September 28, 1542, it was a clear, sparkling day in the quiet bay. A long peninsula hooks around the entrance to the bay, protecting it from the wild ocean outside. Kumeyaay people along shore watch as a tall ship silently glides through the bay's entrance. Her sails are full, and her ensign, made stiff by the breeze, declares that she is sailing under the flag of Spain. She is the ship, San Salvador ; her commander is Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, as he was known to the Spanish for whom he was sailing. He wished to become famous for discovering a route to China, but we remember him as the first European to set foot on the land we now call California. Cabrillo called this port San Miguel.
1602, the port of San Miguel was left to sleep in the sun for 60 years. A sailing ship under the command of Sebastian Viscaino sailed into the bay found by Cabrillo. Although he had orders not to change any of the names, Viscaino immediately set out to do just that. Thus, San Miguel Bay became San Diego Bay, as it is known today.
In 1765, 163 years, later Don Gaspar De Portola came north by land to establish a military post in San Diego. The building of the fort was delayed because on the ships, the men that were to meet Portola suffered terrible fates at sea. As a result, the building of the fort, the Presidio, which overlooks Old Town, was not established until 1769.
In 1835, the sailing ship Pilgrim arrived in San Diego bay. Richard Henry Dana, a sailor, was on board and he wrote about his life at sea, and about his experiences ashore. In the book, Two Years Before the Mast, he describes the San Diego of his time.
In 1846, the officers and crew of the USS Cyane raised the American flag for the first time on the shores of San Diego. This occurred during the war with Mexico.
The early explorers did not share charts, maps, or information about the lands they had discovered. The countries that sent these mariners out to claim the lands in their names were fiercely competitive. The European powers wanted to be sure that the country sponsoring the voyages would claim the riches found on these shores.
When gold was discovered in California in 1849, the many ships bringing people and goods to the gold fields urgently needed charts and shoreside signals to keep them from harm's way at sea and to guide them into safe harbors. Gold rich California was declared a state in 1850, and thus was qualified to receive the government services, which would build lighthouses on the coast of California. Old Point Loma in San Diego was the site of the first lighthouse, finished in 1855.
By 1855, the Bay of San Diego was filled with ships from all over the world. Most were at anchor out in the bay. The waterfront was bustling with activity. The first pier was built in 1850, soon to be followed by more piers. Alonzo Horton established a business district in 1868, called "New Town." San Diego was no longer a sleepy little town.
Many sailing ships and steam ships entered San Diego, delivering building materials, coal, food, and people who were to settle in the area. Butcher Boy, a sailing vessel is in the collection of small boats of the San Diego Maritime Museum. Butcher Boy was so named because it was sailed around the bay delivering meat to the ships at anchor. San Diego's location on this coast makes it unique. It is the last port in the United States for ships sailing south, and the first port for ships sailing north.