This photograph captures a view of San Diego Bay few remember today. Photo courtesy of the Janice and Tremont Scruggs Collection at the Coronado Public Library.
Longtime Coronadan Janice Scruggs recently presented a stack of historic photographs to the Coronado Public Library. One image in particular seemed to stand out above the rest. It showed three Coronado ferryboats and three World War I destroyers in San Diego Bay.
What was the story behind this photo? Could someone determine the year of the photo just by examining the clues in the image? And where would you begin to solve this mystery?
Well, now that I’m an unemployed historian, writer and editor, I find myself with too much free time on my hands. So I decided to pick apart this wonderful old black & white photo to see what history might be revealed.
Upon closer inspection the two ferryboats mid-stream appear to be among Coronado’s earliest ferries. They are the Ramona (foreground) and the first Coronado (behind her). Both were steam-powered, paddle wheel vessels.
History tells us Ramona operated from 1903 to 1931. The original Coronado operated from 1886 to 1922. Knowing that, we can conclude this photo could not have been taken after 1922. One edge of the window is now in position.
In the foreground of this photograph are the sterns of three, four-stack destroyers – USS Ward (from left,) USS Boggs, and USS Crosby. These old ships were mass-produced in World War I and served as the backbone of the U.S. destroyer fleet.
They were decommissioned in the early 1920s and then brought back into service nearly two decades later as war in the Pacific appeared inevitable.
Long-time Coronado resident Richard Kenney remembered going to sea in a four-stacker. He said it was the worst boat ride he had ever been on. They rolled and pitched, and if you were aloft as look out, then those below had better LOOK OUT.
Later on, the USS Ward would fire the first shot of the Pacific war when it sank a Japanese midget submarine at the entrance to Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
Naval records indicate these ships were stationed in San Diego beginning in the fall of 1919 only to be put on the inactive list again two years later. This photo indicates steam coming from their stacks, in other words they are still on active duty!
Our window of occurrence is now 1919-1922.
Thanks to high resolution scanning equipment, we can see at the very back of this photo, barely visible to the naked eye, is the ferryboat Silver Gate tied up alongside the old Coronado Ferry Landing at the foot of Orange Avenue.
Silver Gate was never successful as a ferryboat but found an extended life as a floating dance hall, casino, theater, Sunday school, and even floating yacht club. Photo courtesy San Diego Historical Society.
The 180-foot Silver Gate was a failure as a ferryboat. She was built too tall (three decks) and too wide (50 feet.) Her intended paddle wheels were replaced with an experimental propeller system to allow a larger carrying load. She was the first propeller driven ferryboat on the West Coast (the first successful propeller driven ferryboat was in San Francisco. It was, ironically, the San Diego Maritime Museum’s Berkeley).
Launched on April 1, 1888, the Silver Gate was quickly termed a “Jonah”, as she was impossible to steer, constantly refusing to respond to her helm, taking out pilings, docks and even other boats in the process. She was tied up at the dock as a hopeless reminder of a failed enterprise. The Silver Gate had cost $62,807.70 to build. “Happy April Fool’s Day”, the local newspapers said.
The Silver Gate was eventually moved deep inside Glorietta Bay where she served as a shore side dance hall, clubhouse, casino, theater, and even a Sunday school for children, all in the heart of a thriving Tent City. She remained there until 1910.
From 1910-1914 she was moored at the foot of Hawthorne Street in San Diego, and served as headquarters for the San Diego Yacht Club. From 1914-1916 Silver Gate was returned to her slip at the foot of Orange Avenue and remained headquarters for San Diego Yacht Club.
Seeing Silver Gate in this exact location provided a huge clue as to the date of the photograph. It confirms this picture was taken no later than 1920, the year Silver Gate was dismantled at the foot of Orange Avenue.
Loaded with that information, the best shot and most logical answer is that this photograph was taken in either 1919 or 1920. My guess is 1919. What’s yours?
Note: If you have old photographs around the house, contact the Coronado Public Library and arrange to have them scanned or donated into their very large collection of Coronado history. The Library collection is professionally maintained and is accessible to anyone with a library card. You may find you have created a lasting memory for your family by donating those old photos, or, you can loan them to the library for scanning and keep the originals. For more information contact curator Candace Hooper at the library, 619.522.2476, or write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.