Joe Brennan, San Diego's let's-get-it-done harbormaster

He built San Diego's bay, 1918-1948

Joe Brennan, c. 1920. He conned the Navy into doing the dredging, and they had to have some place to dump the spoil, so they started filling in that area where the airport is and created a solid land mass. The Marine base and the Navy base is all fill too.
  • Joe Brennan, c. 1920. He conned the Navy into doing the dredging, and they had to have some place to dump the spoil, so they started filling in that area where the airport is and created a solid land mass. The Marine base and the Navy base is all fill too.

Joe Brennan, who held the job of San Diego Harbormaster between 1918 and 1948, is the subject of this story by C. Amholt Smith.

Everybody knew Joe Brennan. He was kind of a — not a bull-headed guy, but a let’s-get-it-done guy, and of course, the harbor department, the harbor commission, would only find out long after it was done, and they’d climb on him and he’d fight back. He was heavyset, always chugging and red-faced and going like an Indian. I think he smoked cigars. He was rough-talking, but everybody recognized him as a big-bluff Irishman and accepted it.

My earliest memory about the bay was when the rowing club was the center of activity and the rowing crews were working up and down the harbor. There wasn’t much traffic to avoid. Brennan, of course, was very active in the rowing club, even though he wasn’t a rower. He dredged out one area of the bay that was very shallow, in front of the rowing club, which was at the foot of Seventh Street, and created an island out there that they called Brennan Island. It was just off the rowing club, served by a little bridge, a pier, it had handball courts on it, room for volleyball, and it had palm trees on it. I’ve so often thought, good God, if they wanted to do that today they’d have to have hearings; the environmentalists would want to know if you were bothering the fish. But Brennan was a real pioneer; he was the kind of guy who could really build a nation. He just plowed in and did it, and he didn’t have to decide if they should move something to leave room for the seagulls to lay their eggs.

He was quite a politician with the Navy. I know that when things had to go through normal channels, congressmen and this, that, and the other, he’d buttonhole the Navy brass down here if he wanted them to do something for the city. And they’d dredge out certain areas of the bay that he was trying to develop. They filled up the strand running around Coronado with the sand they dredged from the bay. That-open bight on Coronado was all filled in; I remember when North Island was actually cut off from Coronado by that open bight there. Joe had the Navy do it, but he was instrumental for getting it done.

The Harbor Board was like a management committee, responsible for fixing fees for rentals. Later, the port commission was made up of representatives of all the port cities, but I’m just talking about Joe Brennan, who just worked for San Diego, which included the Harbor Board.

Talking about getting things done, Joe and I had a big brouhaha one time at one of the fish canneries. We had an old wharf that was just about getting ready to fall in, and I was after him to try and fix it up, because it was really port property. And he said, aw, he was busy or something, couldn’t do it. So we went ahead on our own and ripped the wharf out and put a seawall out in the water and filled it up with rock and debris and paved it over before he knew about it. He came down and just chewed me out, about had me hung and quartered. He threatened to make us dig out all the mud and the rocks we put in there. I said, "Joe, you couldn’t use it before. The boats couldn’t get up there. We actually built a pier out there that’s useable.” And the controversy died down. But I’m really using that as an illustration. He would do the same thing on behalf of the city. When he saw something that needed doing, he’d jump in and do it.

He planned the development down at the foot of Broadway, the Broadway Pier and all that down there. The water used to come up to the Santa Fe Depot. The train depot was practically on the beach there. Joe had it all dredged out and filled in. It was a good undertaking because it made that part of the harbor useable. It had been very shallow there, and very often ships would kind of get hung up on a low tide. They’d have to wait for a high tide and back out.

We had passenger ships running from there up to San Francisco. You’d get on one of them late in the afternoon and go up to Los Angeles, go to sleep or have your dinner on board, and you’d wake up in San Francisco. They were very fast steamships, the Yale and the Harvard. They docked at that miserable damn pier at the foot of Broadway before Joe had it all fixed up.

It was a great way to get up the coast. It was fun and nice. And it really was faster than the train, because on the train you had to leave earlier in the day and stop in Los Angeles and get on the Lark, I think it was called, which dumped you into San Francisco about nine o’clock in the morning. The steamers would be up there about nine o’clock too, because they ran all night long. You’d leave San Diego around three or four o’clock in the afternoon, go to Los Angeles, pick up a load there, and go on to San Francisco. It was fun, it really was. They were very popular until the late 1930s, when one of the two boats ran up on a rock somewhere coming down from San Francisco, and it broke up the continuity of the schedules.

There was also a steamship line called the H.F. Alexander that went on up to Seattle and Portland, but they were a separate steamer. And then we had ships coming around through the Panama Canal that docked at Broadway Pier when it was built in its present situation. Because they could have never gotten in there the way the old pier was.

I also think that Joe Brennan actually built the baseball park at Lane Held. When the WPA programs came along, Joe asked for the money to build that park. He sponsored it, scrounged up the material, and built it with labor that needed to be employed.

Joe’s office was at the foot of Broadway. His office is still standing there, I think, where the Longshoremen’s hall is now, and another thing he did so successfully was throw abalone lunches or dinners down there. I went to them all the time. He was a good friend of mine. He’d invite a lot of the city people down; he’d lobby them and feed them abalone. It was a very popular gathering; people loved to be invited. He did it whenever the spirit hit him, I think, but they were quite frequent. I think he kind of did the cooking. He had help there, but he knew how to handle abalone.

I’ve been told that Joe used to hunt for abalone inside the bay around the turn of the century. I think that’s probably right. I can’t say that I remember abalone being inside the bay, but the bay used to be just as clear as the water is in Avalon. You could see right down to the bottom. You could see the fish. Even with the sewage outfall pipe emptying into the bay at Seventh Street, the water remained very clear. When we were taking our rowing crews up along North Island, you could look down and see the fish.

Commercial fishermen used to set nets for smelt along North Island out by the channel. And there were porpoises inside the bay by the hundreds.

Joe had a lot to do with establishing Lindbergh Field. Here again, he conned the Navy into doing the dredging, and they had to have some place to dump the spoil, so they started filling in that area where the airport is and created a solid land mass. The Marine base and the Navy base is all fill too.

There had been water in there; it was very marshy. Before that was filled in, there were times when you couldn’t go to Pt. Loma from San Diego. The water was too high for cars to go through there; you had to wait for low tide. The road going through there was a little farther north than where Harbor Drive is now. There was a field where Convair is now that was actually used for aviational purposes at first, but it was a very small field.

Of course, Joe Brennan was criticized for using these surplus areas that weren’t usable. He had a very definite idea of what should be done in the bay. He just bulled his way through it and everybody piled on him, but he paid no attention to it.

There was a steamer boat that operated from the foot of Broadway over to Rosecrans. It provided dependable service, a water taxi for people who wanted to miss that part of Harbor Drive. It was a good-sized boat, 70 or 80 feet long. It landed at Roseville, near where the San Diego Yacht Club is now. There was a little dock over there.

The San Diego Yacht Club was down at the foot of Broadway in the early years. They had an old ferryboat they were using as a clubhouse that was picked up from Coronado. It was one of the old ferries that the yacht club remodeled and tied up at about the foot of Cedar Street. In the early 1930s, Brennan was instrumental in getting them to tow it over to Pt. Loma because that old worked-over ferryboat was an unsightly thing. When they got it over there, it was so shot they ripped it apart and built the yacht club where it is now.

When National Steel was growing and we didn’t have enough room, and Harbor Drive cut right down through the middle of the plant, we had to pull back and lose a lot of space. We were making boat parts there at the foot of Seventh and trucking them down to 28th Street, where we had conned Brennan out of a small area to launch the ships down there. And he was always banging me on the head saying, "For Chrissake, get a lease, get a lease down here. I'll give you a good lease. Take all the land you want.” We were leasing that area, but I don’t know if we were even paying him any rent. He practically forced us to take more land than we ever thought we could use, but God, how farsighted he was.

He gave us a very favorable lease. And he was criticized for that too. He recognized this could be a good thing for the San Diego Harbor. He was helping to create a good tenant, which National Steel became. He did the same with Convair, Solar, and Rohr. The guy really had vision. As you know, the port district’s revenues today are just astronomical, and what’s in place now producing all this money was kind of a brainstorm of Brennan’s.

He gave his life, you might say, to the harbor, and he was so right in what he undertook or recommended be done. He prowled the harbor like a one-man task force. He’d come down and give us hell at the shipyard over some of the things we were doing that he thought were wrong, but it was all good-natured.

He was quite a horse trader. He’d come around if he needed something from the shipyard to help fix something up, and he’d con us out of it. Cable or pipe or steel beams. And there was reciprocity.

The industrial companies didn’t really need to be around the bay, but it was the only place for them to locate. Where else could you go? There was nothing out on Kearny Mesa in 1945, 1948. There was nice, flat land around the bay; it had water and sewer, and it was accessible to the employees. It was a natural development.

Everybody just dumped in the bay, of course; there were no treatment facilities. The water got terrible, almost black. The Navy dumped a lot of their bilges in the bay too. In those days there wasn’t this crazy wave of environmentalism that struck the country later. Of course, we have to think about the environment, but... The environmentalists would have killed Brennan, but in the long haul he did a lot of good.

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