Ballast Point's whaling station unearthed

The blubber digs

The season of the gray whale migration is approaching, just as archaeologist Ron May and his volunteers complete their summer excavations on the old Ballast Point whaling station. The group had discovered the station during past excavations of Fort Guijarros, the eighteenth-century Spanish garrison, but didn't begin work on it until this year. May says the site, located on the northern edge of Ballast Point, was occupied by whalers between 1850 and 1873, and his crew has recovered whale bones, butchered animal bones, seashells, ceramic shards, clay pipes, black glass ale bottles, sarsaparilla and aromatic schnapps bottles, and rusted iron. Through excavation and archival research, May has illuminated the previously sketchy history of whaling in San Diego.

The gray whales weren't hunted intensively here until the 1840s, when whaling began to die out (because of overfishing) in the South Pacific. Shore whaling stations, in which crews of about fifteen mariners lived and from which they launched small whale boats to harvest passing whales, began to appear in Baja in the late 1840s. May figures the gray whale industry was vitalized by the California Gold Rush; many ofthose who didn't strike it rich became whalers. The bomb lance, which gave whalers a harpoon with an ~xplosive charge in its tip, was invented in the mid-1850s, and by the end Of that decade whaling was flourishing in San Diego.

The whalers were mostly New Englanders with names like Hackett, Jenkins, Johnson, Lambert ,Tilton , and Wentworth. A whaling company was established by the Packard brothers, and by February of 1858, their fit season, they had harvested five, gray whales, which produced 150 barrels of oil worth about $2000. During the good years, about fifteen whales were taken during the season at the San Diego station.

As the whales migrated I the kelp beds off Point Loma, on their way to breed in the Baja lagoons. the lighthouse' keeper on Pt. Lorna would stand watch. He would fire a pistol when he spotted a gray. and the whalers would set out from Ballast Point to rendezvous with the leviathans. Sometimes the whalers would already be waiting offshore. drinking ale - which accounts for the high number of empty bottles found by scuba divers on the sea floor today. Observers at the time noted that the bomb lances, which cost four dollars apiece, were often duds. and that two-thirds of the whales that were harpooned got away, The unlucky ones were towed into the bay, and a windlass hauled the carcasses (which could weigh as much as thirty-five tons) up onto the beach at high tide. The whalers cut the whale blubber off the corpse in large chunks, and these were carried on a stretcher by two men up to a mincing table. There the blubber was sliced into thin sheets called "Bible leaves." and these were dropped into iron cauldrons that were sunk into furnaces. May figures his excavations have advanced to within ten feet of where these furnaces were located, judging by the amount of oil encountered in the sand. When the blubber had been boiled down to oil, the pieces of skin and gristle were fished out and thrown into the furnace and the oil was ladled off into barrels. The whale carcasses were left to rot on the beach, and visitors reported being assaulted by a frightful stench.

Two other companies, operated by the Johnsons and the Tiltons, eventually established themselves at Ballast Point; along with shore-based whaling operations from Oregon to Baja, they helped to reduce the gray whales to the verge of extinction. But in the 1860s the whale business was booming, and although the Packard company landed thirty-nine whales in 1868-69, the outfit still had trouble paying its bills. A supplier sued the company for outstanding bills, and the local sheriff went out to confiscate equipment for compensation. He gathered three bomb lances, one swivel gun in a box, eight harpoons, one tub of new towline, one coil of cable rope, three coils of secondhand rope, a one-hundred-gallon cask of whale oil, two whaleboats, six oil tubs, one grinding stone, two mincing machines, thirteen oars, two boat masts, five harpoons with poles, and one box of new harpoons. Only the company's other whaling stations in Baja saved it from bankruptcy, But by 1873, when the U.S. Army took over Ballast Point for a fifteen-gun fortress, the whalers were seeing fewer whales, and soon thereafter the grays were too scarce to hunt from shore.

After this weekend's last bit of digging, May says the whaling station will be buried again, to protect it from winter rains, and excavation will resume next summer.

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