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By Donald H. Harrison

Originally published at San Diego Jewish World, a member of the San Diego Online News Network

November 6, 2019 (San Diego) - Old Mission Dam, a.k.a. Padre Dam, is celebrated as both a California Historic Landmark and as a National Historic Landmark for being one of the first irrigation projects on the West Coast of the United States, having been built between 1813 and 1816 by Franciscan padres and Kumeyaay laborers.

However, what some people think of as an “early” project can also be thought of as a “late” project–a monument to the procrastination of the Spaniards who laid claim to California 271 years of the dam began.

It was 1542–only 50 years after Columbus’ voyage of discovery to America–that the Portuguese-born Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo laid claim to San Diego Bay and environs for Spain. And then what great Spanish accomplishments in California did history record? None, nada.

For 60 years, California was not visited again by Europeans. The Kumeyaay may have remembered as nothing more than a bad dream the arrival of Cabrillo’s small fleet in San Diego, his planting of the Spanish standard on a strip of land today known as Ballast Point, the naming of the port as “San Miguel,” and Cabrillo sailing away soon afterwards

Then in 1602, another explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino, pulled into the port. As the latitude recorded on his instruments was slightly different than that which had been reported in Cabrillo’s log, Vizcaino decided he had found a different port than “San Miguel.” So he named the place “San Diego.” And then what were the accomplishments that Spaniards brought to this land? Nothing, nada.

For another 167 years, the rhythms of Kumeyaay life followed familiar courses, with generation after generation following the San Diego River to migrate from their summer homes in the mountains to their winter homes along the coastline, and then retracing their steps along the river’s banks.

It was not until 1769–only seven years before colonists on the other side of the North American continent issued their Declaration of Independence from the mother country of England–that the Spaniards, whose empire was far vaster than their resources, bestirred themselves to create a permanent settlement in California.

In large measure they had been prompted by the threats posed by the British and Russians who were exploring the Northwest Pacific Coast. If Spain did nothing to reinforce its claim to California, it was possible that one of these other European powers might take it away from them.

Thus Father Junipero Serra and the soldier Gaspar de Portola were dispatched on an expedition of colonization from Mexico (then known as New Spain) up to California.

They went by foot, while other elements of the expedition came by ship, anchoring approximately in the area of San Diego Bay today called Spanish Landing. They all marched to a promontory today known as Presidio Hill, where Father celebrated mass and founded a town on July 16, 1769. The Presidio seemed an ideal place to begin:

it was high enough to command a defensive view of the surrounding area; it was close to the fresh waters of the San Diego River, and there were two coastal Indian villages nearby with plenty of souls to whom Christianity could be taught.

After five years, the Spaniards decided to separate the soldiers of the Presidio from the Padres and the Kumeyaay Indians. This was done by moving the mission upriver to its present location.

In 1797, the Spaniards built Fort Guijarros (cobblestones) in the Ballast Point area as a defensive measure against possible invasion from the sea.

Those three facilities–the presidio, the mission and Fort Guijarros– essentially were the sum of Spanish settlement in San Diego. The mission was responsible for producing the food for these tiny outposts. San Diego being semi-arid, with droughts common, the Spaniards needed a reliable source of irrigation to assure that their crops and livestock received all the water they needed.

A plaque at Mission Trails Regional Park identifying the Mission Dam and Flume as a California Historic Landmark advises that “after many attempts dating back to 1774 to provide a reliable source of water for crops and livestock for Mission San Diego de Alcala a dam and flume system was finished between 1813 and 1816 by Indian laborers and Franciscan missionaries to divert waters of the San Diego River for a distance of 6 milies. The aquedeuct system continued in existence until 1831 when constant flooding caused the dam and flume to fall into disrepair. They were not repaired due to the secularization of the missions.”

Another marker reports that Old Mission Dam was “part of the first permanent irrigation project by Padres and Indians in California.” That wasn’t the original wording of the marker placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution. That described the dam as having been built by “white men” and Indians–language that Larry Stirling–a 20th century San Diego city councilmember, Republican state legislator and Superior Court judge–protested as racist. As a result the stone marker was redone.

The dam across the San Diego River is 224 feet long, 14 feet high, and measuring at some points 12 feet thick. It is an agglomeration of stones, cement made with lime from nearby deposits, and adobe tiles. Today, water flows through the open area once controlled by a wooden floodgate.

River waters trapped behind the dam were diverted to the west to the wheel of a grist mill and a settling pond, where some of the sediment would be left behind.

Then it entered a tile flume which by gravity flow took it on a journey of some five miles to the fields of the mission. Waters not used for irrigation continued on to the mission itself where they could be utilized for drinking and washing.

By 1816, the dam was completed, but its status as a Spanish accomplishment would be short-lived. In 1821, revolution ended Spanish rule in Mexico, to which California belonged. News traveled slowly from Mexico City back then and it wasn’t until 1822 that San Diegans learned they were no longer subjects of Spain but citizens of Mexico. Soldiers who were required to live at the Presidio and at Fort Guijarros were given their liberty to settle the land. What today is known as Old Town San Diego sprang up below the Presidio.

Angry over the vast lands controlled by the Catholic Church, the new government of Mexico stripped the church of many of its properties, including those of San Diego Mission. This secularization led to people moving away from the mission, to the diminution of its work force, and eventually to the physical deterioration of both the mission and the dam. A brief 15 years after the dam was completed, a flood put it out of commission, leaving as a testament to the Spaniards’ 280-year history in California the lesson of “too little, too late.”