Seaport Village: A Waterman’s Graveyard?
Welcome to Dead Man’s Point. It’s a breezy piece of real estate where old-growth trees shade a carousel and other attractions within a faux turn-of-the century fishing township at the water’s edge. Otherwise known as Seaport Village, it is a fashionable attraction for tourists and locals and possibly, the ghosts of sailors. Beneath those storied cobblestones lies one of the more grisly, if little-known mass graveyards in San Diego.
There is argument about who, exactly, is buried under Seaport Village but this much is known: in 1769, more than two hundred years before ground was broken for California’s most successful retail attraction a pair of Spanish galleons dropped anchor in the bay adjacent. The sailors made camp on the mud flats and then began to die, two or three a day according to the captain’s log. The survivors buried the dead more or less where they fell. It was scurvy, most likely, that took them out.
Tragedy struck again almost 150 years later when dozens more sailors came to a hard end on those same waters. In 1905, some 60 crew members of the U.S. gunboat the Bennington perished in a boiler room explosion while at anchor just off the H (later renamed Market) Street commercial wharf. The death toll exceeded that sustained by the Navy in the entire Spanish-American War. Surrounding public buildings were by necessity converted to hospitals and morgues. The funeral procession to Point Loma was said to be over a mile long.
Lumber purveyors built wharves along the bay near Dead Man’s Point at the turn of the century and set up operations in supply of building materials for a growing city. Dens of iniquity also prospered along the waterfront. During the 1930’s, train tracks coursed the area below Harbor Drive. There were tuna boats and canneries and beyond the sea wall near what is now the Marriott, the Star of India sat at anchor, rotting. In 1936, bay dredge and old pilings were used to build up the land near the Point for the construction of a new police station that remained in operation until 1988 and that now figures in a proposed expansion of Seaport Village.
When the Coronado Bay Bridge made the ferry landing obsolete in 1969, much of Dead Man’s Point sat vacant until 1978 when the Port Authority granted a 50-year lease to a retired Texas oilman named Morris Taubman. Taubman’s company, Seaport Manfred, built and operated Seaport Village. The lease that first year was $100,000. It doubled the next year and remained at $200,000 dollars (plus a complex percentage of rents and retail sales) paid to the Port Authority over the next 19 years. After, the lease was split into five-year increments. It was a solid investment; by 1983, three years after opening, Seaport Village was a cash cow and expected to top $25 million in revenues.
But today the future of Seaport Village itself is in question. Taubman died in 1990; Carlsbad’s Terramar Retail Centers now holds the lease, which expires in 2018. Plans, they say, are in the works for the aforementioned expansion and a complete re-tooling of the tourist destination. Public comments were taken in May of this year.
One also wonders about what plans there may be for a small, inconspicuous bronze plaque, patina-darkened and embedded on a crumbling plaster wall near the old police station. As such it is the only memorial to those 100 or so Spaniards who breathed their last in 1769 far from home at La Punta de los Muertos on San Diego bay.