On the 22nd of August, 1859, the little steamer Senator called at San Diego with passengers from Los Angeles. It rounded the point under the lighthouse and entered the harbor’s narrow channel at about 8:00 on a hot blue morning. Its destination was the new wharf, on the site of the present-day sportfishing piers, near Shelter Island, but it stopped in the stream to accommodate one important passenger who wished to be rowed ashore on Point Loma to revisit an old haunt.
He was short and erect, with strong arms beneath a gentleman’s coat; he had longish dark hair and a wide expressive mouth. Like others in his family, his eyesight weakened in times of mental stress. When he was 16, this condition had been aggravated by a case of measles, and he had decided not to rejoin his undergraduate class at Harvard College after being expelled for joining a students’ rebellion. Unable to read, bored and aimless, he had gone to sea, not as a paying passenger (he hadn’t the money, in any case) but as an ordinary sailor quartered forward of the mast, in the forecastle. He had never sailed in his life, apart from launching toys on a duck pond, yet he shipped out of Boston, rounded Cape Horn, spent 18 months at hard labor loading ships with cowhides taken from the wild California coast, returned a hero to his classmates, and narrated his adventure in an extraordinary book, Two Years Before The Mast.
He was Richard Henry Dana Jr., now revisiting San Diego on a recreational voyage around the world. During this trip he had been enjoying a revival of his literary reputation. In San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles, he had been met as a visiting dignitary. His book, with meaty detail about life on the California ranchos and juicy observations on many Californians still living in 1859, met with an eager readership on the coast, especially since the former Mexican province had joined the United States and Californians could find in Dana’s writing an accurate prediction of the Yankee conquest.
“You can have no idea of the interest that is taken with my visit,” he wrote to his wife on the day following his stop in San Diego, “the number of persons who remember me (or think they do) and the number who have read my book – everybody has read it – and I am met with kindness and earnest inquiries and congratulations on all points.”
Dana was 44 in 1859. Nearly twenty years had passed since the tremendous success of the book, already recognized as a classic of sea literature. Herman Melville had been influenced by the book’s simple, realistic treatment of sea life and had written that the “chapters describing Cape Horn must have been written with an icicle.” In reform-minded England, the book’s description of the hard life of a sailor had the impact of muckraking journalism. Two thousand copies were said to have been sold in one day to sailors in Liverpool. The book’s accurate descriptions of seamanship and the proper management of a vessel had won approval in other circles. The British Navy had obtained copies for the libraries of its officers.
But the years had added nothing to his achievement. Dana was now an aristocratic Boston lawyer who felt his true life’s purpose was not to write but to perpetuate the family name in law and public affairs. He emulated his grandfather, an austere jurist who had affected the manner of an English lord, adopting a coat-of-arms, carrying a gold-handled cane, and traveling on circuit in a coach with a liveried driver and outrider.
Unfortunately for Dana, a present generation of ne’er do-well relatives whom he was obliged to support, together with his own snobbishness, had prevented him from achieving the success in public life he felt he owed the Danas and himself. That his book, rolled out in one draft and two light revisions when he was a 24-year-old law student, would likely mark the high point of his career was to Dana a source of inward misery.
After delivering Dana to Point Loma, the boatman rowed away and left him alone on the beach – La Playa, as it was known then, near the foot of present-day Kellogg Street. Much was familiar. In front of him was the treeless hill, stark as an empty shelf, and 500 yards of hard brown sand; to the south, the open ocean and the rocky split (Ballast Point) that guarded the entrance of the harbor. Opposite the beach were the shallows of the outer edge of today’s North Island, which actually was an island at high tide, in Dana’s time; to the north, the shoreline curved away toward hundreds of acres of flat, black mud, where Lindbergh Field is today. Beyond, on a low bench of land whose steep sides marked the course of the river, was Old San Diego. Across the bay from where Dana stood was a featureless point of land that had been a burial ground. Seven years earlier, it had been a new town of prefabricated building – San Diego’s first suburb – but an earthquake in San Francisco had ruined its developer, and now, save for the wharf and military barracks, it was abandoned.
What Dana had stopped to see on Point Loma was also gone. In the summer of 1835, when Dana lived here, La Playa was a roistering community of 50 sailors and layabouts who worked or loafed in the daytime and drank at night, fished when they were hungry or brought a steer down from town to butcher on the sand, foraged on the point for firewood, and made sport of killing rattlesnakes and chasing rabbits and coyotes. A cry of “Sail ho!” could mean a ship arriving or the approach of a native woman from town. Like most of the sailors, Dana, then 19, lived for a while with various women (a detail not mentioned in his book). For a Puritan boy from Boston, it was a memorable summer.