Friday, March 8, 2019

A New Port

Were you to see the steamer ship Vaquero, you might not imagine that flat-bottom cargo hauler to be an important exploratory ship. Its captain, Samuel Sumner Dunnells, was trying to find a place to drop his cargo a bit closer to the designated recipients and pick a new manifest. Together with his parther William Abbot, Dunnels guided his 105-ton ship gently easing the way into the swampy bay, hoping to skim over the sand bars and mud below.

It was September 10, 1870, as the steamer made its way farther up San Joaquin harbor, which had remained virtually unexplored until that day. But the nearby residents on the shoreline watched in excited anticipation with every yard the Vaquero gained. Loaded with 5000 shingles and 5000 feet of lumber from San Diego, Dunnells saw his target ahead; a small wharf built in hopes the flat-bottomed ship would be able to do what no other ship had done before.

When the Vaquero docked at the wharf, a cheer rose up from the locals. It was a banner day. Ten years earlier, the US Coastal survey schooner Humbolt had identified the mouth of the San Joaquin harbor, but issued a warning to all vessels that the harbor seemed inaccessible with its narrow bar and a “frightful swell” at all stages of the tide. Ships were warned to stay away from San Joaquin.

Dunnells had been serving the California coastline for years as captain of the Vaquero, and was familiar with the dangers the waters along the seemingly peaceful California coastline could hide. More than once the Vaquero had come to the rescue of larger ships who had underestimated the mighty Pacific, be it storms, doldrums, or miscalculating the amount of fuel needed to get to the next port.

But Dunnells was pretty sure he could do it. He pressed forward, and finally reached the makeshift wharf as the waning summer day shone brightly on the sandbar that locals called the peninsula. Once docked, Dunnells declared the site a New Port Landing, and the name stuck. Today near that original landing spot a bronze plaque commemorates the event.

Over the next few years, Dunnells build a good business bringing goods to Newport Landing. As Robert and James McFadden developed land into lots along the coastline, Dunnells brought in the materials local settlers would need to build their new homes. Dunnells had a warehouse built not far from the Landing that stood just about where the Newport Bay Bridge stands today.

In 1875 Dunnells sold his business to the McFadden Brothers, who continued operations for the next decade. The McFadden boys were enjoying so much success those settler’s homes were beginning to become a town and they determined they needed to build a larger pier that could be accessed from the ocean side. As luck would have it, a natural submarine rift off the coast made it possible for larger ships to navigate close to the land, and so the Newport Pier was established in 1888. In addition, they added a small rail line to connect to the Santa Fe Railroad. Business was good.

Another decade later it all came to a halt. The Federal government decided a large, world-class port was needed in the Los Angeles area, and allocated funds to develop that port in San Pedro, just a few coastal miles north. In 1899, the McFaddens sold the wharf, warehouse, and rail line to the Santa Fe Railroad, bringing Newport’s shipping legacy to an end.

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