A Page from History: Success on the shore — the story of Shelter Island
Shelter Island has been a resounding success story, especially for what was a shifting shoal that was once considered a navigational hazard.
The course of history seldom runs in a straight line. In fact, history may often be said to meander in one direction for a time until that path is changed. Such corrections are often evident only in retrospect.
The flow of San Diego’s history has been closely tied to both the shifting channels of the mighty San Diego River and the development of our remarkable natural harbor, San Diego Bay. This story has its beginnings at a place and time where and when both of those waterways came together.
In recorded history the river has emptied into both San Diego and Mission bays. Early Spanish charts from the 18th century depict islands near the estero on San Diego Harbor. The waterway that today separates Liberty Station from San Diego International Airport, known by the apt appellation “the boat channel,” may be thought of as the direct descendent of that river mouth.
Following that course toward the entrance to San Diego Bay, one can see how sand and silt carried down the river toward the sea might have formed the shifting shoal that was once considered a navigational hazard but instead, and improbably, became one of San Diego’s treasures, Shelter Island.
Shoal, mudbank, sandbar and sometimes completely submerged — Shelter Island was all those things in the first half of the 20th century.
“We always called it an island,” recalled Point Loma resident Linda Fox, who took swimming lessons at Kellogg Beach as a young girl in the 1940s. “I remember very clearly our swimming instructor Henry Gunther in his three-piece suit and Florsheim shoes,” she said with a laugh. “It was a wonderful place to learn to swim. It wasn’t really that deep there, and when you became proficient, you could swim out to the island! Of course, they sure don’t like you doing that these days.”
Fox remembers paddling out to the island for picnics in a boat with family and friends. “It was awfully muddy out there in some spots,” she recalled.
Shelter Island pioneer Jim Baker remembers similar picnics with his own family as a kid. “We used to row out there,” he said. “They connected the island when I was 10 years old.”
The island’s connection had been a contentious topic of discussion for a couple of decades, since the San Diego Yacht Club literally floated across the bay from Coronado onto pilings in Roseville at the foot of Talbot Street in 1934. That same year, in a joint venture between the San Diego Harbor Commission and the federal government, a dredging operation began to deepen the San Diego Harbor channel.
One aspect of that project called for dredging of a 200-foot-wide channel, 20 feet deep, to the Yacht Club, around the north end of Shelter Island through the commercial basin, now known as America’s Cup Harbor. What is referred to as the spoil of the dredging — mostly mud and sand — was deposited along the sandbar, building it up to more of a full-time island.
The position of the shored-up sandbar, paralleling the beach of La Playa and Roseville, had been paramount in providing a very safe, calm anchorage between the mainland and the island. Though the name now seems an obvious choice, Shelter Island was the winner of a 1935 contest to name the previously unnamed sandbar. Among other suggestions were San D Island and Channel Island.
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In the years following its development, Shelter Island was extolled as “the people’s island” for its parks and public amenities. But in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, it often was lampooned as “Bate’s Folly.”
Harbor Commissioner John Bate, sharing the vision of his predecessor, longtime Harbormaster Joe Brennan, was a strong proponent of the development of the “new” island. As the recreational and pleasure boating industry exploded following World War II, the need for boat slips by the thousands became critical. Bate also felt that public access to Shelter Island was a priority that could not be ignored.
Connecting the island to the mainland seemed like a propitious plan, but how? Opinions were many. A bridge and another ferry were both considered. One early concept suggested attaching Shelter Island at its south end near the Quarantine Station.
As implausible as it sounds today, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce did not share the Harbor Department’s vision for the island’s potential. One chamber proposal called for the island to be left alone, another for it to be dredged out of existence, widening the entrance to San Diego Bay.
But the legacy of Harbormaster Brennan was that he got things done his way, unfazed by critics and opponents. Postwar economic conditions favored continued development of our great natural resource, San Diego Bay, and Commissioner Bate was not one to miss that opportunity. The push to develop Shelter Island went forward.
A concept was eventually adopted that would extend the short point, or mole, at the foot of Byron Street toward the island and eventually connect the two. Estimates to complete the connection came in at slightly less than $400,000.
Completion of the entire project, fortifying and adding dirt to the top of the island and adding utilities, roads and some landscaping, brought the total estimate to $1.3 million. Remember, this was 1950 — folks had been through two wars and the Depression. Economic resurgence and optimism notwithstanding, 1.3 mil seemed extravagant.
With the support of the San Diego Yacht Club, the Harbor Department stayed the course. San Diego’s first sportfishing club, the Marlin Club, had moved in just north of the Yacht Club on the Byron Street mole. The Southwestern Yacht Club moved to Sandy Point, aka Hancock Point, at the foot of Qualtrough Street inside of Shelter Island in 1950. The clubs, with their strong political connections, backed up the direction of the Harbor Department and helped turn the tide of public opinion in favor of Shelter Island development. In retrospect, it was a splendid investment.
Jim Baker’s grandfather Robert “Captain Bob” Baker started Baker Marine Instruments, selling and servicing navigational and optical equipment, in downtown San Diego in 1936. He became one of John Bate’s first leaseholders along Byron Street, moving his business along with the Baker School of Navigation to Shelter Island in 1950.
Jim’s dad, Ken, a purchasing agent for Kettenburg Boat Works, took a leap of faith and opened the first fuel dock on the new yacht basin in 1951. The Standard dock went in next door to Baker Marine Instruments.
“You’d think that would have been a sure thing,” Jim said. “But that first year, he could go a week and not get a boat at that gas dock.”
Jim started working at the fuel dock as an eighth-grader in 1955 and stayed until he graduated from college in 1964. Along the way he learned from his grandfather how to do compass adjustments.
Jim remembers the boatyards going in across the street on the commercial basin. “The first things to go in on the island were the Bali Hai (originally known as Christian’s Hut) and then the Kona Kai,” he said. “But I think the boat ramp and the fishing pier were there from the very beginning.”
Jim remembers that Bate had “a passion for tropical foliage. If you had a palm tree, Mr. Bate wanted it (for Shelter Island).”
Shelter island became well-known for its lush tropical landscape design as well as its dominant theme of Polynesian Modern/Atomic tiki-style architecture. Spread by the popularity of James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific” and its spinoff musical and film, the 1950s marked the heyday of American tiki culture. Shelter Island can lay a legitimate claim as ground zero of that phenomenon.
“Until the Port District replaced the Harbor Department in 1962, there were really no Harbor Police,” Jim said. When the Harbor Police office and landing went in on the south end of Shelter Island, Port District boss Bate kept his own boat tied up there and lived aboard.
“There was an earthquake in Chile one of those years that caused a bit of a surge that washed out three Shelter Island docks and also did some damage at the Southwestern Yacht Club and at the Bali Hai dock,” according to Jim. “It woke up Mr. Bate and knocked him out of bed!”
Shelter Island has been a resounding success story. The commercial basin has become one of the sportfishing capitals of the world. The yacht basin is now home to well over 3,000 pleasure craft. True to its vision as the people’s island, Shelter Island Shoreline Park extends the length of the eastern shore of the island. The mile-long ribbon of lawns, benches, picnic tables and playgrounds offers unparalleled views of downtown San Diego, San Diego Bay, North Island, Point Loma and Coronado.
Shoreline Park spans the bay side of Shelter Island, featuring a public fishing pier, a boat-launching ramp and sweeping views of San Diego Bay and the city skyline.
The hotels and restaurants on the west side of the island have literally kept a low profile. The public fishing pier, public beach and fire pits are well-loved and well-used. The public boat-launching ramp on Shelter Island, the busiest in California, tallies upward of 50,000 launches per year. The new and improved facility features a launch basin 80 percent larger than the old one.
The island remains a great place for a picnic, to catch an art show or a concert or watch the boat parade of lights. It also is an excellent spot to fly a kite, but let’s keep that one our little secret, OK?
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society. OBHS board member Kitty McDaniel contributed to this article. Membership in OBHS, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is $25 annually. Visit obhistory.org.