Shadows of the Past
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The potential for underwater archaeological resources on submerged lands surrounding Point Loma has not been thoroughly assessed. There are at least three sources of potential cultural material offshore. First, prehistoric artifacts from terrestrial Native American sites could have eroded into the sea with rising ocean levels. Second, vessels sailing along the coast could have wrecked on rocky shores or floundered immediately offshore. Third, military activities could have deposited equipment and other debris off shore. These human activities are possible sources of artifacts or historic materials resting in sandstone and shale reef trenches, in tidal recesses and in the ever-sifting sands and gravels of submerged lands.

The underwater archaeology on the eastern side of Point Loma is directly related to the 'safe harbor' characteristics of this location. Perhaps for thousands of years, mariners navigated in the inner harbor, away from crushing surf, churning cobblestones, and treacherous reefs on the western side of the peninsula. Strong surges at the southern tip can break anchor chains and force vessels northward toward Ballast Point or Zuniga Point and shoals. Relatively calm waters inside Ballast Point make it the first safe anchorage inside the harbor. About a mile northward, La Playa provided fresh water springs and more level ground for residence. Fresh water could be found at Whaler's Bight spring at North Island, eastward from Ballast Point, and the San Diego River, five miles north. Prehistoric Native American camps surround these springs, but only three historic Kumeyaay villages are known to have been occupied when Spanish colonists arrived in 1769. One of these Kumeyaay villages - "Pauripa" - existed at the north end of Point Loma.

From the earliest Spanish colonization of San Diego, the rim of San Diego Bay served as the embarkation point for mariners and their passengers. Their camps are evidenced by accumulated historic discards and some refuse deposits in the bay itself. Underwater archaeologist Roy Pettus has documented nine locations of underwater cultural material south of Ballast Point, which he recorded with a magnetometer as CA-SDi-8897 (Pettus 1982:28). He also documented two wreck sites (Pettus 1982:31).

Architect Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA, researched historic maps of San Diego Bay and concluded that the sea level has risen to erode the original shoreline back a number of meters (Donaldson 1996). He proposed that the southern half of Fort Guijarros (CA-SDi-12,000) has crumbled into the sea south of Ballast Point. This correlates to Pettus' discovery of Spanish wall tiles offshore in the underwater artifact debris field (CA-SDi-8897).

Geological Transformation Processes

The underwater archaeology of Point Loma is directly tied to geological transformational processes. Oceanographic research has demonstrated a sea level rise of 30 meters over the past 10,000 years that has caused the San Diego coastline to retreat over a half mile in the vicinity of Point Loma (Masters 1988). Since Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo visited San Diego Bay in 1542, the sea level has risen at least one meter and the land sloughed away considerably. Man-made structures, campsites, and landmarks on those former landforms fell into the water as the water rose and land eroded.

Massive landslides have been recorded on Point Loma over the past century. In recent years, the Navy observed a huge slide on the bayside of Point Loma that took out an historic Army artillery base end station (Rieger 1998). Known roads, trees, and former refuse dumps also fell away into the sea over the past fifty years. Debris from those slides can be observed at low tide and among the shale cobblestones on the beaches as discussed below.

Military construction over the first fifty years of the 20th century did not often take into consideration vital engineering geology. The Army Quartermaster Corps and Army Corps of Engineers simply excavated into the soft, sandy soils of Point Loma to construct roads, install cast concrete bunkers, lay utility lines, and erect communication tunnels. The man-made slope gradient of McCleland Road, for example is so steep that massive landslides have occurred repeatedly in recent years (May 1999). These constructions disrupted and loosened the soils, removed protective groundcover, and exposed the entire area to massive erosion. Loss of groundcover has accelerated rainwater velocity, causing sedimentation at lower levels, softening and saturating steep bluffs on the east side of Point Loma. Those bluffs have experienced numerous large landslides. High velocity underwater surge has been studied and mapped by the Navy since 1962. This surge scours the bottom, tearing anchors, buoy lines, and artifacts from their original deposition. Landslide soil hitting this tidal surge is caught in colloidal transport and carried miles out to sea.

Underwater Archaeology Survey South of Ballast Point

Pettus noted this tidal surge problem during his 1981 underwater survey of Ballast Point (Pettus 1982:32-34). The surge dragged 100-pound anchors many meters. This same surge could easily drag cannons, Spanish wall tiles, and more recent artifacts from CA-SDi-8897 south along the cobblestone shoreline near the eastern boundary of the monument.

Operating under a Navy permit and diving from a Navy Torpedo Retriever, Pettus designed 50-meter transects that were surveyed in 2-meter intervals by dive team members trained in underwater archaeology. They cored sample sediments which yielded one Galera (lead-glazed) (1790-k 835) ceramic sherd, two Mexican Majolica sherds, two unglazed Mexican wheel-thrown jar sherds, an Army Quartermaster Department (1902-1945) serving platter and a Spanish wall tile (Pettus 1982). Underwater surface recoveries included a California Gray Whale (Euchrichtus gibbosus) nasal plate and two saw-cut butchered domestic cattle (Bos taurus) cattle bones (Pettus 1982:41). The Mexican Majolica sherds were Aranama Tradition, a 1790-1835 style also found in the nearby land excavation of Fort Guijarros (CA-SDi-12,000) (May 1995). He also recorded two prehistoric milling slabs (metates) and recovered a Catholic medallion necklace.

The Catholic necklace presented a puzzling mystery. Diver James Muche recovered the necklace on a reconnaissance transects east of Cabrillo National Monument (Pettus, Personal Communication). Pettus soaked it in distilled water, followed by baths of Carbowax to prevent metal corrosion or decomposition of the olive wood beads. The state of preservation of the latter presents the mystery, as wood normally deteriorates rapidly in local waters. No satisfactory explanation has been provided to explain the survival of the wood beads in the water. No one has determined if it has been submerged since 1830, or if a sailor lost it recently.

The oval brass medallion measures 2.0 centimeters long, 1.1 centimeters wide and is 0.08 centimeters thick. One side is embossed Maria sipecado concebeda rogadpor nosotros 1830 and the other M on a crucifix over two small flaming hearts with twelve tiny stars surrounding. A smaller copper medallion linking the beads to the oval medallion is embossed with O Marie concue sins peche.

Since 1993 when Pettus placed the artifacts in the care of the Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation with the permission of the State of California, new information has come to light concerning the history of the Catholic necklace. A representative from the Smithsonian Institution reported similar Miracle of 1830 medals struck by the Catholic Church in the 1840s to commemorate a venerated miracle (May 1999b). This information rules out deposition of the Catholic necklace during the 1790-1835 occupation of Fort Guijarros and suggests it dates to late in the Mexican Period (1822-1846). This artifact is currently on display at the monument museum, with a replica Spanish flag, a photograph of an 1843 sketch of Fort Guijarros, and several Majolica sherds recovered in sediment core samples.

Pettus did not survey the two underwater wrecks noted in his survey report. His goal was to document potential locations of Mexican cannons reportedly dumped in San Diego Bay by the American Army in 1847 (Pettus 1982:47). He concluded seasonal sand deposition covers heavy metal objects, such as cannons, and the cost of recovery would be substantial. As much as twelve feet of sand covers the cobblestone and shale bedrock south of Ballast Point. The cost of subsand archaeology was deemed prohibitive in 1982 and no further work has been conducted since that year. An additional consideration is the high cost of conservation of cannons, should they be found and recovered. The Navy and Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation concluded that recovery was unlikely.

The prehistoric milling slabs remain where Pettus recorded them in 1981. One feldspathic quartzite specimen measured 29.8 centimeters by 26.2 centimeters and 15.6 centimeters thick. It is oval and in plan view and ground on one side, but has been covered by marine barnacles (Balanus glandula) and white bryozoans (Tricellaria occidentalis). The other is sandstone and measures 25.8 centimeters by 20.4 centimeters by 7.6 centimeters. This specimen is complete with a 2.5-centimeter deep grinding basin. These artifacts probably date from prehistoric occupation of the old landform before the sea level rose to cover and erode the old shoreline. Being heavy, these objects probably fell, rather than washed away to deeper water.

Beach Surveys

As early as 1980, sailors at the Naval Submarine Support Facility observed the barrel of a bronze cannon protruding in the shallow water south of Ballast Point. Commander John C. Hinkle, then Commanding Officer, Naval Submarine Support Facility, led archaeologists to the approximate location of the cannon in July of 1980 (Hinkle 1980). Although the cannon was not in sight, large ferrous metal machinery parts, light gauge rail wheels, broken white ironstone table ceramics, amethyst bottle glass, and concrete littered the beach. Rusted wire cable segments popped up between boulders and jagged cast iron promised a treacherous traverse for anyone searching for the cannon.

The archaeologists identified these artifacts as Army debris to between 1898 and 1914 (May 1980). This would place those artifacts in the earliest Army garrison period when the Army Coast Artillery developed a sea coast defense of the United States. Examination of the bluffs by binoculars revealed a concentration of refuse near a stand of eucalyptus trees high above the debris field on the beach. Commander Hinkle later arranged access to the area, where more Army table ceramics, amethyst bottle glass sherds (pre-1914), amber medicine bottle glass sherds, rusted ferrous metal and a few brass .30-40 caliber Krag rifle bullet shells (1898-1903) were observed. These artifacts confirmed this historic archaeological deposit dates to the 1898 to 1914 time period. The relationship of these artifacts high up on the bluff and low on the beach below is apparently the result of a landslide.

In 1996, architect Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA, examined historical maps of San Diego Bay spanning 1792 to 1942 and concluded that Ballast Point also suffered sea level rise and erosion. Donaldson established that a significant portion of the 1796 Spanish cannon battery, known as Fort Guijarros, had eroded into the sea (Donaldson 1996). Observation of water-worn Spanish tiles on the beach in the 1950s by Fred Buchanan, Navy Public Works Center, confirmed this erosive effect. Discovery of a portion of the surviving walls of Fort Guijarros on land indicated that the walls extended directly toward the beach (May 1982; 1995; 1996). Underwater archaeological survey also confirmed the presence of Spanish tiles many yards off shore (Pettus 1982).

The riprap and cobblestones along the south side of Ballast Point contain heavily corroded steel sheet, broken mechanical parts, and dangerous ends of heavy wire cable. Large cast concrete chunks among the metal are all that remains of the Army's 1898 Battery Fetterman. The Army demolished this artillery battery in 1943, to make room for an Army Quartermaster warehouse. Road renovation in 1988 exposed the basal foundations of Battery Fetterman. Over the years, Army Quartermaster spoons, forks, and butter knives have been found on the beach in association with the twisted steel and concrete rubble. The storm surf and high tides eroded the old beach in the vicinity of Rosecrans Street, washing artifacts from all periods out to sea. Presumably, this would explain the Army Quartermaster Depot serving platter recovered by Pettus at CA-SDi-8897. The southern surge could easily transport small items like these to the beach east and offshore from the northeastern corner of the monument.

The 1980 beach survey led by Commander Hinkle did not reveal Spanish artifacts, bronze cannon tubes, whale bones, or Army artifacts on the beach below Cabrillo National Monument. However, no underwater survey has been conducted in that area to confirm this observation. Objects are more likely to be located offshore than on shore lands.

Underwater Shipwrecks

No archaeologist has conducted in depth historic research in the Spanish Archives of the Indies, National Archives in Mexico City, Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, or other archival sources for data of underwater wrecks or sites off Point Loma. This is beyond the scope of this study as well. Pettus did compile a Remote Sensing Survey Map with symbols for known wreck sites and ferromagnetic anomalies (Pettus 1982). One of the latter offshore sightings appears relatively close to the Navy and monument boundary, but the location has not been examined for identification. Neither of the known wrecks has been inventoried by underwater archaeologists.

Navy divers conducting training exercises south of Ballast Point often recovered bottles and donated them to the Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation over the years (May 1996). These include Scottish ale bottles (1870-1929), amethyst picnic flasks (1885-1920), dark green liquor bottles (1840-1870), butchered whale bone (1858-1886), and Spanish tiles (1796-1810). Those divers often described the underwater wrecks as decomposing wooden vessels, which are havens for lobster and fish. Additionally, several large diesel engines, propeller shafts, and mechanical metal exist between reefs from the end of Point Loma and Ballast Point. Presumably, these are additional uncharted wrecks.

Around 1990, the Navy reported a World War II PT boat sunk southeast of Point Loma (May 2000). The divers reported that the hulk contained undetonated ordnance. Navy SEAL teams used the wreck for ordnance explosive training. Five years later, underwater remote camera surveys southwest of Point Loma revealed a debris field of World War II aircraft (Pettus 1995). Pettus directed that survey and concluded these were scrapped in the late 1940s and pushed off aircraft carriers. These random, uncharted occurrences of World War II air and watercraft support the potential for other wrecks to exist along the reefs and shoals east of Point Loma.

The Potential for Underwater Archaeology

There has been sufficient cultural activity surrounding Point Loma to believe sunken vessels, lost fishing boats, dumped aircraft, and military equipment lie offshore. During the early 1950s, Point Loma residents often reported derelict ships breaking up in the rocky surf off Hill Street or west of the Theosophical Society (now Point Loma Nazarene College), and further south (May 2000). Wooden ship hatches, sailing masts and spars, pieces of military aircraft, and rumors of World War II Japanese floating mines were often reported to Navy authorities and local news media in the 1950s.

For a period of time between 1955 and 1962, warped stainless steel sheet exhibiting acid etching and rivets washed up in the tide pools of what is now the Pacific side of the monument. This sheeting may have been remnants of World War II military aircraft (May 2000).

Nothing is documented for Navy or foreign shipping sinking off Point Loma during World War II. Yet, military reports such as the following quote do document actions that may have resulted in materials now potential underwater archaeology off Point Loma

All batteries eight inches and below were put on constant anti-submarine alert status. During the period of the war, there were sixty-one reports of enemy submarines, unidentified surface vessels, and underwater contacts off San Diego recorded by Harbor Defenses. During 1942 and 1943, local defense ships and planes went into action twenty-eight times on the basis of such reports, and during 1943, 115 depth charges were dropped by these forces. No friendly shipping was sunk and no enemy craft were ever identified within range of the Harbor Defense guns (Harbor Defenses of San Diego 1945: no author 1988: 19).

While none of those sightings were confirmed in World War II, there is evidence enemy spy messages were transmitted from Point Loma to offshore vessels (May 1999c). In 1975, Mac McReynolds cleaned out the basement crawlspace of his old two-story Spanish style home on top of Point Loma and found a German military radio transmitter. McReynolds pulled the transmitter from behind a mound of 1945 newspapers. When cleaned of a thick layer of dust, the gray cover displayed a gold decal of a Nazi eagle holding a swastika in its talons. Further examination of the house revealed an antennae wire strung through the attic crawl space and windows faced the Pacific Ocean. McReynolds later moved to Austin, Texas and took the transmitter out of San Diego.

Finally, if Donaldson is correct and most of the 1796 Spanish cannon battery eroded into San Diego Bay, then a huge debris field of 200 year old artifacts could be expected south of Ballast
Point. The tidal surge could have transported these materials along the bay side of Point Loma south for up to several miles. This same surge would include U.S. Army artifacts from the 1902-1945 dumpsite.

Strandings and Floundered Vessels

Popular maritime histories cite several strandings, sinkings or floundered vessels along the southern shores of the peninsula, including Ballast Point and Zuniga shoals between 1851 and 1943. Detailed research at the Maritime Museum of San Diego and San Francisco National Historical Park's J. Porter Shaw Library has not been conducted to determine if remains of lost vessels may exist within the coastal zone of the monument. Typical of the stranded vessels was the three masted schooner Alice McDonald (built in 1888 at Bath, Maine) which was towed in December 1909 from a location immediately seaward of the 1891 lighthouse (Fig. 27). This wooden hulled merchant vessel was refloated and returned to service until 1918.

Educational Interpretive Value of Underwater Archaeology

Cabrillo National Monument could use the underwater archaeology information to enhance interpretive programs for visitor enjoyment. While viewing the sea at the entrance to San Diego Bay on the east side of the monument, visitors could read text concerning the ship wrecks, sea rise damage to the Spanish fort, landslide loss of Army bunkers, and potential for World War spy boats offshore. Information concerning the number of offshore enemy sightings and the German transmitter during World War II could provide a dramatic display near the whale watching area on the west side.

The underwater archaeological resources south of Ballast Point on the bay side provide important educational values. New exhibit plaques showing landslides could provide strong visual displays of the geological transformation of Point Loma over the past 15,000 years and the effects on prehistoric and historic sites. In oceanographer Patricia Masters 1988 publication concerning the geological reconstruction of the Point Loma and the surrounding landform, there are line drawings depicting a succession of ancient shorelines spanning the past 15,000 years. With Masters' permission, her exhibits of the sea level rise and coastal retreat could be used to show how San Diego Bay once looked like Mission Valley. She would also be an excellent guest speaker at a future Cabrillo Historical Association lecture series.

One or two maps printed on metal and installed adjacent to the stone masonry wall outside the Interpretive Center could explain the rising sea level and tidal surge, which spread artifacts all along the cobblestone shore below. Broad general circles drawn around the general locations of offshore Fort Guijarros, Ballast Point Whaling Station, and Army trash dumps would provide important learning experiences.

Underwater archaeology always holds a strong draw to park visitors. A new interpretive exhibit on the 1796 Spanish cannon battery on Ballast Point could use one or more of the Jay Wegter watercolor painting lithographs, through an agreement with the Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation. The exhibit could include continued loan of the Catholic necklace and Spanish Majolica ceramics that are currently on exhibit. The addition of a Spanish cannon ball, samples of Spanish tiles, and cross-sectional drawings would provide a better understanding of the 18th century lifestyle. The objects should be selected for visual connectivity to the Spanish occupation of Point Loma. For example, a water worn Spanish tile could draw attention to the rising sea level effects on the Spanish fort, which is an on-going process.

Interpretation of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse role in the Ballast Point Whaling Station operations could be interpreted using one of the Scottish ale bottles recovered by Navy divers just east of the monument. These artifacts still show coraline encrustations on the surface. The ale bottle probably represents transit of the whalers from Ballast Point to the kelp beds, where the California Gray Whales fed on plankton and squid. The exhibit could show how lighthouse keepers alerted the whalers at Ballast Point of spouting whales. Additionally, the exhibit could include representation of the Chinese fishing camp on Ballast Point. Another Jay Wegter watercolor depicting the Ballast Point Chinese fishing camp could also be used to demonstrate the ethnic diversity on Point Loma during that period of time.

The underwater Army debris field east of the Navy and the monument boundary could be used to highlight Point Loma Military Reservation and Fort Rosecrans histories. Illustration of the underwater Army discarded debris field and potential for tidal surge redeposit east of the monument could be used to establish the fact that most of the monument was formerly Fort Rosecrans. Sample artifacts borrowed from the Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation by arrangement with the Navy could be used to illustrate public history values of the lifestyles of soldiers from the 1898 Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II.

Future Historical Research

The National Park Service should plan a future comprehensive archival survey to document potential underwater resources off Point Loma. In addition to California archival sources, historians skilled in Spanish orthography at the Spanish Naval Museum in Madrid, Spain and the Archives of the Indies should review records of the Royal Presidio de San Diego, Spanish and Mexican Customs, and reports of shipping losses.

Specific research tasks should include at least one month in the National Archives of Mexico City to review documents of the supply packet ships sent from San Blas, Mexico to San Diego, Alta California between 1769 and 1822. Copies of all supply lists, cannons and other military equipment, and other materials transshipped between Mexico and San Diego should be documented to illustrate Spanish and Mexican lifeways, with emphasis on the Point Loma communities at Ballast Point and La Playa. The study should also document any other shipments from Mexican sources after formation of the Mexican Republic.

In addition to Mexican archives, extensive research in federal National Archives concerning the Topographic Survey of San Diego Bay, the Tidal Gage data collection, Army Corps of Engineers surveys, Customs and Treasury records, and Maritime Court records should be researched to document all known offshore vessel wrecks in the Point Loma area. This includes all Navy records, such as sea charts archived at West Point and Annapolis. This should include the California State Archives, Government Land Office records, which contains the most comprehensive collection of maritime maps of California.

Finally, historic research should canvas the various private museums containing ship's logs, sea charts, and coastal art that might include San Diego. The various charts often marked vessel wrecks, equipment loss sites, and maritime hazards. Various maritime museums on the Eastern seaboard should be included. For example, the Kendall Whaling Museum in Sharon, Massachusetts contains ship logs, sea charts, photographs, sketches, and correspondence of whaling ships that visited San Diego. Specific searches should be made for the records of the Pacific Mail Steamship Line, which transshipped whale oil from Ballast Point and men and supplies to and from San Francisco.

Synthesis of all this archival work should be conducted to ascertain the potential for underwater archaeology off Point Loma. All potential wreck sites, refuse dumps, and other features need to be field surveyed in compliance with Section 110, National Historic Preservation Act requirements.

Future Underwater Survey

The lessons learned by Pettus in 1981 should form the basis for a future underwater survey of the coastal waters off Point Loma. At the very minimum, a thorough underwater survey of the area between the tip of Point Loma and Ballast Point would be needed to document the presence or absence of Spanish cannon battery debris and Army artifacts. The area surveyed by Pettus should be reexamined in this new survey to document changes in the past twenty years. The goal of this future underwater survey would be to satisfy Section 110, National Historic Preservation Act inventory requirements by searching for all potential artifacts and wrecks.

The results of the future underwater survey would be used to develop a management program for those resources and further develop interpretive programs for the monument. There may even be a future time when underwater historic resources interpretation could be part of the mission.


Donaldson, Milford Wayne
1996 National Register Nomination, Fort Guijarros, CA-SDi-12,000. U.S. Navy, Southwest Division.

Hinkle, John C.
1980 Personal Communication.

Masters, Patricia
1988 Section 4 Paleo-Environmental Reconstruction of San Diego Bay, 10,000 B.P. to Present, Five Thousand Years of Maritime Subsistence at Ballast Point Prehistoric Site SDI-48 (W-164) San Diego, California. Westec Services.

May, Ronald V.
1980 Personal Communication.

1982 The Search for Fort Guijarros: An Archaeological Test of a Legendary 18th Century Spanish Fort in San Diego. In Fort Guijarros, Tenth Annual Cabrillo Festival Historic Seminar. (1)10:1-22.


1996 Nomination of Fort Guijarros, CA-SDI-12,000, CA-SDI-12,000, to the National Register of Historic Places and Preliminary Determination of the Site Boundaries. Research Report prepared for Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA, Inc. San Diego.

1999 Personal Communication.

1999a Environmental Assessment Report, McCleland Road Landslide Remediation Impacts. Prepared for Space and Naval Warfare, U.S. Navy. San Diego.

1999b Personal Communication.

1999c U.S. Army Architecture at Fort Rosecrans. Military History Conference, 100th Anniversary of Fort Rosecrans. Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation, San Diego.

2000 Personal Communication.

Pettus, Roy
1982 Underwater Archaeology Research in San Diego Bay Offshore From Fort Guijarros. In Fort Guijarros, Tenth Annual Cabrillo Festival Historic Seminar. (1)10:23-60.

1995 Personal Communication.

Rieger, Mary Platter
1998 Personal Communication.

Government Documents

U.S. Army
1945 Harbor Defenses of San Diego. Manuscript at Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation. San Diego.

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Last Updated: 06-Apr-2005