navy's payroll, maybe 45% is from the tourist industry, and everything else divides the 5% that remains.

          Most people say the Navy built San Diego, but I beg to differ; you could just as easily say the Japanese built San Diego by putting pressure on the Navy to develop it.  Whatever.  I say, at the end of the day, the Laguna Mountains built San Diego just by being in the way.  Had they not been there, San Diego would be the sprawling carpet of concrete that Los Angeles is today, and Los Angeles would probably be a motel and gas station on the road to San Francisco.  Instead, I live in one of the great places of the world, and herewith offer my thanks to the U.S. Navy that built it, the Imperial Japanese Navy that made it necessary, and the force of nature that is the Laguna Mountains for rendering that bay useless, thereby preventing it from being ruined by commercialism for four hundred years before people found a use for it.  If not for all those things, we wouldn't live in the most beautiful place on earth.  I know that a lot of people who prefer the stillness of quiet hideaways, the imposing natural beauty of Big Sur or Nag's Head, or undiscovered corners like the Florida Keys (or familiar nooks of their own home towns; choose your own location here) are going to find this saga of urban beauty amusing, and maybe even mildly offensive.  All I can offer in the defense of this opinion is one simple statement:  Just look at this place!

          And that's how we got here, from the Spaniards to the Americans.  Consider this the first of a long series.  In the months to come, I'll be looking at our attractions, our hidden treasures, our unique blend of Spanish, Mexican, American and Asian cultures, reflected not least in the local cuisine.  I hope you're along for the ride; I plan to enjoy it tremendously, and I love to share...

Hideout Happenings

          And speaking of things San Diego, I guess no place of mortals is allowed to be perfect, right?  This is why we have all these comedy "sports" teams that congregate here to waste our time and make us laugh.  Case in point:  The San Diego Chargers, or as they're known by the locals, the Chokers, once again demonstrated their football acumen in part two of the one-two punch designed to drive away fans in preparation for their move to L.A.  After keeping the two most clueless idiots ever to wander by accident into a football stadium, Head Coach Norv Turner and General Manager A. J. Smith, the Chokers' ownership once again showed off their seriousness about saving money over being a contender by declining to sign Vincent Jackson, by far their best wide receiver, and primary battery mate of quarterback Philip Rivers.  See, fifty-one years of crap like this is why I've finally gone over to the dark side, and joined Raider Nation.  The saddest thing about all this is that Philip Rivers, a fine young man who should be remembered in the same breath with Joe Montana and John Elway, will instead be remembered (if he is at all) as one of those tragic stories of greatness unfulfilled simply because he's trapped in the grip of these Losers.  By the way, if you happen to be an L.A. sports fan who is reading this, don't panic; no one can force you to take these fools.

          So that's it for this week.  I know I said I was going to slow down on the publishing, but what the heck, the article's finished, so here it is.  The polls will remain open until Sunday night at midnight.  No one has voted yet, and if no one does, I will have to settle on a subject myself, so you've been warned.  Until next time, have fun, take care of each other, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!

1 comment:

  1. I visited San Diego once when I was a broke teenager. I'm definitely looking forward to getting back there sometime. It is truly a jewel.