History with a side of palm trees

History with a side of palm trees

I am such a history nerd, I will generally find a way to the historic (bonus if they are British-ish) sites in any city. It was no exception when I was in San Diego recently. I’d always wanted to see the Maritime Museum there, with its historic ships, but I was surprised and delighted by Old Town, which I’d sum up as a sort of Colonial Williamsburg of the west.

Old Town San Diego

Having traveled so much in Britain, I found myself making a lot of connections and comparisons. I’d had a sense of how rough-and-tumble the west was, how uninhabited it was before the gold rush, and of course understood the very vastness of the United States compared to Britain, but somehow it all hit home in Old Town. One of the most notable examples was in transportation. The golden age of stagecoach travel didn’t last very long – it was largely during Jane Austen’s lifetime, although it continued on until the 1830s. Its most golden years were between the improvement of the roads and the advent of the railway.

Britain got a head start in inventing the railroad, but its comparable smaller size and easier terrain (i.e. no Rocky Mountains) also meant that the railroads covered the country rapidly. Not so the United States, where the “golden spike” for the transcontinental railroad was driven in on May 10, 1869. What this meant is that certain “technology” like stagecoach design continued to advance in the United States long after it had become obsolete in Britain. Take a look at this Wells Fargo stagecoach, resting on leather straps to cushion the riders:

Wells Fargo stagecoach

Close-up of leather straps

The Old Town also gave me a chance to see some things that aren’t very easy to find in England anymore. For example the Cosmopolitan Hotel, built in 1829, is about as intact a galleried coaching in as I’ve ever seen. And it uses a technique I’ve long read about but not actually been able to study up close: drawing lines on stucco to make it look like stone.

Cosmopolitan Hotel

Stone-look stucco

The Maritime Museum, meanwhile, was unique among any I’ve ever seen simply for its setup. Aside from a few ticket kiosks, there is absolutely no land-based portion of the museum. It’s all ships and floating docks, with the museum exhibits on a large old steam ferry. They have quite a fleet of historic and historic-replica ships, from the galleon San Salvador to the steam yacht Medea, two submarines, and a variety of smaller craft. Of most interest to me, however, were the topsail schooner California, a replica of an 1847 revenue cutter, the actual 1863 Star of India, and HMS Surprise, a replica of a Napoleonic Wars British frigate which starred as that ship in the movie Master and Commander.

I’m going to have need for a topsail schooner in an upcoming book, so I’ve been taking every opportunity I can to get on board them, and in the case of the Californian, to go for a sail on her. As often happens when things are reliant on wind, the wind did not entirely cooperate, so we spent much time at the beginning of the sail barely creeping along beside Coronado Naval Base, but I spent my windless time poking around in the cabins beneath the deck, and eventually the wind did pick up and we got going at a reasonable clip. It was a good reminder, as always, that when wind was the only means of powering a vessel, sometimes you just didn’t move.

Schooner Californian, and San Diego skyline

They were talking a bit about the Star of India while we were sailing on the Californian. The Star bears the distinction of being the world’s oldest active sailing ship, for while the USS Constitution is older and does still sail, she does so very occasionally (I had a chance to see this in 2012 and it was amazing, but apparently there was a team of scientists down in her 200+ year old wooden hold ensuring it wasn’t too much for the ship, even at the sedate pace brought by the relative lack of wind on that day, as well). The iron-hulled Star of India goes out at least once a year, however, but because she doesn’t have any modern safety measures, the Coast Guard won’t allow landlubbers on board when she does this, just those manning the ship.

When she’s docked and open for visitors, the Star represents a ship that has gone through many changes in the course of her career, hauling everything from salmon to passengers to timber. While not as famous as the Cutty Sark, she is perhaps the more intact survivor, and like the Cutty Sark, is a reminder that the transition from sail to steam power on ships was not instantaneous. It seems like it should have been instantaneous, for after all, when you find a means of propulsion that allows a ship to go somewhere faster, wouldn’t you switch to it? The answer to that question depends on your cargo. Human passengers, who like to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, were certainly willing to pay more for the speedy travel of steam power, so long as they were of a class to be able to afford it. But in an era of cheap labor, wind could not be beat for cost, and for a steam ship to travel to the places the clipper ships traveled, it would have had to give up precious cargo room for expensive coal, and to stop for coal along the way. So wind carried on, via the clipper ships, for a very long time, and the Star of India remains a lovely example of that age (for those interested in a narrative of the clipper ship era, and pre-gold rush California, Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast can’t be beat, and is free as it’s in the public domain):

Star of India

Star of India

Star of India

The Surprise, meanwhile, was basically a mandatory pilgrimage requirement at some point for this Patrick O’Brian fan. Having been on board a number of actual historic sailing warships, however (USS Constitution, HMS Victory, and HMS Trincomalee), the Surprise was a bit more movie set than I was expecting. From the outside, she looked the very convincing part of a Royal Navy frigate, but inside, there were weird spaces where sort of half-decks had been formed, I presume for movie filming (the ship was originally built as a replica frigate, HMS Rose, but then purchased for the movie). I still enjoyed it, but it did feel a bit more like visiting a movie set than visiting an actual historic Royal Navy frigate restored for maximum accuracy as the Trincomalee has been.

HMS Surprise

HMS Surprise

HMS Surprise

I really enjoyed my time in San Diego, and I would definitely recommend it as a side trip for those going to this year’s JASNA in Huntington Beach. I walked or took public transit (the easy-to-navigate, $5 for a day pass streetcar) everywhere I went and had an easy time getting around and finding everything.

And I would be remiss in talking about my time in San Diego if I didn’t mention the British pub, which I will also find my way to in any city. Here, it is the Shakespeare, which is not just a pub but also a tea room and British shop. I did not get a chance to have afternoon tea there, although it looked lovely, but I did snag some of their special blend “Mr. Darcy” and “Downton Abbey – The Dowager” tea blends from the shop, and I have quite enjoyed Mr. Darcy so far. Okay, that sounded weird. Anyway, the pub does the usual range of British food and does have one ale on cask. It has supposedly the best fish and chips in San Diego, and having sampled them as admittedly a bit of a fish and chips snob, I would say avoid fish and chips in San Diego. Order something else and finish it with a traditional sponge pudding (quite good) and a pint spent on the patio watching the sunset.

Or maybe finish up earlier and have a walk back by the Maritime Museum, looking like it belongs to another, past world with its little forest of masts:

Maritime Museum sunset

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11 Responses to History with a side of palm trees

  1. That was interesting to read about. I could easily understand all the information about the difference between GB and the USA in having the railroads available across the entire land and how sailing with sails or steam is so different an experience. Would hate to be stalled out on the ocean. Your article here also makes me appreciate even more all the research authors put into making sure a story contains correct details and descriptions. Thank you for your hard work, your research and for sharing. Lovely photos.

  2. I’ve been to Old Town, but not for years, and I didn’t check it out in depth. I have a sister who lives in San Diego so next time I go, I’ll check out these fascinating sounding sights. Thanks so much for the inspiration!

  3. What a most excellent post and tour. The pictures made me feel like I was there. I’m so glad you enjoyed Mr. Darcy… tea, that is. I love that. Thank you for all your hard work and research. Blessings!!

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