Unforgettable: Liberty


DANA TOURS SAN DIEGO “A sailor’s liberty is for a day,” writes Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast, “yet while it lasts it is perfect,” because, for 24 hours at least, he’s free. When Dana’s brig, the Pilgrim, rounded Point Loma in 1835, the 19-year-old experienced for the first time “the sweets of liberty.”

After swabbing the decks and other Sunday chores, Dana’s larboard watch got the word: they could go ashore. Eight men scattered. They took baths with soap (a rarity at sea) and donned their white duck trousers, blue jackets, and straw hats.

As Dana and his friend Stimson found their land legs on the rocky La Playa trail to Old Town, their spirits rose. They weren’t completely free, however. Even liberty had rules: They couldn’t slight their shipmates, whom they looked down on in private as uneducated and socially inferior. Dana and Stimson wanted to leave the others and see the sights. But they didn’t dare just yet because “as long as you belong to the same vessel, you must be a shipmate to him on shore, or he will not be a shipmate to you on board.”

That’s why they left their higher-toned “long togs” back in Boston, dressed as jack-tars, and joined the group making a triple-time beeline for the nearest pub.

On the outskirts of town, they entered a weathered adobe building owned by a one-eyed Yankee from Fall River. He’d jumped ship in the Sandwich Islands and come to California to beach-comb and run a grog shop. He charged a real, about 12 cents, for a glass of aguardiente — the generic name for alcohol in those days, also known as “firewater.”

Sailors from several ships clogged the one-room pub. And Dana encountered rule number two of liberty. According to an unwritten custom, each seaman must buy the house a round — and down every glass because “if you drink with one and not another, it is always taken as an insult.”

Plus, rounds went according to seniority, elders first, which meant Dana and Stimson had to imbibe often before their turn. They feared they’d get “corned” and would be too late to rent horses for their excursion.

In time their worries (abated most likely by aguardiente) vanished. They bought their freedom and saw the sights, such as they were: the town was “forty dark brown looking huts”; the presidio, “old and ruinous”; and the white-plastered, crumbling mission was so quiet the “stillness of death reigned.”

HOUNDED In 1850, to raise the county’s revenues, newly elected sheriff Agoston Haraszthy taxed native tribes. A year later, when some villages refused, he threatened to take their cattle and land by military force. Several tribes, led by Cupeño chief Antonio Garra, revolted. They attacked Warner’s Ranch on November 27, 1851. Garra vowed to wage war “for a whole life.”

Ranchers and backcountry homesteaders fled to town for protection. But since a volunteer company had left for the mountains, San Diego was vulnerable. “Only 35 of us to protect the town,” wrote Thomas Whaley. And they must remain “on the defensive till reinforcements arrive from the north.”

The governor of California ordered the Hounds to rescue San Diego. Though officially called Rangers, the Hounds were a posse of thugs named after vigilantes who had plagued San Francisco. The original Hounds offered protection to the Spanish-speaking community during the early years of the Gold Rush. Anyone refusing aid, the Hounds swore, was unpatriotic — and was beaten or stabbed, their tents and shanties burned.

By the time the governor’s Hounds got the call, a firing squad had executed Garra, and the revolt ceased. But since they’d already paid for a ship, 50 Hounds sailed anyway from Benicia. They camped by the river in Mission Valley. Instead of defending San Diego, they terrorized it for two weeks.

They began by stealing horses. Then, corned up, they plowed through Old Town night after night, firing pistols into the darkness and assaulting anyone who looked un-American to them — i.e., Spanish-speakers.

Philip Crosthwaite, a third sergeant who fought against the Garra insurrection, rounded up some men to arrest horse thieves. In no time they nabbed a Hound with Juan Bandini’s mule. The Hound swore he was collecting animals in the name of the United States for an expedition into Mexico. Crosthwaite took the thief and another Hound, Sergeant Thomas, into custody.

The next morning the captain of the Hounds gave Crosthwaite an ultimatum: free the prisoners or his men would torch San Diego.

Word reached Lieutenant Thomas Sweeney at the military barracks at La Playa. Sweeney, who brought 18 soldiers to town, later wrote that he feared “if my men had not been present that day, the streets of San Diego would have been drenched in blood.”

Shortly before Sweeney’s contingent arrived, Lieutenant Watkins of the Hounds approached Crosthwaite.

“Did you order the arrest of my men?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Liar!” shouted Watkins, who threw a punch, missed, and drew a pistol. He aimed at Crosthwaite and pulled the trigger. Nothing. Jammed gun or wet cap.

Crosthwaite yanked a pistol from inside his long coat and shot Watkins in the right thigh.

Hounds around the plaza opened fire. A bullet lodged in Crosthwaite’s pelvis. He tried to crawl to safety. A Dr. Ogden ran, hunched down, into the street. He dragged Crosthwaite to a nearby store, chased by gunfire and rising puffs of dust.

As the Hounds prepared to charge the door, Sweeney’s men rode into the plaza. The Hounds disappeared. They chartered a ship and went back to San Francisco. Before they sailed, Dr. Ogden had to amputate Watkins’s leg.

By January 24, 1852, the San Diego Herald assured its readers that Crosthwaite was out of danger. His fellow citizens, writes Richard Pourade, gave him Watkins’s leg “as a trophy of war.”

THE USS HARTFORD’S LEGENDARY LIBERTY PARTY When they came into port after months at sea, some sailors never left the ship, some went ashore only to sightsee, and others tried to stuff months of adventure into a 24-hour pass.

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.

The next time the Carlos Pacheco returned to San Diego, shore police arrested Captain Nelson. But — possibly because he was a regular in San Diego and because Falconer might never return — Judge Monroe let Nelson off on a technicality.

No one knew who owned the Otago, or didn’t care to check (it was the Albion Shipping Co. Ltd.). Therefore, the judge reasoned, Nelson, the captain of the Carlos Pacheco, could be a part owner of the Otago. And if so, the breathtaking logic concluded, Nelson “had every right to blow up his own ship.” — Jeff Smith


Dana, Richard Henry, Two Years Before the Mast, New York, 1840.

Dillon, Richard H., Shanghaiing Days, New York, 1961.

Hugill, Stan, Sailortown, New York, 1967.

MacMullen, Jerry, They Came by Sea, San Diego, 1969.

Pourade, Richard, The Silver Dons, San Diego, 1963.

Smith, Walter Clifford, The Story of San Diego, San Diego, 1992.

Steward, Don M., Frontier Port: A Chapter in San Diego’s History, Los Angeles, 1965.

Sweeney, Thomas W., ed. Arthur Woodward, Journal of Lt. Thomas Sweeney, Los Angeles, 1956.

Tamplain, Pamela, “Philip Crosthwaite: San Diego Pioneer and Public Servant,” Journal of San Diego History, summer 1975, vol. 21, no. 3.

Articles in the San Diego Herald, the San Diego Union, the San Diego Sun, and the Los Angeles Times.

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