Unforgettable: Liberty

By the mid-1880s, San Diego had a district that specialized in debauch. Named for a poisonous, stingraylike fish in the bay, the Stingaree — also called “Stingaree Town” — packed dance halls, saloons, and brothels into a 12-block area from Fifth Avenue west to First and from H Street (now Market) south to the shoreline and the Santa Fe Wharf.

Those with a basis for comparison said the Stingaree wasn’t as horrific as San Francisco’s Barbary Coast or, worst of the lot, Liverpool, where revelers had a penchant for blacking out and coming to on a foreign vessel many leagues from port. Nonetheless, writes Jerry MacMullen, “after dark, the Stingaree was an excellent place to avoid.”

When it sailed into San Diego on December 16, 1886, the USS Hartford had every right to crow. The 2900-ton sloop-of-war was one of America’s most decorated vessels. It was the flagship of David G. Farragut, the Navy’s first senior officer, and performed with distinction during the Civil War and after. In 1886, it had been decommissioned and stopped in San Diego on its way to Mare Island.

Townsfolk braced for another Ranger invasion. Two weeks earlier, the USS Ranger anchored in the bay, and for three days, wrote the Union, sailors on liberty painted the city “a brilliant vermillion.” They guzzled rotgut and roamed the Stingaree in gangs, trying to break anything, or anyone, they didn’t like. They took a particular delight in overturning Chinatown’s outhouses, especially when occupied.

“Many a month’s pay,” wrote the Union, “has gone into the tills of the saloon-keepers, into the pockets of the gamblers, and into the clutches of the ‘fair maids’ whose abode, as one of the ministers said Sunday evening, ‘is on the brink of hell.’ ”

Police arrested 19 crewmen the first night; by the third, their energy or money having petered out, only one drunken sailor “experienced the cooling effect of the Hotel de Bastille.”

The Hartford’s stay in San Diego became renowned not for drenching the muddy streets in blood or vomit but for being the nicest, most orderly shore leave anyone could recall.

It figures, actually. The hand-picked crew of a historic flagship headed for mothballs (temporarily, it turned out) would make every effort to outbehave the citizenry.

Officers gave tours of the three-masted, 225-foot steam and sailing ship. On Saturday, the Hartford’s Marine Band, among the Navy’s best, gave an open-air concert in the town plaza’s garden. Thousands of listeners applauded from the streets and from windows high above. On Sunday, the chaplain held divine services aboard ship for the public. When the Hartford left for San Francisco, the thousands of San Diegans who waved handkerchiefs goodbye were sad to see it go.

The Hartford’s reign as most pleasant shore leave lasted until April 1908, when the 16 battleships of the Atlantic Fleet came to San Diego. Sixteen thousand four hundred sailors with four months’ pay hit town. These weren’t just record numbers, they were unthinkable.

To prevent rowdyism, the brass never permitted more than 1200 bluejackets to go ashore at any time. And 64 men — said to be the 4 toughest from each ship — formed a marine shore patrol. “If the sailors be led astray through overindulgence in strong drink,” wrote the Union, the patrol would “remove all cause of unpleasantness by quietly taking any who might become intoxicated” and throw them in the brig.

Locals greeted the visitors with gifts: sailors drank 600 gallons of free lemonade, ate 240 field-tons of oranges and Lemon Grove’s lemons. Instead of frequenting “leg shows” in dives, they attended theatrical productions and chaperoned dances. According to the Union, the only criminal act occurred when two gleeful sailors from the Kentucky stole the horse and buggy from George Smell’s creamery and toured the town for an hour. Smell caught up with them, racing south on Second, but didn’t press charges.

UNSAFE ON LAND OR BAY To avoid getting stung in the Stingaree, some sailors never left their ship. But sometimes even the stay-on-boards got a scare.

In the late 1880s, the Mexican steamer Carlos Pacheco made three round trips a week from San Diego to Ensenada and points south. When gold was discovered in Baja California, Captain Nelson of the Pacheco charged passengers $10 a jaunt.

On the night of November 28, 1887, the steamer lay moored in San Diego Bay, its lines hitched to the same bollard as the SS Otago.

The Otago stopped at San Diego to refuel. The 993-ton iron vessel came from Fremantle, Australia, where it had shipped 314 emigrants. Four died on the difficult passage. The captain, named Falconer, had his wife and infant son on board and was eager to return them to London.

No one knows what started the fracas — just that, around sunset, Falconer and Captain Nelson of the Pacheco engaged in a scream-out.

After the sun slid behind Point Loma, someone cut the Otago’s lines and it began to drift. When a ship drags anchor or loses its mooring, waves no longer rock the boat. A rhythm breaks, and it takes seamen just seconds to sense potential danger.

Falconer’s skeleton crew remoored the Otago. Not long after, the lines got cut again. Then again. After the third time, Falconer shouted at Nelson: "Do this again, and I’ll shoot you!"

Things quieted down. Later that evening, the Pacheco crew unhitched its lines, and the steamer backed away from the Otago, as if leaving port.

Then a thunderous blast shot across the harbor. A gusher of bay water rose and cascaded down on the Otago. Angry shockwaves rippled up the hills. When the smoke cleared and fragments of metal stopped falling from the sky, the ship had a hole in its side big enough for a person to walk through.

No one was hurt. And while Captain Falconer sent orders for his crew to return from liberty and repair the gap, the Carlos Pacheco belched steam on its way out to sea.

What caused the explosion — a torpedo, a mine? — was anyone’s guess.

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