La Playa Trail Association will delve into the life and genius of John Bate with presenter Sylvia Bate, John’s former wife, at its next public history lecture on Tuesday, May 15 at Point Loma Assembly, 3035 Talbot St. Light appetizers will be served 5:30 to 6 p.m., and the lecture runs 6 to 7 p.m. A $10 donation at the door is welcome.
Before Bate, Joe Brennan was San Diego’s first harbormaster in 1918. He had a history on the water at San Diego. His father, George, was second principal keeper at the lower Point Loma Light Station in the mid-1890s. Joe was also the quick-thinking tug operator who pushed the Navy gunboat USS Bennington into the shallows of the bay to keep her from sinking after the 1905 boiler explosion.
It was Joe Brennan’s clever notion to dump dredging spoils on the unlovely natural shoal that choked the channel along La Playa and Roseville. In 1934, the federal government started dredging a 200-foot wide channel, 20 feet deep near Roseville.
That same year, San Diego Yacht Club ferried its Coronado clubhouse to La Playa. Dredging was good news to these yachtsmen, since spoils would be used to raise the nameless mudflat and fill in tidelands surrounding the yacht basin. Members of the club threw names into a “hat” and voted the moniker “Shelter Island.”
Brennan said, “I guess that’s as good a name as any!” The United States Board of Geographic Names then officially recognized the title.
News of another deep channel dredging appeared in San Diego Union on June 20, 1940 – with pending war attached. Once again, Shelter Island would be dumped upon with harbor dredging. It was a quick national defense measure.
“There was enough island there during World War II that the Navy used it to store ammunition. “Huts had been set up for this purpose,” recalled yacht builder Paul Kettenburg. He remembers the filling-in of the tidelands that met his family’s property at Kettenburg Boat Works, adding more area for boatyard ways.
Sylvia Bate remembers the barrage balloon tethered on the island. “It was a strange sight out there, with steel streamers sticking out of it. The idea was that if a low-flying enemy airplane came in to strafe, it would get caught up in the streamers.”
Two separate concepts were considered as to the formation of the island corridor. Brennan pushed the idea of connecting Shelter Island to the mainland at the Navy fence, approximately at the foot of Kellogg Street, then having Harbor Drive run along the bay front. Point Loma residents went to court and stopped the idea.
Brennan retired with his newer title, port director, in 1948. Enter John Bate: It was his conviction of building a recreational island and moving the old High Seas Tuna cannery, its fleet and piers, out of the yacht basin.
Bate would build a mole out from Byron Street to divide the yacht basin from the commercial basin. Again, residents protested. They peered into the future of Shelter Island and envisioned high-rise buildings blocking their views of the channel and its operations, and noise.
Harbor Commission assistant Carl Reupsch said, “John Bate was so sold on his idea in his own mind that he and I called on every person in Point Loma.” The two canvassed neighborhoods and assured residents that their concerns would be addressed.
After the war, the Harbor Commission provided a larger, 400-foot channel entrance to the yacht basin, an area of about 200 acres. Dredge spoils were used to extend the Byron Street mole to connect with Shelter Island. Additional materials were used to raise it to 14 feet above low water, which leaves the island seven feet above high tide, and was completed in 1950.
Shelter Island remained vacant until 1953 when the landfill had settled and the roadway was begun. Next came a fishing pier, parking for 300 cars, an outboard motorboat launching ramp, and grassed park areas – all for public use. No fishing license required.
Funds were further expended for the island’s completion – lighting, sewer, water, electrical power, road signs, and the transplanting of palm trees. Short sandy beaches spilled to the water line around the perimeter, until rock revetment was installed to keep the landfill in place from changing tides and wash from passing ships.
Brennan died in 1974 at the age of 91, having lived the span of years it took to accomplish the island scheme he had imagined. “We didn’t put in the improvements,” he said, “we didn’t have the money in those days.”
Later, the Port invested $2.5 million in Shelter Island. “The best investment we ever made,” Bate said. Revenues far above that amount from island rentals are returned every five years.
So, we can applaud Brennan’s successor, “Commodore of the Mudflats” Bate – who took a great deal of ribbing from citizens who had called his plan “Bate’s Folly” – for his broader dream in developing Shelter Island.
Bate’s ideas for other harbor improvements met with more razzing. “Name-calling never bothered John,” Sylvia says. “He had a gentle nature, no temper, and was very concerned about other people.”
So concerned was Bate, that he wanted to increase industry and, thus, jobs and dollars, through San Diego’s natural resource. In 1955, voters authorized a bond issue of $9.6 million for construction of the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal. The new pier was soon crowded with cargo loading and off-loading that included, for example, sheep, alfalfa pellets, tobacco, logs for Japan, cotton, and for kelp storage.
In 1961, the port director took advantage of building up a second island playground when the Navy cut nine million cubic yards from the bottom of San Diego Bay to create a 42-foot carrier turning basin. “Bate’s White Elephant: Harbor Island!” commissioners declared.
But the real feather in his proverbial cap came with the creation of the Port of San Diego. Sylvia remembers that John nearly single-handedly worked on developing a port district that included the five communities of San Diego, Coronado, Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, and National City. “We traveled to other ports at Bremerton and San Francisco to see what they were doing.”
Bate was originally hired as a civil engineer with the city to oversee construction of runways on Lindbergh Field, but his influence and drive are evident on a much grander scale. He retired from the Port of San Diego in September 1966, and lived another 17 years, likely basking on the beveled waters of “his” beloved bay.