Saturday, August 2, 2014

"BEST PLACE IN CALIFORNIA" --Richard Henry Dana (1835)


One of my favorite hikes is the Bayside Trail, located at Cabrillo

National Monument on the southern tip of the Point Loma

peninsula. It is a 1.86 mile loop that offers a spectacular view of the

ocean, Ballast Point, Coronado, downtown San Diego, and Tijuana,

on a clear day.

It is also the view that Richard Henry Dana (1815-1882) enjoyed

when he arrived at Point Loma at sunset on March 13, 1835. He

was a common seaman on the Pilgrim, which was one of many

cattle hides. He lived and worked at La Playa, an area of beach just

north of Ballast Point. This is where they cured the local hides and

stored them in large barns before loading them on to ships to return

to Boston.

Dana is author of the American literary classic, Two Years Before

the Mast, which is based on the diary he kept at sea and was first

published in 1841. This book not only describes in detail the life of

a seaman, but it provides one of the very few detailed accounts of

early days in California.

On this voyage Dana spent four months in San Diego—longer than

anywhere else along the way. His famous book includes many

wonderful depictions of San Diego in 1835, including the


For landing and taking off hides, San Diego is decidedly the best place in California. The harbour is small and land-locked, there is no surf; the vessels lie within a cable's length of the beach, and the beach itself is smooth, hard sand, without rocks or stones. For these reasons, it is used by all the vessels in the trade, as a depot.”
                                                                          * * * 
. . . blessed with a climate, than which can be no better in the world.”
                                                                         * * *
. . .This was a small adobe building of only one room, in which were liquors, 'dry goods.' West India goods, shoes, bread, fruits and everything, which is vendible in California.” (Description of the grog shop.)
                                                                          * * *
. . .The small settlement lay directly below the fort, composed of about 40 dark brown looking huts, or houses, and three or four larger ones white-washed, which belonged to the gente de razon [upper class].”(View of San Diego from the Presidio.)

                                                                          * * * 
            “The mission is built of adobe and plaster. There was something decidedly striking in its appearance: a number of irregular buildings, connected with one another, and disposed in the form of a hollow square, with a church at one end, rising above the rest, with a tower containing five belfries, in each of which hung a large bell, and with very large rusty iron crosses at the tops. Just outside of the buildings, and under the walls, stood 20 or 30 small huts, built of straw and of the branches of trees grouped together, in which a few Indians lived, under the protection and in the service of the mission” .(Mission San Diego de Alcala)

Dana returned to San Diego 24 years later and wrote about the

many changes in Twenty-Four Years After. This was then added to

all subsequent editions of Two Years Before the Mast. The entire

book is available free on line at

In addition to his writing, he became a well-known lawyer

, politician and a champion of the downtrodden from seamen to

fugitive slaves.

In San Diego, the Dana Middle School in Point Loma and RH Dana

Place, which is a short street in Coronado, bear the name of this

famous man. This is a limited honor compared to Dana Point where

he made only a few short stops on his journey. Dana Point honors

him with a replica of the brig Pilgrim at the Ocean Institute, a nine-

foot statue in their harbor and a city name.

    Currently there is a proposal,spearheaded by Dan McGeorge of

Dan McGeorge Gallery, to build a bronze statue of Dana. It would

be placed along RH Dana Place in Coronado and portray Dana

gazing over to Point Loma where he worked and lived. The site

where he actually lived in Point Loma is now part of the Marine

base. More information is available at the gallery website.

Here is what Dana had to say as he departed from San Diego for

the last time in 1859:

A last look—yes, last for life—to the beach, the hills, the low point, the distant town, as we round Point Loma and the first beams of the light-house strike out towards the setting sun."


By Carl Oscar Berg




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