On October 14, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson issued proclamation establishing Cabrillo National Monument. This action came at the behest of a San Diego civic organization that wished to erect a "monumental statue" to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. The Spanish explorer, who had visited the area in 1542, was considered by Californians to be the discoverer of the state.
The monument site, located on the tip of Point Loma, was chosen not only for its proximity to the supposed landing place of Cabrillo but primarily for its magnificent view of the ocean and surrounding area. The half-acre plot also contained a nineteenth century lighthouse. Long abandoned, the structure was scheduled to be demolished to make way for the memorial.
When a reluctant National Park Service was given jurisdiction over the area twenty years later, the lighthouse still stood and plans for the grandiose memorial had been forgotten. For the understaffed, under-budgeted bureaucracy struggling to categorize and manage its various properties, Cabrillo National Monument presented formidable problems. More than one administrator has pointed out that it is a unique place whose commemorative significance is obscured and overwhelmed by its surroundings. When inherited by the Park Service, the area memorialized an event that had not even take place within its borders. At the same time, it contained a historic structure that bore no relationship to the monument's reason for existence. To complicate matters even more, the chief attraction for the local populace was the spectacular view.
As the monument expanded, administrative problems intensified. Each extension brought something new to be managed and interpreted to the public. Eventually included within its boundaries were an extensive tidepool ecosystem, intact remnants of the coastal fortifications from two world wars, and acres of native plant and wildlife. In addition, the monument had become known as the best place in Southern California to observe the annual gray whale migration. While this embarrassment of riches caused no problems for Cabrillo's millions of visitors, high level Park Service officials had great difficulty fitting the monument into the system's overall management plans.
Problems of administration have not been limited to managing Cabrillo's many attractions. The monument's superintendents have had, by necessity, to deal with the military establishment as well as their own bureaucracy. Surrounded by land first controlled by the Army, then the Navy, the monument was closed during World War II, and after the War some question remained if the area would ever be opened to the public again.
Unlike many National Park Service properties, Cabrillo has the distinction of being one of the first to operate in an urban environment. It's proximity to downtown San Diego and the fact that it was established through local instigation has made the monument an integral part of the community. In many instances, this has worked to its advantage. Pressure applied through the general public and local officials has, on more than one occasion, saved the area from permanent closure and resulted in boundary extensions and continuing appropriations.
This close association has had, however, its disadvantages as well. Administrators often have been drawn into local controversies and development plans have been created by community interests that, if implemented, could have been detrimental to the monument's broader mission.
As part of a larger government bureaucracy, Cabrillo has been subject to the problems, varying agendas and changes in philosophies that have occurred within that system. It is in dealing with the monument's diverse attributes and its uniqueness among National Park Service properties, however, that administrators have found their greatest challenge.
Last Updated: 02-Mar-2005