Hold your right hand out flat, palm down, fingers together, thumb outstretched. Your fingers are the tip of Pt. Loma, your thumb is Ballast Point, and the year is, say, 1800. In the crook of your thumb is Fort Guijarros, a primitive Spanish garrison newly built to guard the bay of San Diego and the desolate little mission in the valley to the east. Aiming into the bay are a number of deadly cannons, probably ten, set to engage any enemy corsair foolish enough to sail round your fingers and assault this frontier outpost of New Spain.
Now move your fingers and thumb figuratively forward through the decades, past the 1820s when Mexico won its independence and manned the fort, and through the 1830s, when the Mexicans abandoned it. Notice that some of the elegant old guns are strewn among the cobblestones, the guijarros, at the foot of the fort’s crumbling walls, and other cannons have disappeared altogether. It is 1846 and the American invaders ease past your hand — the fort at thumb’s crook in neglected ruin — to do battle with the Mexicans at Old Town and claim San Diego for President Polk. Pull your hand into a fist, turn it over, and open it. There are no cannons in your palm. What became of the guns of Ft. Guijarros?
That’s what Wayne Kenaston, Alexa Luberski, and Roy Pettus would like to know. Kenaston is in the insurance business but his heart is in local history and old cannons. His initiation of the yearly reenactment of the 1803 battle of San Diego Bay, in which Ft. Guijarros traded salvos with a fleeing Yankee ship that was smuggling out sea otter pelts, eventually led to the recent discovery and excavation of the old fort site. Alexa Luberski, who works for the state as historian of Old Town, is one of a group of experts and archaeologists piecing together the facts about Ft. Guijarros’s guns. Roy Pettus is a marine archaeologist searching for the guns on the bottom of the bay. So far the three of them haven’t pried open the mystery into which the cannons have vanished, although they’ve turned up enough tantalizing clues for a nonscientist like Kenaston to adopt the belief that two of contemporary San Diego’s legendary old artillery pieces were originally mounted at the Spanish fort. The more cautious Luberski and Pettus aren’t so sure. Either way, the guns of Ft. Guijarros remain stubbornly clenched in a fist of time.
Up in Presidio Park, on a eucalyptus-covered knoll above Old Town, the bronze cannon “El Jupiter” is battened into a crude blob of concrete. From this perch, which is the former site of Fort Stockton, where the American invaders garrisoned temporarily in 1846 and ’47, El Jupiter’s muzzle aims toward Pt. Loma and Ft. Guijarros, where local legend holds it was originally emplaced. The artfully tooled gun itself tells you certain things about its past. Its name is imprinted in a decorative banner that curls near the gaping mouth. Engraved on the butt is the year (1783) and the location (Manila, part of the Spanish Philippine colony at that time) of its casting. Its maker, Phelipe Monzo, even autographed his handiwork. But the gun’s condition today does not well serve Senor Monzo’s good name. Jagged cracks riddle the barrel where its pieces were rejoined after it was blown to shrapnel by young pranksters in 1880. A big ugly scab of graffiti-like lead fills in the chunk of bronze that was never found. The once proud weapon has a slight bow to it now, the result of the shoddy patch job. If this is a Ft. Guijarros gun, its treatment over the last 135 years can safely be termed disgraceful.
El Jupiter went on duty at Ft. Stockton in 1929. It was placed there by George Marston as an addendum to the nearby Junipero Serra Museum, which he built and donated to the city. He secured the cannon from the Natural History Society, which had it in storage in the basement of the Cecil Hotel downtown on Sixth Avenue between C and B streets. It is a measure of the artifact’s neglect that when Marston formally asked for the gun, J.W. Sefton, Jr., head of the Natural History Society, replied in a letter, “Frankly, I was not aware that we had such a cannon, and, if we have, I don’t know where it is.” The lot where the Cecil Hotel stood was owned by the Natural History Society, and for many years before taking over its current quarters in Balboa Park, the society used some basement rooms at the hotel for meetings and storage. Marston knew of the cannon because his department store, which occupied the same block, was annexing the hotel, and his employees had had to move the 2000 pounds of Spanish bronze too many times.
As far as can be determined, the cannon had been in the basement since the end of the Panama-Califomia Exposition of 1915, judging from Natural History Society records which show that it was loaned to the exposition. Prior to that time it had been variously loaned and stored by the society; the famous gun even traveled as far as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Not a bad itinerary for a relic that was in half a dozen pieces when the society obtained it in 1881.
Just how the gun came to be blown up is a story so mangled and embellished over the years that sorting it out and telling it again entails risking one’s credibility. Here goes: In 1876 El Jupiter was mounted on a sturdy carriage and sitting in Old Town Plaza, where it had stood since the Mexican-American War in 1846. The presidential election of 1876 was a particularly bitter and scandalous one that pitted Republican Rutherford B. Hayes against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Although Tilden won the popular vote by a big margin, 4,285,992 to Hayes’s 4,033,768, he lost in the electoral college by one vote. For a time zealous San Diego Democrats thought their man was elected, and in order to celebrate they moved El Jupiter from Old Town to an empty lot at New Town on D Street (Broadway) between State and Columbia. It took four months for Congress to decide the contested election in Hayes’s favor, during which time the cannon stood ready to sound Tilden’s victory. It is not known whether Hayes’s followers fired the gun, nor whether it ever made its way back to Old Town. But in 1880 it ended up in front of the Phoenix Saloon in the 700 block of Sixth Avenue. The San Diego Historical Society is said to have protested to the city trustees this ignominious fate, so the city fathers told the saloon’s proprietor, Till A. Burnes, to move the gun back to Old Town. The story is that Burnes got it as far as the empty lot between Second and Third avenues and E and F streets when one of the big wheels fell off. It sat there catty wampus until one night between Christmas and New Year, when friends of a newlywed groom decided to celebrate by firing the cannon. Unfortunately, they loaded it with too much powder and packed it too firmly with mud; when they touched it off, pieces of El Jupiter ended up as far away as Fourteenth and K streets, ten blocks away.