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Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Los Coronados, 1961 Image courtesy San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles magazine via San Diego History Center

GUEST BLOG—By Brandon Machek--The 1961 photo (above) of the northernmost of the four tiny Coronado Islands, 15 nautical miles from Pt. Loma is basically what the Mexican-owned islands look like today. Only a lighthouse keeper and a small garrison of Mexican Coast Guard troops are housed there now. 

The Coronados are within the city limits of Tijuana and currently the municipality declares the islands off limits to the world.  A few exceptions are visiting scientists but no fishermen, hikers, picnickers or sightseers period. Divers claim there is a daredevil underwater passage between the south tip of the north island an adjacent rock.  Sportsfishing is good and bird watching is better.  Guides from both countries provide seagoing tours but no landings.

In 1542, Juan Cabrillo dubbed the islands "islas desiertas." Some things don’t change.  By 1602, a priest in explorer Sebastian Vizcaino’s command re-named them Los Cuatro Coronados in honor of four martyrs to the Catholic Church.   During the gold rush era, smugglers secreted human contraband from Asia on the isles before shipping them to mining camps.  Also, Jose Arvaez a.k.a., the 19th century pirate of the Coronados used the islands as a base to plunder West Coast shipping.

The Roaring 20s saw bootleggers use the islands as a base and the Depression witnessed lumber baron Fred Hamilton and Tijuana tycoon Mariano Escobeda glamorized the south island by investing a reported $35 million to create the Coronado Islands Yacht Club. Headlines of the day tell the yacht club was a front for a gambling casino and upscale bed & breakfast claiming a clientele including many Hollywood starlets, who were there coincidentally with the likes of Al Capone, Errol Flynn and movie mogul Jack Warner. 

The island’s notoriety continued in mid-1943 when a junior officer in command of subchaser USS PC-815 conducted gunnery practice on the Coronados.  As a result of the illegal shelling, he was relieved of his command but not before claiming he did not know the island belonged to Mexico or were inhabited by Mexican Marines.  The young officer reappeared in history books later as the founder of the Church of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard.

Today, the island’s brush with the salty side of the law continues.  U.S. Coast Guard reports tell of cross border smugglers dumping their human cargo on the islands to avoid capture. Even Hollywood added to the bad boy image by type casting the south isle as Pitcairn Island, home to the mutineers on a remake of the film “Mutiny on the Bounty.”  And, if you’re waiting for a condo complex to appear on the island soon don’t hold your breath.  Development is stymied by zero water availability, as the islands are solid granite throughout.  In closing, there’s one saving grace aside from its unspoiled fauna and flora and that’s the fact no one has built a prison there, yet.

Reprinted from San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles magazine

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