More than 110 years after they were planted in Golden Hill, the trees in Bennington Memorial Oak Grove are getting a dose of proper decorum.
In July 1905, when the boiler on the USS Bennington exploded and killed 66 men in San Diego harbor, a group of city officials and fraternal organizations were already planning to plant over 300 memorial trees in what was then City Park. They voted to add the men who died aboard the Bennington to the list. On November 30, 1905, with a ceremony to honor the dead, 66 California live oaks were put in the ground at the bottom of 26th Street.
Until recently, the grove lacked signage or explanation. Kathleen Winchester, historian for the San Diego Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, is working to put the trees on the map. When she took on the project, as part of Friends of Balboa Park’s adopt-a-plot program, the memorial did not appear on the park map. It’s on there now, where 26th meets Pershing, across from the municipal golf course.
Enlisting the help of local Boy Scouts, Winchester set out to give the long-neglected grove a makeover. Judith Reale, another Daughter of the American Revolution and a landscape designer, donated plans. Winchester divided the work into several scout-sized projects that earned the boys their Eagle designations. Balboa Park maintenance worker Jaime Diez provided tools, materials, and equipment to do the heavy lifting.
Improvements include a new bridge on the trail along 26th; a welcome circle of redwood logs salvaged from the maintenance yard; a gravel path (still in the works); a sturdy wooden sign facing 26th Street; and a kiosk that will list the 66 names alongside a link to a website with details about each man’s biography.
“I didn’t want to disturb this serene grove, but I wanted something more for the memorial. I want to commemorate each of the men’s contributions to their country.”
A survivor of the blast was the only black man aboard the Bennington, John Henry Turpin. Turpin was among a dozen men who worked to save the lives of fellow sailors. Eleven of the men received medals, but Turpin was not among them. Though he went on to achieve Chief Gunner’s Mate and retire from the Navy, his deed was not recognized during his lifetime.
Winchester is petitioning the Navy to award Turpin the Medal of Honor posthumously.
In addition to regular Balboa Park maintenance funds, money for the project came from the Daughters of the American Revolution and the scouts themselves. Any proceeds left in the Bennington Memorial Oak Grove fund will go to replacing dead trees in the grove.
Winchester is “very happy with the City of San Diego” for adding safety features along 26th Street to complement the improvements: curbs, cones, and striping were put in to protect pedestrians using the popular trail that runs through the grove.