Archive for the ‘historic places’ Category

San Diego’s Historic Places: John J. Montgomery Monument

June 17, 2010 6 comments


John J. Montgomery Monument, Otay Mesa area of San Diego

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—Large enough to be seen from vantage points across the border in Mexico, the wing of a World War II era Liberator bomber stands upright on the hill in Otay Mesa where some historians say pioneer aviator John J. Montgomery made the first controlled flight on a glider ever made in the United States.

The flight reportedly occurred August 28, 1883, two decades before the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight, but Montgomery’s achievement wasn’t recorded until the 1894 publication of Progress in Flying Machines, a compendium of aeronautical achievements compiled by the engineer Octave Chanute.  As there were no independent witnesses of the flight, other aeronautical historians have expressed doubts about the feat.

The pioneers of aviation—including Montgomery and the Wright Brothers—conducted their testing in great secrecy in order to be the first to bring their inventions to the patent office, so it is not surprising that only relatives claimed to be witnesses to the 600-foot flight Montgomery made in a flying machine with curved wings.

Montgomery’s brother, Jim, described the event as follows:  “I towed John into the air in his little glider at the end of a 40 foot rope.  He flew over my head and landed beautifully about six hundred feet down the hill.”

At 90 feet high, the wing which now towers over the recreation center at Montgomery-Waller Park in the Otay Mesa area of San Diego is fully 15 percent as long as Montgomery’s first flight.   The monument dedicated in 1950 was created by architect Lloyd Ruocco, who also designed such well- known landmarks in the City of San Diego as the County Administration Building between Harbor Drive and Pacific Coast Highway, and the Civic Theatre at 3rd Avenue at B Street.  The wing commemorating Montgomery’s first flight was in itself a piece of San Diego history, as Consolidated Aircraft  in San Diego manufactured the B-24s.

Montgomery-Waller Park is named both for the pioneer aviator as well as for Luckie Waller, who donated the land for the park and for whom the local Little League is named. The park is one of several places named for John J. Montgomery, with others being the nearby Montgomery High School and Montgomery Middle School in the Sweetwater Union High School District, Montgomery Elementary School in Chula Vista, and another Montgomery Middle School in the San Diego Unified School District.   More closely related to Montgomery’s aeronautical achievements is Montgomery Field, a general aviation airport in the Kearny Mesa area of San Diego.

In 1962, ceremonies at the unusual looking monument included flyovers by antique and contemporary aircraft, a performance by a local Navy band, and an exhibit of a replica of the glider in which he flew.

The inscription at the site reads: “John J. Montgomery Made Man’s First Controlled Winged Flight From This Hilltop in August 1883. He opened for all mankind the great highway of the sky”

Consolidated Vultee Aircraft’s successor, Consolidated Vultee (which later became known as Convair) and Columbia Pictures were among the corporate sponsors of the Ruocco-designed monument.

Montgomery’s life was chronicled in the 1946 Columbia Picture Gallant Journey, directed by William Wellman and starring Glenn Ford as Montgomery and Janet Blair as Ginny Cleary, the woman who believed in him.   Paul Mantz was the stunt pilot for that film.   Surprisingly, although the film dramatizes a San Diego historical event, none of the public or university libraries in the county listed Gallant Journey in their catalogues as of mid-June 2010.  The biopic can be found, however, in the Santa Clara library.

Although the first flight in San Diego is covered in Gallant Journey, a larger portion of the film deals with Montgomery’s achievements in the Santa Clara area where, while serving on the faculty of Santa Clara College,  he continued to experiment with controlled flight.

Montgomery’s test pilot Daniel John Maloney would ascend in a tandem-winged glider named the Santa Clara that was tethered to a hot air balloon, then upon release, would glide to a safe landing on the ground from 3,900 feet.  However, during one demonstration in 1905 a handling line became tangled in the wings, and Maloney died in the crash.

In 1911, Montgomery personally tested a monoplane glider called the Evergreen, making approximately 50 flights of perhaps 780 feet each.  On October 31, 1911, from only an altitude of 20 feet, the glider crashed, causing Montgomery’s head to slam into an exposed bolt.  He died two hours later at age 53.

In San Jose, Montgomery Hill is named for the aviator as is Montgomery Elementary School in that city.  A Kent Roberts sculpture of a 30-foot glider wing was dedicated in 2008 in a 32-foot diameter plaza at the intersection of Yerba Buena and San Felipe Roads.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

San Diego’s historic places: Lake Murray

June 16, 2010 5 comments

Gayle Havens and Karen Ivach sit at a Lake Murray picnic bench. Cowles Mountain is in the background

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO–The 198-acre Lake Murray reservoir is a magnet for humans, animals and plants of all sorts. With a few notable exceptions, all are welcome, say reservoir keeper Gayle Havens and Friends of Lake Murray founder Barbara Cleves Anderson.

Since 1895, when the now-submerged, earthen La Mesa Dam was built on a small creek running through Alvarado Canyon, the lake has served principally as a fresh water reservoir, meeting the needs of a San Diego population that has never stopped growing.

After San Diego’s great floods of 1916, an enlarged reservoir was needed, so under the direction of James Murray, a Montana engineer after whom the lake was named, a new concrete dam 117 feet tall and 870 feet wide was constructed downstream of the La Mesa Dam by the Cuyamaca Water Company. Murray and Col. Ed Fletcher, for whom Fletcher Hills in nearby El Cajon is named, operated the dam until 1926, when they sold it to a forerunner company of today’s Helix Water District. Thirty five years later, in 1961, the dam and reservoir were transferred to the City of San Diego.

Able today to hold 4,818 acre feet of water, the lake is the last stop for fresh water coming from the California Water Project and the Colorado River before it goes through the adjacent Alvarado Filtration Plant and then is sent on its way to approximately 400,000 users within the City of San Diego. The city operates two other major filtration facilities at Miramar Lake and Otay Lake.

In the past, the Alvarado filtration plant with its Spanish colonial-style belltower building was available for sightseeing, but not since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when it was realized that systems controlling water supplies might also become targets. Both for reasons of security and for the safety of recreational users who might bump each other on the narrow passageway over the dam, a lakeside path that stretches 3.23 miles from the main entrance on Kiowa Street stops short of the filtration plant. One cannot walk all the way around the lake, but instead must retrace one’s steps.

Such inconvenience does not deter the lake’s recreational users, who include in ever increasing numbers boaters, anglers, bird watchers, joggers, bikers, walkers, picnickers, photographers and even participants in the annual Jewish observance of Tashlich, when as part of the Jewish New Year, sins are symbolically transferred to pieces of bread and are cast upon the waters — much to the delight of the ducks and other water fowl.

Some weekend days between 1,000 and 2,000 people might use the lake in one capacity or another, reports Havens. Except for vandals, believed to be teenagers who sneak into the park sometime between nightfall and the early morning hours and leave graffiti, attempt to steal or joyride in boats at their dock, and otherwise act immaturely, all lake users are desired patrons of the free facility.

Walking around the lake, one might see such terrestrial animals as rabbits, squirrels, lizards, rats, gophers, mice, and occasionally, in the area closest to the gated-off filtration plant, fox, coyotes and bobcat, according to Cleves Anderson, an enthusiastic animal watcher who generally goes on her lake runs in the early morning hours.

Fish in the lake include large mouth bass, bluegill, catfish, crappies, carp and rainbow trout, according to reservoir keeper Havens. Typically, large mouth bass will run in the six-pound range, but in the year 2000, one weighing 18 1/2 pounds surprised everyone, especially the fisherman who caught it from a float tube. It not only set the lake’s record, but the national record for the year 2000, Havens said.

The water fowl and arboreal bird population is ever changing as the lake is a stop on the Pacific Flyway. Ducks, coots, egrets and herons are commonplace, and recently two osprey have also made their home at the lake. Cleves Anderson says she is hoping the osprey are a breeding pair, but so far there is no evidence that they are. Ravens, blackbirds, sparrows, and other species common to San Diego County also are here in abundance. Sometimes pigeons and seagulls come too, looking for a handout.

An unwanted animal at Lake Murray, which has made its home there anyway, is the quagga mussel, a kind of fresh water clam that makes rabbits seem like reluctant breeders. No bigger than a 25-cent piece when grown, their spawn are tiny, no larger than a flea, but forming gritty colonies, they clog up pipes and screens, and rob the water of nutrients needed by indigenous species.

Thus, Lake Murray and other lakes in Southern California are wary of boats that have recently been in other fresh water lakes — the quagga mussels may have hitched a ride there. While some larger lakes with greater boating populations have thorough-going inspection programs, for now at least Lake Murray has simply posted a warning sign at its boat ramp.

While the matter is not now considered at a critical level, no one wants to see the lake suffer from an infestation as it did in the late 1970s when fast growing hydrilla choked off oxygen supplies in the water and threatened the natural ecology. To beat back the hydrilla, the lake had to be closed, its water levels lowered and an extensive eradication program undertaken. Eventually the “killa hydrilla” was eliminated.

Havens said that the small fleet of 35 boats and five kayaks at Lake Murray will be transferred to other lakes in San Diego because they generate insufficient revenue to compensate for the cost of keeping them available. That is but one effect of San Diego’s fiscal crisis: in another instance when a roadway was seen beginning to crack because of spreading root systems, city officials elected to remove nearby eucalyptus trees and reduce them to mulch rather than to pay the greater cost of repairing the pathway. Safety of the park’s user was a key factor in that decision.

Lake Murray is a part of the Mission Trails Regional Park. The highest point in the City of San Diego, 1592-foot Cowles Mountain, reflects in the lake, which is surrounded by homes located in the San Diego and Del Cerro sections of San Diego, and the suburban City of La Mesa. To make certain that pollutants from the sewers, automobiles and trash from these residential neighborhoods don’t run into the lake and foul the water supply, Lake Murray is surrounded by miles of diversion ditches.

Havens and such assistants as Karen Ivach, a Lake Aide II, keep the diversion ditches clear of debris and alert vector control when more mosquito fish are needed to prevent them from becoming breeding areas. Besides by runoff, the lake can be fouled by animal feces, one of the principal reasons owners are required to keep their dogs on a leash and to carry “mutt mittens” with them.

Havens and Ivach are both dog owners who sympathize with those who would like their pets to run free. However, they say they take their own dogs to places like Dog Beach and the dog run at Balboa Park, where off-leash activities are provided for. At the lake, unleashed dogs might come into conflicts with bikers, roller bladers or even other dogs, they note.

Cleves Anderson recommends that users of the lake become familiar with the names of its five fingers in the event that there is an accident or someone becomes ill. Telling a 9-11 dispatcher that “I’m just around the big bend” doesn’t help them direct EMT workers to the right place.

If you think of the dam and filtration plant as the wrist of a hand, says Cleves Anderson, then the first finger is Alvarado Bay, between the filtration plant and the main parking lot of Lake Murray. Here on Sundays fly fishermen teach children about casting. Here too, unfortunately, pet geese and other animals sometimes are abandoned by people, adding to the park’s wildlife population. Some people make it a habit to feed these birds, a humane yet controversial sentiment. Feeding the animals, instead of letting them forage for themselves, leads to burgeoning populations and possible changes in the overall ecology.

The second finger of the lake, near Baltimore Drive, is Padre Bay, where volunteers for “I Love a Clean San Diego” always seem to have their work cut out for them. The carp seem to love this part of the lake, attracting not only fishermen but also the great blue heron, attracted to those places where the fishing is easiest.

The third finger of the lake is San Carlos Bay, where, according to Cleves Anderson, a colony of turtles has taken up residence. “I also saw a raccoon family there” and this bay is where the osprey live. On one occasion, the osprey made the mistake of building their nests near a power line, and one morning “the branch was crackling and sparking, and it caught on fire.” San Diego Gas & Electric cleared the line, later building a more suitable nesting area nearby for the osprey, she recalled.

Cowles Bay, which is the where the lake comes closest to Cowles Mountain, seems to be the favorite haunt of red-wing blackbirds, who lift from the lake around daybreak, creating a big cloud. Further along this fourth finger of the lake one can sometimes find barn owls in nests near the baseball fields.

The fifth finger of the lake is Del Cerro Bay, which is where Cleves Anderson said she has spotted coyotes, bobcats, and sometimes fox.

Cleves Anderson is both a runner and a bird watcher. Approximately around 1988, the city began fencing off the lake to protect the fresh water supply. She organized a petition drive demanding that the fences come down, and gathered 3,500 signatures, persuading the city that “we need more parks, not less.” That was the beginning of Friends of Lake Murray, a group which has no formal charter but typically draws beetween 30 and 60 people to its meetings, at which people involved in the welfare of the lake and environs often are featured speakers.

Every September, Cleves Anderson said, with September 25, 2010, already set aside is the “I Love a Clean San Diego” day at Lake Murray. Last year, 190 volunteers hauled out trash.

Havens used to work as a private landscaper, but as a single mom, she decided it would be prudent to take a job with a regular paycheck. She has now been at the lake for nearly 15 years, rising from Lake Aide I, to Lake Aide II, to Assistant Reservoir Keeper, to Reservoir Keeper. She noted that many groups have made her job easier by dedicating themselves to improvement projects of the beloved lake, These include the local Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, church groups, and the Scouts, she said.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  This article ran previously on

San Diego County’s historic places: Santee Lakes

June 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Santee Lakes

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SANTEE–As you feed the ducks in the Santee Lakes, or watch naval enthusiasts sail radio-controlled model battleships and cruisers on its waters, or picnic along its shores, you may not realize that you are standing at a venue that back in the 1960s was a sensation of the water reclamation world and a magnet for delegations from parched countries everywhere.

Today, it’s not at all uncommon for cities to used reclaimed water for recreational purposes but a half century ago in 1959, when the Santee County Water District decided to reclaim water from sewage and turn it into lakes, it was a novel and controversial idea. However, with the neighboring City of San Diego charging more and more for the pipelining of treated sewage into the Pacific Ocean, the district’s director, Ray Stoyer, was able to persuade his board that creating the lakes would be less expensive economically and more beneficial for recreation-hungry residents of Santee, a small city east of San Diego.

There were some special geologic circumstances permitting Stoyer to envision his system of small lakes, chief among them the fact that the area he wanted for the project already had been mined for gravel down to the impervious layer of clay. Thus, there was no danger of the treated water percolating down to the ground water supply.

Another factor was that the man who owned the mined-out gravel pits, Bill Mast, was willing to donate the land to the district, which since has become known as the Padre Dam Municipal Water District. Mast was a good businessman. If the project were to be built, irrigation water could be routed from the lakes to the property he wanted to develop into a golf course, which today is known as the Carlton Oaks Country Club.

Up to the point it decided to create the lakes, the water district had been giving its sewage primary and secondary treatment. Primary treatment involves holding the sewage in a tank long enough to permit big particles to settle out and light particles to float up. The particles then are separated from the water and disposed of.

In secondary treatment, the water is pumped to another tank in which bacteria, kept alive by a constant flow of air, feed off the impurities, a process that further cleanses the water.

To be able to turn this water into lake water, suitable for fowl and fish, other processes needed to be introduced to remove both nitrogen and phosphorus from the wastewater. By pumping the wastewater from the secondary treatment tank to another tank, with a different population of bacteria, Stoyer was able to solve the problem of nitrogen.

Removing the phosphorus was a more difficult problem, but this was where the geology of the region came in handy. The district was able to pump the water to a gravel area lying upstream from the proposed lakes. Located on the same kind of impervious clay, these gravel beds could serve as giant filters, cleansing the water of phosphorus before it flowed by gravity into the lake system. In the first lake, the water would be allowed to oxidize by exposure to the air, then be pumped to the second lake for more oxidation, and finally to a third lake, which could be used for recreational purposes.

The engineering and most chemical problems solved, Stoyer next considered the public relations problem—how was he going to get the people of Santee to accept the idea of boating, fishing, and picnicking by lakes filled with water that once had been in their toilets? He decided to tantalize them by fencing off the lakes and using its waters to irrigate the grounds surrounding them with trees, grass and other plants. He also put in picnic tables which could be seen—but not touched—through the fence. And then he waited.

In Santee, summer temperatures can sometimes exceed 100 degrees. Sweltering in such heat, Santee residents saw the clear waters of the lake, the ducks and other water fowl splashing happily, the empty picnic tables, and began to question why they also could not take advantage of the lake. To which Stoyer replied in speech after speech promoting water conservation that only after the county Department of Health ruled that the water was absolutely safe for human contact could the district even consider opening it up. Stoyer thereby helped to create pent-up demand.

Dr. J.B. Askew, the health department’s director, announced opposition in 1961 to permitting boating and picnicking at the lakes following unsatisfactory sampling of the waters for bacteria. Ten years later, in his book “The Town That Launders Its Water,” author Leonard A. Stevens quoted Askew as voicing these concerns: “You cannot let children around a body of water before they are in it. At least their hands are in it, and the next minute their hands are in their mouths.”

Stevens reported that in discussions between the district and the health department, it was decided that “they would percolate the water from the oxidation pond through soil and then channel it into the recreational lake. After this, there would be little chance of pollution endangering human health.”

The system was constructed, the water was again tested, and Dr. Askew gave his permission for the lakes to be opened to the public in June 1962. Grand opening ceremonies attracted 10,000 people. The California Fish and Game Department meanwhile introduced some fish species into the lake to see which ones would thrive and which ones would not. After gathering its data, the department authorized Santee Lakes to have “fish for fun” programs, in which fish caught in the lakes had to be thrown back. After two years of further testing, the Fish and Game Department concluded fish taken from the lake were safe to take home and cook.

Step by step, the six lakes proved themselves the equivalent of freshwater lakes. A swimming pool, drawn from lake waters, was authorized. A small water park where children can cavort is a favorite feature today.

Today, the Santee Lakes no longer can accommodate all of Santee’s reclaimed sewage, so much of it is pumped to the San Diego Metropolitan Water District—the very agency whose charges back in 1959 prompted Santee officials to develop the lakes.

In his book, Stevens reported that during the development stages, the lakes became internationally famous. “The significance of what happened at Santee is pointed up by several name-packed guest books kept by Martin Poe, the project’s chief water pollution control plant operator. They show that thousands of official visitors have come to see the lakes from nearly every state in the United States and from thirty-nine countries. Many of the visitors are officials from local, state or national governments. They are also water pollution control engineers and scientists, journalists, students and other individuals interested in solving water problems. The dry lands of Israel and India are well represented in Poe’s books, for in these distant countries, as in southern California, water is so precious that using it to the fullest extent is absolutely essential.”

Today these lakes are taken for granted as pleasant places to while away a lazy afternoon.  Water historians record them, however, as key projects that encouraged acceptance of wastewater reclamation for recreational purposes.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. This article previously appeared on

San Diego County’s historic places: Creation Museum, Santee

June 14, 2010 3 comments
Cindy Carlson at Creation Science Museum in Santee

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SANTEE, California—On a frontage road of State Highway 67, a building in an industrial park bears the name “Museum of Creation and Earth History.” Initially developed by the Institute for Creation Research at Christian Heritage College in neighboring El Cajon, the museum offers exhibits in support of the belief that the Bible is literally true. Here, when people talk about God creating the heavens and the earth in six days, they mean six 24-hour days. When they talk of a flood in the time of Noah covering the earth, they mean the whole earth, including the Americas, not just the Middle East.

The staff of the Institute for Creation Research includes scientists of various disciplines who dispute some of the cherished ideas of what they call conventional science. If the biblical account of the genesis of the world is correct, then the world is only thousands of years old, not millions upon millions of years. Theories that the various species of animal—and man himself—evolved from lower forms of life are rejected. So too are scientific notions about how the age of objects can be carbon dated. Additionally the creationists dispute conventional scientists’ explanations for how mountain ranges formed—as they believe the process was completed over a much shorter time span. In summary, almost everything taught in public schools about who we are and where we come from is disputed.

The curator, Cindy Carlson, recently escorted me through the museum, perhaps feeling a little wary not knowing whether or not I had an agenda that was adverse to her Christian beliefs. However, my intention was neither to agree nor to disagree with the museum’s point of view, but rather to report what the experience was like going through the facility.

It may have been my imagination, but I sensed that Carlson became more relaxed as the tour progressed. At the end of the tour, she even shared with me a little bit about her own life: Back in the 1970’s, while a 17-year-old biology student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, “I met Jesus personally—as a spiritual experience.” This created some conflict in her life, as she had grown up in a military household, where her father was a believer in science and a worshiper at an Episcopal church. At college, her professors regularly told her things “the Bible didn’t say, and I was trying to grow in my faith and read the Bible, and they just wouldn’t go together. My classes just created more and more doubt, and it was very difficult for me.” Then she encountered the works of Henry Morris II, who wrote The Twilight of Evolution and who would found the Institute for Creation Research. “That book really saved my faith,” Carlson said. After she and her husband raised four children, she enrolled at the Institute for creation Research as a graduate student. Today, they are members of River Christian Fellowship in Poway.

We walked through rooms illustrating the first six days of creation, and into another room depicting Noah’s Ark. “The Ark is 450 feet long,” Carlson lectured as we toured. “You just measure 300 cubits by 1 ½, and so eight people were on the Ark, even though the Bible was very clear that Noah was a preacher of righteousness. Of course that is found in the New Testament {1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5}…. Obviously no one listened, so we had eight people on the Ark, along with two animals of every kind, seven of every clean kind, and seven of every kind of bird.”

The English word “kind,” translated from the Hebrew, is important to understand, Carlson said, because it is not what is meant today by the word “species.” Rather “kind” refers to a much larger group of animals, perhaps at the genus or at the family level. Assuming there was a kind of dog on the Ark, that dog was a prototype for the many breeds of dogs that would follow over the years, as well as for wolves and coyotes. “The two dogs on the Ark had the genetic potential for all the dogs,”Carlson said. “And we don’t call that evolution. We have no problem with the idea of variety in ‘kind.’ We do have a problem with the evolutionary idea than an amoeba can become a man over enough time.”

So the animals on the Ark were forerunners of what we have today? I asked.

“That is correct. That is not only our theological stand, but we believe a scientific stand. No matter how many lab experiments they do with fruit flies or bacteria, or any of those creatures, they still are fruit flies and bacteria. The genetic potential was in the DNA.”

Carlson returned to the concept of ‘kind’ when she began discussing the Tower of Babel, from whence the Bible reports God scattered the people and confused their tongues.

“In Genesis 11, the very first verse says the whole world spoke the same language and if the Bible history is true, then of course they did: they were all related to Noah,” said the curator. “But at this point the Bible says that God supernaturally changed their languages …and that is where we say the nations came from, this is the origin of the races. Again we are talking about genetic potential, if Adam and Eve had medium brown skin, they would have had all the genetics for all the dark skin and all the light skin.”

Just as there were prototypical animals, so too in the creationists’ view, were Adam and Eve the prototypical human beings. The difference among the races is variety within ‘kind’; no matter whether people are white, black, yellow or brown, they all are descended from common ancestors.

The course through the museum moves on through the development of other religions in the wake of the separation of people into different nations, and onto the establishment of Christianity. “We give the historicity of Jesus Christ and his life, and, of course, Christians believe that this was the redemption that God had always promised,” Carlson said. “We believe Jesus was God Himself come, and we believe he is the messiah, so we share that with the children (who visit on school excursions), and we talk about his substitutionary death on the cross…”

Onward the exhibition goes to the Reformation, when the Bible was printed in many languages, and to the development of sciences, which Carlson contends would not have been possible if the Bible had been wrong. “For example, when you do an experiment, you expect it to come out the same every time. If you didn’t have an orderly God who created an orderly universe, you never could do science the way we do it today. If there was evolution or chaos, you’d have change over time in the results of your experiments. You could never gauge what was in the past or what would be in the future.”

Furthermore, she said, if the biblical view had been wrong, and the pantheistic view positing that animals were gods or spirits were correct, then “you would never have mice in the lab that you are studying because they could curse you. There is no power in the animal world, so you have to demystify that in order to have science.”

Driving in San Diego County, as elsewhere in the United States, one notices that a war between creationism and science seems to be conducted on the back of many cars. Almost commonplace are outlines of fish stick-on symbols bearing either a cross for Christianity or the word “Darwin” for evolution. Some cars have the Darwin fish seemingly eating the Christian fish.

As amusing as this might be in cartoon or bumper sticker format, it depicts a cultural war which has raised considerable passion, even anger, especially as beliefs about man’s origins are carried over into the political arena.

I asked Carlson what she thinks may be the reason for such passion and fractiousness.

“I think human pride has the most to do with that,” she responded. “We want to be right, we want to be greater…”

Suppose it could be proven that she and her fellow creationists were correct? How would the lives of evolutionists be changed? I asked.

“If there is a God who made everything, and He made the rules, and we were created for Him and it is all about God, and it is not about us,” she said, “then we have a responsibility to Him, we need to find out about Him, and what we are created for, and we are now accountable to God,” she said.

Let’s turn it around, I suggested. Suppose the evolutionists are right, and she and her fellow creationists are wrong? Would her life change?

“It would change it incredibly,” she responded. “I would no longer look to the Bible for my rules. I would no longer pray every day and have the Holy Spirit show me what he wants me to do.” Maybe she still would follow rules “for good” such as the Golden Rule, but otherwise, “I’m not sure what I would do. If everything came by accident—or just evolution—any idea would do.

“Probably I would not have the sense of purpose and direction that I have,” she said. “Before I came to know Jesus, there was a big sense of emptiness and loneliness and a lack of understanding of who I was, and who I was in relationship to everything around me. So I think it would make a big difference.”

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  This article appeared previously on 

San Diego’s historic places: Aerospace Museum Annex

June 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Don Simmons, left, and grandson Justin check out an F-102 such as Simmons built at Convair.

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

EL CAJON, California–Near the northwest corner of Gillespie Field is an annex of the San Diego Aerospace Museum, where visitors can hear lore and legends about  aircraft from people who, in some cases, made them originally or who are helping to  restore them to museum quality.

Among the volunteers is Don Simmons, 84, a former Convair employee, who helped to build the wing assembles of F-102 fighter aircraft such as one that is displayed on the tarmac near the museum’s hangar. On a recent weekday when his adult grandson Justin was visiting from Modesto, California, Simmons brought him to Gillespie Field to show him one of the ways he has been enjoying his retirement.

It’s not the F-102 that has been preoccupying Simmons, but rather a Corsair that the museum lists as an AU-1, but which some enthusiasts suggest more properly should be designated an F4U-7. Whichever version it may be, it has a proud heritage as a high-altitude carrier-based, propeller fighter that usually walloped the Japanese Zeros and later North Korean fighters  in aerial combat. It also was flown from U.S. land bases in the Pacific.

This particular Corsair came to the Aerospace Museum for restoration after Hurricane Katrina of 2005  caused the waters of the bay near Mobile, Alabama, to surge,  sweeping the plane back into waters behind the museum battleship USS Alabama. The Corsair suffered severe damage from the impact and also from salt water corrosion caused by its 16-hour nightmare in the hurricane-tossed waters.

Simmons spends Thursday mornings lovingly working on the Corsair wings which  folded up to maximize space on an aircraft carrier. Some of the hurricane-wrecked Corsair’s parts were so damaged that new parts had to be made in the museum’s machine shop.

 “The hinge for the wing was right there,” he told his grandson Justin.  “There is a hydraulic piston in the wing that pushes the thing up. …”

Walking around the project on which he has spent more than a year, he added, “The story goes that the Navy didn’t like this plane, but the Marine Corps loved it.”

“And they made a legend out of it!” added a smiling Justin.

When Simmons began working at Convair in 1951, he worked on the Convair XFY-1 Pogostick, so named because it was an early version of a VTOL (vertical take off and landing), He  later moved over to the F-102, which underwent numerous changes during is course of development and manufacture.

Running a hand along the side of the F-102 to emphasize its contours, he explained, “they change the shape of its fuselange to make it more aerodynamic.”

At Convair, he said, different parts of the planes were assembled by specialty teams, his own being the frames of the wings. Fuel tanks later would be fitted into the  wing structure, so that “most of the wing was all fuel.”

Simmons worked at Convair 35 years, retiring in 1986. He not only made airplanes but also built rockets.

Although an octogenarian, Simmons is not nearly the oldest of the volunteers — as some of the men who work on the restorations are nonagenarians. Simmons jokes he is still a kid compared to some of them.

Jeff Eads, the 47-year-old facility manager, said although he has a paid position now, he had started some years ago as a volunteer wanting to learn about airplanes from the retired workers like Simmons who had manufactured them.

Having himself worked in construction (kitchen and bathroom remodeling) and having always been interested in airplanes and boats, he said he was drawn to the museum annex after moving to El Cajon.

“I grew up with people who are good with their hands, and to be able to come in every day and work with these volunteers is a real privilege,” he said. “Some of them are grandfatherly, some are fatherly, some are like brothers, and then there are the cantankerous old uncles.”

He said the stories the volunteers tell–both about building the planes and flying them–are now being collected on video tape.

Airplanes from the San Diego Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park are rotated in and out of the annex if they need repairs. “These guys can take almost any basket case (like the Corsair) and turn it into a nice piece of work,” he said.

The Corsair  “has always been my favorite airplane because of the looks of it: it has lines you don’t see on any other airplane. We’ve been waiting for a Corsair for a long time–it’s a feather in your cap if you can get one into your collection.”

Another project which Eads considered special was the restoration of the museum’s reproduction of “The Spirit of St. Louis,” flown in 1927 by pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh non-stop between New York and Paris — the first such trans-Atlantic flight.

While the original — “or what’s left of it” — is in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the re-creation of the plane was done by builders who were involved in creating  the original at Ryan Aircraft in San Diego. The old timers even put their autographs inside the engine compartment.

Eads recounted that a mob of souvenir seekers crowded around LIndbergh’s original plane soon after he landed in Paris, each wanting to take a small piece of the historic airplane home. The result that the plane was not deemed air worthy and had to be shipped back to America in a crate, rather than flown as Lindbergh had planned, Eads said.

So, the local version of the “Spirit of St. Louis” — maybe it should be called “The Spirit of San Diego” — has its own bonafides.

While 90 percent of the 70 or so volunters are retired aircraft workers like Simmons, Eads said younger mechanics and engineers are beginning to find their way to the facility. He said students from San Diego State University, construction workers and even some high school students come for the same reason he did — to learn from the previous generation.

The kind of volunteers who are wanted are “people who have an eye for detail and a sense of history,” he said.

The workers pride themselves on their meticulousness. “We looked for six months just for the color of blue that we are going to paint the Corsair,” he said. “There are so many different colors and we are going to paint it with certain Marine Corps markings. You’ve got to get that color right, because I
can assure you, if you get it wrong, there will be someone who will know.”

Visitors may come to the annex between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and examine the planes in the hangar and the tarmac. There is no admission charge. People
who’d like to learn how to reconstruct  aircraft may telephone Eads at (619) 258-1221.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. Thiis article appeared previously on

San Diego’s historic places: Flying Leatherneck Museum

June 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Avenger aircraft at Flying Leatherneck Museum

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

MIRAMAR MARINE CORPS AIR STATION, California—There are two ways to visit a museum. You can browse the entire collection, getting a little knowledge about a lot of things. Or you can focus on a single exhibit, say, for example, a World War II carrier-based aircraft known as the Avenger.

Grumman Aircraft manufactured models that could drop a torpedo or a 2,000-pound bomb on the enemy.

Dick Miller, a retired lieutenant colonel who had gone through the enlisted and officer ranks during his 29-year career, actually had served as a radio operator aboard an Avenger, and was willing to share some of the plane’s lore with a visitor. Miller, today the volunteer coordinator at the Flying Leatherneck Museum, said the planes were still being used in the Korean War when he began in the service.

Miller pointed out that it was an Avenger that President George H.W. Bush—father of the current U.S. President—flew and crashed in the ocean during World War II operations in the Pacific Ocean.

“This was the first aircraft built that could carry a full torpedo in the belly of an aircraft; no other aircraft could do it,” Miller said.

It’s main mission was anti-submarine, but it was occasionally used against carriers and other surface ships. “It would just come in low and drop its torpedo and take out a ship,” Miller said. Then it would return to its own carrier and perhaps load on another torpedo for another run.

Sometimes, Miller said, a camera was substituted for the machine gun in the lower rear position to aid Avenger in its search for submarines.

“If they got a message from a ship that they were picking up something (enemy submarine activity) on the sonar, they would go over the surface of the water and they would be able to see the shadow of the submarine” even without sonar or other special tracking devices. “Many times I used to be able to fly off the coast of Florida and we would be able to see big sea turtles and manta rays out there all the time.”

The Avenger was 40 feet long, with a span of 54 feet 2 inches. It was 16 feet, 5 inches high requiring crew members to get a toe hold on the lower fuselage, then swing themselves onto the wing from which they could climb inside.

Avenger could fly at a maximum speed of 270 miles per hour, and climb at 1,425 feet per minute. Fully loaded it weighted 17,327 pounds, but without its crew and munitions it weighted only 10,534 pounds.

The Flying Leatherneck Museum is located in a bungalow building off Miramar Road. It is filled with posters, uniforms, and other Marine Corps memorabilia including some captured from enemy pilots. Avenger is parked in the back of the museum, amid some 30 other aircraft, each no doubt prompting memories of missions and personnel. The aircaft models bear such nicknames as “Corsair,” “Chickasaw,” “Seahorse,” “Huey,” “Sea Stallion,” “Cobra,” “Retriever,” “Sea Knight,” “Mitchell,” “Intruder,” “Bronco,” “Fagot,” “Hornet,” “Phantom,” “Skyhawk,” “Crusader,” “Cougar,” “Fury,” Skynight,” “Banshee” and “Texan.”

There is no charge for admission to the museum, but there is a large see-through container near the front-door where contributions are piling up to encourage the planned construction of a more modern and permanent museum expected to be built on an eight-acre parcel adjacent to the present site.

Susan Hathaway, the museum’s public affairs officer, said instead of in a bungalow the museum would be located in a 98,000-square- foot facility which would be opened May 22, 2012, a date marking the 100th anniversary of pioneer pilot A.A. Cunningham’s first flight from Annapolis in a Marine Corps craft.

“There are a lot of artifacts we don’t have here because it is too small,” Hathaway commented. Additionally, “the Retriever (a Pieseki HUP-2 H-25) doesn’t have its blades because they are wood and they wouldn’t hold up to the salt air.” Once the permanent building is completed, that helicopter and another which had wooden blades can be moved inside and the blades can be remounted.”

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  This article appeared previously on

San Diego County’s historic places: Mount Nebo

June 10, 2010 Leave a comment
God spoke to Moses on that very day, saying, “Ascend to this mount of Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, which is before Jericho and see the Land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel as an inheritance, and die on the mountain where you will ascend, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died on Mount Hor, and was gathered to his people because you trespassed against Me among the Children of Israel at the waters of Meribath-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you did not sanctify Me among the Children of Israel. For from a distance shall you see the Land, but you shall not enter there, into the Land that I give to the Children of Israel. —Deuteronomy 32:48-52:
By Donald H. Harrison


Donald H. Harrison

LA MESA, California—Sherman C. Grable, a Methodist from Ohio who evidently knew his Hebrew Scriptures quite well, purchased hundreds of acres of land here in 1906 and decided thereafter to offer to potential settlers a view that the Prophet Moses might envy.

Wonderful view lots were on a hill that rose 300 feet above the table land that was to become known as La Mesa, but which originally was named “Allison Springs,” after settler Robert Allison, and later ” La Mesa Springs.”

Somewhat grandiloquently, Grable named this hill “Mount Nebo” after the summit up which Moses trudged at God’s command to look out upon Canaan and then to be gathered up to his people. Grable’s hill would have needed to grow nearly another half mile in height to match the size of the famed Biblical mountain (2,680 feet) on the Israel-Jordan border, but nevertheless Grable saw from it a panorama that he apparently considered as filled with potential as the Promised Land.

In fact, he could survey from his mountain a nearby area known today as Collier Park (honoring an earlier pioneer, D.C. Collier) and see the spring that was the namesake for Allison Springs/ La Mesa Springs as well as the reason why the San Diego and Cuyamaca Railroad already had located a station below his mountain.

In 1908, two years after purchasing and subdividing his mountain, Grable and partner C.C. Park published the first edition of La Mesa Scout as a way to draw attention to the lots which he sold for $200 if they had a view and $150 if they were on level ground.

“As we leave the Spring Valley station on the Cuyamaca railroad, our attention and admiration are attracted by the wonderful scenery…” wrote the Scout’s first editor, Wiley A. Magruder. “ At last we stop, and alighting from the train, we are conducted to a carriage bound for the summit of that majestic sentinel, Mount Nebo.”

Running short of adjectives, Magruder challenged his readers: “Our own vocabulary was exhausted long ago in the vain searching for an expression that will carry what we mean. To the person or persons who will send in such an expression as will convey something of the feeling one has when he stands upon the summit of Mount Nebo in Lookout Park, we will give a free year’s subscription to this paper.”

Anna M. Gilbert, who in 1924 authored the local history, La Mesa Yesterday and Today, was many years too late for Magruder’s contest, but nevertheless she waxed lyrically: “All around La Mesa are beautiful views and beautiful country but none this side of Grossmont and Helix can surpass that seen from the top of Mt. Nebo. From there ridges of blue-clad mountains can be seen to the north, south and east, while to the west in Point Loma and the bay. At night the lights of San Diego are an added beauty when looking westward.”

Gilbert also recounted a train ride taken from their offices in downtown San Diego to their homes in La Mesa by two town pioneers, Colonel James J. Randlett, a former Civil War scout, and Dr. Parks. They were sitting in the caboose of the mid-day train when “Col Randlett looked out toward Mt. Nebo and seeing the furrows marking off the lots, and the streets plowed, he said: ‘What in the world is Grable doing now?’ Dr. Parks replied ‘Grable expects a street car line to be running to the top of Mt. Nebo in a few years.’ Col. Randall then asked ‘Do you think this place will ever amount to anything?’ Dr. Parks answered that was brought him here and that his belief in La Mesa was unbounded.”

Today, the hill is covered with houses and vegetation and the downtown area bustles with businesses—obscuring views in both directions. Lookout Avenue now is called La Mesa Boulevard. Date Avenue retains its name, but Third Avenue and Railroad Avenue respectively have added to the biblically reminiscent flavor by becoming Acacia and Nebo Avenue.

“Mt. Nebo,” “Acacia,” “Date”—one might get the impression that La Mesa residents wanted their town to be considered a biblical paradise. However, promoters of the area, including Grable himself, also chose other names to invoke images of gracious living. Promotional material for Grable’s hillside development suggested that La Mesa was to San Diego what the tony suburb of Pasadena was to Los Angeles. The comparison so resonated that one of the important streets on Mount Nebo indeed is Pasadena Avenue, not the first time a real estate developer has mixed a metaphor. Developers of nearby property were equally enamored of the Britain of legend, bestowing such street names as Windsor and Canterbury in a section of Mount Nebo dubbed Windsor Hills.

In addition to its views, another distinguishing characteristic of the Mount Nebo neighborhood are the “secret stairs” that rise between home lots from lower streets to Summit Drive. Driving around the neighborhood recently, I saw a shirtless athlete huffing up the 245 steps to Summit Drive from Windsor and Canterbury Drives. As he caught his breath at the top of the stairs, I asked how good a workout the run up had been. “Brutal!” he gasped.

Grable had his large 2 ½ story home, which he named “Hillcrest, ” built at the end of Date Avenue. Another picturesque neighborhood spot is Prospect Way, where La Mesans held Easter Sunrise Services in 1915 before the area’s landmark concrete cross and amphitheatre was built on Mount Helix.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. This article appeared previously on

San Diego’s historic places: Admiral Baker Field, Part 2

June 6, 2010 1 comment

Admiral Wilder Baker

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO – Who was the Admiral Baker for whom Admiral Baker Field with its two golf courses is named?

His son, also named Wilder Baker, replied in a telephone interview from Darien, Connecticut, that in the U.S. Navy, Admiral Baker perhaps was best known as the chief of staff to Admiral John S. McCain, whose grandson, John McCain, became a senator from Arizona and the 2008 presidential candidate.

Admiral Baker (1890-1975) was among the senior officers in the theatre at the time of Japan’s surrender in 1945, having led a task force that attacked the Japanese home islands. Before the U.S. entered World War II, he helped develop tactics for anti-submarine warfare while escorting American convoys to England and dodging German U-boats.

For all the wartime action he saw, it was Admiral Baker’s peacetime role as the commandant of the 11th Naval District that resulted in his name being immortalized at the recreational facility located on what had been a portion of Camp Elliott.

When the postwar decision was made to designate a portion of Camp Elliott as Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and to decommission other portions of the camp, Baker urged that a portion of the facility be set aside for the recreational needs of active duty military personnel and retired members of the Armed Services. Over the ensuing decades, Miramar was turned over to the Navy, and then back to the Marine Corps, while decommissioned portions of the huge base eventually were developed into the community of Tierrasanta and left in its natural state as Mission Trails Regional Park.

Baker retired with the rank of vice admiral in 1952 and joined the senior management of Solar Aircraft for several years thereafter. He became active in civic affairs, particularly as president of the San Diego Symphony, and as a board member of the Community Chest (United Way), Scripps Clinic and YMCA, said his son, an East Coast advertising executive who today owns an advertising consultant agency.

The admiral loved to play golf “but you didn’t want to emulate it,” his son chuckled. “He was a hacker. … One of the stories was how he once shot a hole in one—it was up at Mare Island (in the San Francisco Bay area) off a water tower.”

Whether the story of the fortuitous ricochet shot is true or apocryphal, it is an accurate description of the admiral’s game, said his son.

The admiral and his son played together several times on the golf course bearing his name. “It started as a nine-hole course, mostly dirt,” the son remembered. It grew to 18 holes and then a second course was put in.

Another of the family’s favorite stories about the admiral concerned a time they went up to a favorite vacation spot on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. “He was still on active duty, and people knew he was an admiral,” his son said. So you can imagine the townspeople’s amusement the day that “he went down to get in the canoe, but let the boat slip away from the dock (with his foot still on it) and fell into the lake.”

The townspeople used to tease the admiral about the incident, but he took it in good grace. In the military, subordinates used to say that he was “direct” in his approach to people and fair, his son said.

When the admiral lived at North Island Naval Air Station, he liked to shoot skeet and often tried to get his son to come along. But the younger Wilder Baker wasn’t fond of that sport, “so he would get hold of a friend of mine who lived in Coronado, Nick Reynolds,” who became famous as a member of the Kingston Trio.

Wilder Baker said he was pleased to learn that Admiral Baker Field now is cooperating with the Audubon Society for the protection of wildlife species and the ecology.

Coincidentally, he said, his own wife, Vanda, is on the committee of the Weebern Country Club in Darien working to have that facility likewise certified in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  This article appeared previously on

San Diego’s Historic Places: Admiral Baker Field, Part 1

June 5, 2010 Leave a comment


Admiral Baker Field, San Diego

Donald H. Harrison

By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO—At Admiral Baker Field, home to two side-by-side golf courses, one anticipates an occasional “birdie” or an “eagle.” However, here you will also encounter herons, egrets, coots and other birds. The golf courses featuring a pair of artificial lakes created from the San Diego River also are frequented by deer, fox, coyote, bobcat and, very rarely, mountain lion.


Admiral Baker Field is operated by the Navy Region Southwest, Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) for the benefit of active duty and retired military personnel. Civilians are welcome as their guests.

Lying down the San Diego River from the Mission Trails Regional Park, Admiral Baker Field has won commendation from the Audubon Society as a wildlife sanctuary and as an eco-friendly golfing environment. In particular, the two par-72 courses are considered excellent nesting places for the California Gnatcatcher and the Least Bell’s Vireo, two endangered species.

Among more than 700 golf courses around the country cooperating with the Audubon Society, Admiral Baker Field has installed at various tees plaques and story boards explaining the conservation program and also alerting golfers to some unusual “hazards.”

For example, if just as they start to tee-off, they suddenly hear “mewing” from the bushes, it’s not a lost kitten that broke their concentration, but a California Gnatcatcher, whose call is amazingly kitten-like.

Education is one component of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses, according to the society’s program manager Joellen Lampman of Albany, New York.

To win certification, golf courses must show that they have an environmental planning program, including documentation about wildlife inventories and water quality sampling, said Lampman in a telephone interview.

There should be programs for wildlife habitat management in the out-of-play areas; reduction of chemical use and safe practices; a maintenance facility with proper storage of chemicals; a water conservation program, and water quality management.

Lampman said there are approximately 16,000 golf courses in the country, with 935 in California. At the end of 2009, Lampman said, Admiral Baker Field was one of 52 facilities in the cooperative Audubon program.

One of the regular golfers at Admiral Baker Field is a retired enlisted man who prefers to be identified as “K.C.” A pair of Ferruginous Hawks that make their homes between the tenth and eleventh holes of the North Course have kept K.C. entertained as he is trudging toward his ball.

According to K.C., three years ago the hawks were nestlings who would be left on their own by their parents. In the second year, these same hawks would chase and play with each other, occasionally trying to mate. In this, the third year, the hawks clearly have romance on their minds.

Tom Miller, golf operations manager, said that the North Course is the longer of the two parallel courses, running 6,900 yards along fairly broad fairways. The South Course is 700 yards shorter, but it becomes a little more difficult because the fairways are narrower. Golf shots are therefore more likely to land in the rough.

Although it’s possible that Sam Snead may have played Admiral Baker Field “when he worked at the Sail-Ho” Course – another MWR operated golf course in the San Diego area – not too many golf professionals have been spotted at Admiral Baker’s. Owing to the proximity of Qualcomm Stadium farther downriver, one was more likely to encounter professional athletes in other sports – for example Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres, or Vincent Jackson, a receiver for the San Diego Chargers. However, now that the Padres have moved from Qualcomm Stadium to Petco Park in downtown San Diego, fewer baseball players seem to happen by, according to Miller.

As star-struck as one might become in the presence of nationally admired athletes, there’s a fellow by name of Dave Riddell, who usually plays at MWR’s China Lake facility, who can draw a crowd of admirers. He holds Admiral Baker’s course record—a seven-under-par 65—shot on the North Course.

Miller, who is more likely to shoot an even-par 72 on the course, says the Number 3 hole with its water hazard by the lake and its nice green is one of his favorite holes. On the other hand, he considers the par-4 North #8 with its long uphill climb and a dog-left to the left the toughest.

On an average day, he said, between 350 and 400 golfers will play at Admiral Baker Field, but there have been days when as many as 600 golfers – 150 foursomes—have teed off an average of seven minutes apart.

The lakes were created by diverting water from the San Diego River. Pumping the water from the lakes to the fairways saves MWR lots of money in irrigation costs and utilizes a water supply that would otherwise flow into the Pacific Ocean. But this system is not without its problems. The San Diego River water has a high saline content, resulting in tons of salt being deposited on the course that must be leached with fresh water from other sources.

To manage the situation, the golf course is installing a city water line to bring the fresh water directly to the greens. Planned renovations of the greens is expected to close the North Course for a period of eight months in 2011, with the South Course remaining open for business.

Admiral Baker Field was named for a Vice Admiral who served in World War II in the Pacific Fleet and who was in theatre in time for Japan’s unconditional surrender. In the early 1950s, Admiral Baker was assigned as commandant of the 11th Naval District which includes San Diego.

It seems almost ordained that a golf course named for Admiral Baker would become recognized as a sanctuary for birds and other indigenous animals. The admiral’s first name was Wilder.

Admiral Baker Field is just off Santo Road, near the junction of Mission Gorge and Friars Road in the Grantville neighborhood of San Diego. Besides the two golf courses, Admiral Baker Field offers breakfast, lunch and catered events at its Mission-style clubhouse. It also maintains an RV park, picnic area, swimming pool with elaborate water slides, children’s playground and ball fields. More information may be obtained from Rosella L. Connors, clubhouse facility manager, at (619) 487-0090, or Tom Miller, golf operations manager, at (619) 556-5520.


Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  This article appeared previously on

San Diego’s Historic Places: Calvary Cemetery at Pioneer Park

June 2, 2010 Leave a comment

San Diegan Dan Schaffer views historic tombstones at Pioneer Park. U.S. Grant school is to rear left

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO – Adjacent to the U.S. Grant School in the Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego is the remnant of a Catholic cemetery containing the headstones of some pioneer San Diegans who knew the American President for whom the school is named.

Among those who lie buried in the residue of the  cemetery, which was converted in 1970 to a neighborhood park, are Cave J. Couts, his wife Ysadora Bandini Couts, and Roman Catholic Father Antonio Ubach.

Couts came to San Diego shortly after the Mexican-American War, to help map the boundary between the United States and Mexico. He also laid out and named some of the streets in the area of San Diego that is today known as Old Town.

He fell in love with Ysadora Bandini, daughter of the wealthy and powerful Juan Bandini, whose Casa de Bandini served as headquarters for Commodore Robert Stockton after U.S. Marines aboard the U.S.S. Cyane marched from San Diego Bay and took possession of San Diego in 1846 without initial resistance.

Bandini was a Spaniard of Italian descent who had come to San Diego by way of Peru. He had more sympathy for the Americans than for the Mexicans with whom he lived and had served in California governmnent , and quickly declared his allegiance to the United States.

There are two stories about Ysadora that may be more the stuff of legend than actual history. The first contends that when the Marines took possession of San Diego that there was no American flag to fly over the small town. As the story goes, Ysadora and sisters Arcadia and Josefa fashioned a U.S. flag from their petticoats – making them, if true, West Coast versions of the original U.S. flag maker Betsy Ross.

The other story is that Ysadora met Couts, a handsome Army officer, somewhat unceremoniously. As he and other soldiers made their way past her house on the corner of Old Town Plaza – by then renamed as Washington Square—she allegedly leaned too far over her balcony and might have fallen hard on the ground had Couts not caught her in his arms.

Besides being a soldier and surveyor, Couts was a member of a distinguished Tennessee family. His uncle Cave Johnson, in fact, had been appointed by U.S. President James K. Polk to serve as the U.S. Postmaster General. His family’s prominence helped Couts enter West Point Military Academy. Future Generals U.S. Grant and Lew Wallace—the latter the author of the novel Ben Hur—were Couts’ acquaintances, and both would visit him on the northern San Diego County ranchhouse where he made his home, the 22-room Rancho Guajome located about five miles from Mission San Luis Rey.

Couts served as a member of San Diego County’s first grand jury and later in his life was involved in at least three fatal shootings, although the hot-tempered Southerner never was convicted of a homicide.

As his tombstone reports, Couts died in 1874. His wife was buried next to him 24 years later.

Not too far down a row of tombstones from Cave and Ysadora Couts is the final resting place of Father Antonio Ubach, who had been the parish priest of San Diego for four turbulent decades of the 19th century.

Ubach was a friend and advocate for the California Indians, who were dispossessed of their lands by California settlers. He is said to be the model for the kindly priest in the trail-blazing 19th century novel “Ramona” by Helen Hunt Jackson which aroused sympathy for the plight of the Indians by creating a love story between Ramona, a half-Indian, half-European young woman, and the handsome Indian Alessandro.

In the romantic story, the two eloped, traveling to San Diego where they were married by the character modeled after Ubach. This story—which later would generate a famous movie and an annual outdoor saga in Hemet, California—won the Casa de Estudillo, a close neighbor of the Casa de Bandini, fictional fame as “Ramona’s Marriage Place.”

The beloved story can still draw tourists to the Estudillo home on Old Town Plaza, even though in Jackson’s novel, it really wasn’t at the casa that the marriage took place, but instead at the old adobe chapel located elsewhere in Old Town San Diego, Bruce Coons, the executive director of Save Our Heritage Organization, has noted.

Grant reportedly was familiar with Ubach’s reputation and, according to the Journal of San Diego History, even had the priest convey messages for him to Mexican officials. Ubach was among those who helped to persuade Grant that the California Indians should have lands reserved exclusively for their use – lands that today are known as Indian reservations.

One of the stories in which Ubach figured prominently was in the establishment of “Horton’s Addition” in the area that is today’s downtown of San Diego. Alonzo Horton later recollected that when he arrived in San Diego in 1867, he wanted to purchase developable land on San Diego Bay. The problem was that San Diego had become so sleepy, the terms of the three trustees of the City of San Diego had run out, without anyone bothering to schedule elections for their replacements. Without a properly constituted board of trustees, there was no one to sell land to Horton.

So Horton, a Protestant, went to Ubach’s church, and when the collection plate came around, he ostentatiously put in $10, a princely sum in those days. A standard offering at the time was ten cents. Horton’s generosity prompted Father Ubach to introduce himself to the stranger and to inquire about his business. Horton explained that he wanted an election held for the Board of Trustees so someone could sell him the land. He mentioned the names of three citizens whom he had met – Joseph Mannasse, Ephraim Morse and Thomas Bush—and Ubach duly persuaded his fellow San Diegans to run for the seats. Horton posted $5 to pay the county’s election expenses, and, without opposition, his three picks were elected. They in turn scheduled an auction of 960 acres of city-owned land near the bay, for which Horton successfully bid $2,165—or approximately 27.5 cents an acre.

In all there were some 1,800 people buried at the Cavalry Cemetery, but it gradually fell into disuse and disrepair after another Catholic cemetery was constructed. Eventually the decision was made to take most of the headstones to a ravine at the municipal Mount Hope Cemetery, leaving in place only a sampling of those headstones that had marked the graves of San Diego pioneers.
On a knoll in the park are six large plaques each bearing approximately 300 names of the others who were buried there.

Although many schools are named for U.S. Presidents, the K-8 school whose first class graduated in 1917 could claim a local connection. The 18th President’s son, Ulysses S. Grant Jr., had moved to San Diego and became an entrepreneur here, constructing in the early 20th century the landmark U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego.

That hotel is today owned by the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Indians, an investment that honors the President who set aside lands for their ancestors.

The coincidence of a school named for President U.S. Grant being adjacent to a cemetery bearing the remains of the nephew of the Postmaster General in President James K. Polk’s administration is not the only presidential “connection” in this Mission Hills neighborhood to chief executives of the U.S. government.

The cemetery and school are bounded on the north by Washington Place.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.   A version of this article previously appeared on