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By Carlos N. Olvera
The majestic cliffs and the south facing beaches of Dana Point were an attraction to the tall ships during the cowhide trading days of the 1830s due to the location of the mission. But the idea of building a small boat harbor became necessary. After San Pedro development began in 1898, Balboa Bay then became the playground of the “rich and famous” and by 1949 had one of the largest pleasure boat fleets on the coast. The idea for new harbors in Southern California was initiated in 1945 by the Secretary of War.
In the late 1940s studies were being conducted of Dana Point-San Clemente, Upper Newport Harbor, and Bolsa Chica for small boat harbors. Initially, Dana Point and San Clemente were considered as separate harbors, but were combined into one due to cost, proposed by the 1947 San Clemente Planning Commission at a cost of $25 million. Favored was Dana Point with a $4 million breakwater for 350 boats. In 1956, an $8.5 million San Clemente-Dana Point small boat harbor was adopted by the county for about 1,000 craft.
An estimated start date was anticipated by 1960 after $1 million was promised by the California State Small Harbors Commission. Although there were some concerns about beach erosion, an approval was reached by the community for the US Army Corps of Engineers to begin the study after being tabled twice due to the Korean War. The plan had grown to $11 million for 1,500 craft. But a sudden revision surfaced. San Clemente had applied for, and was approved, to annex 30 square miles of ocean from the San Diego County line to Dana Cove. The kicker was, no vote was required because no voters live in the area. The concept died as quick as it was announced.
In 1964, the plans were unveiled for 2,150 boats at $20 million. A model was made to test the wave action both inside and outside of the harbor with a design of redundancy with the breakwater and an island to protect the moorings, the first design of its kind. This was prompted by the damage done previously to Playa del Rey. The plan also included the condemnation of nearly 30 acres of land, from Golden Lantern to Del Obispo, owned by George Capron.
By now the county had set aside $4.35 million while negotiations continued with the federal government. In total about $8 million had been set aside for design, dredging, and breakwaters. Private financing was being considered for the structures.
On Aug. 29, 1966, the harbor dedication ceremonies began. Ft. MacArthur’s 72nd Army Band played, and County Chairman Alton E. Allen and local, state and federal representatives were present. A time capsule, containing the engineering plans, historical documents and photos, was embedded in an 8-ton rock. The festivities included a barbeque and free tickets to the 50-year capsule opening. Its opening is scheduled for Aug. 29, 2016. I have already placed this event on the county’s calendar and even communicated with a former resident—now living in Florida—who was present at the capsule sealing and plans on being in attendance. Those who received free barbecue tickets in 1966 for the planned 2016 barbecue event will be honored.
Construction continued with the two jetties as large chunks of granite were brought in from Catalina Island. The trucks would drive out on the jetty and onto a turntable where they were rotated 180 degrees, dumped the rocks and drove off forward. Over 3 million cubic yards of earth was moved. A promontory point known as Princes Point was cut off and used as fill for what is now Harbor Drive. With the harbor closed in, 225 million gallons of sea water trapped inside was pumped out. The time capsule and its 8-ton rock were then placed at the entrance at Puerto Place in October 1968. The harbor opening was Aug. 1, 1971 while many of the slips were still under construction—22 years from concept to opening. Old-timers say the loss of Killer Dana was a tragedy. But if construction started today, it would never happen.
Carlos N. Olvera is vice chairman of the OC Historical Commission and mayor of Dana Point.