The Let's-Get-It-Done Harbormaster

Joe Brennan 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.

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