Bays-False and Otherwise

For a few hundred years there was a body of water near San Diego Bay called “False Bay.” Interesting to find references to it in maps and history books from the 1800s until at least the early 1920s.

The origin of the name traces back to the first European to sail into San Diego Harbor, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. A 1908 history book describes members of Cabrillo’s party, shortly after landing, wandering the then-heavily wooded hills at what would come to be called Point Loma.

The book cited a quote from the journal of one of the Spaniards: “The high ground commanded a view of the whole harbor, which appeared spacious, convenient, and well sheltered…”

The journal also noted that “to the northwest of the wood is another harbor.” Some members of the group would subsequently gather along the banks of this “False Bay” by mistake, thinking they were actually at the main harbor, before finding their way back.

False Bay was a tidal marsh fed by wanderings of the San Diego River. I say “wanderings” because the river, in its course down from the inland mountain areas to the sea, sometimes flowed down to San Diego Bay, and other times diverted into False Bay.

Beginning in the 1800s concerns about flood control and the possible silting up of San Diego Bay led to the building of dikes, which in the beginning were not successful.

From the late 1800s through the 1940s False Bay was mainly known as a great place for duck hunters and fisherman, although the facilities they used were subject to destruction from flooding.

City and state authorities began a concentrated effort to develop the site in the 1940s. Levees brought better flood control, and the dredging of marshlands formed small islands that offered greater recreational opportunities. This more desirable-looking body of water also gained, in the words of another historian, “the more dignified name of Mission Bay.”

Sources for this post included Volume I of William Smythe’s book, History of San Diego: 1542-1908, Volume I of Clarence Alan McGrew’s City of San Diego and San Diego County:The Birthplace of California, published in 1922, and the website of the City of San Diego.


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