Dive into the history of Mission Bay

In honor of San Diego’s 250th anniversary, a look at the city’s popular human-made recreational hub, which boasts 32 miles of shoreline.


Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories looking at the recreation and entertainment attractions that makes San Diego a unique destination as the city celebrates its 250th anniversary.

As one of the recreational hubs of San Diego, Mission Bay draws a multitude of visitors annually for its boat races, water sports, Belmont Park and Sea World attractions. But did you know the popular outdoor spot is human made?

PACIFIC teamed up with professor Andy Strathman, PhD, co-editor of The Journal of San Diego History and lecturer at California State University, San Marcos to find out the low down (or is it low tide?) of Mission Bay for the this year’s 250th anniversary of San Diego.

PACIFIC: What’s the connection between Mission Bay and its former name False Bay?

ANDY STRATHMAN: Originally it was called False Bay, partly because it was very shallow and practically dry at times. In a lot of ways it was more of a marsh than a true bay. The Spanish explorers gave it that name.

How did the bay come into being?

In the 1850s, the Army Corp of Engineers built a dike to divert flow from San Diego Bay, because the river could threaten structures in Old Town. In the 1880s, we started seeing the name Mission Bay although False Bay was used into the 1920s.

When did the activity start on the bay?

That dates between the two world wars. By the 1930s, there hadn’t been a great deal of development there except that John D. Spreckels had built an amusement park. But the story of Mission Bay Park happens after WWII, and had a lot to do with city growth because of the military growth during the wars.

As the war was winding down, the question was, “What happens to the economy?” The concern was that the economy would revert back to the Great Depression. Local leadership thought one way to continue growth was to promote tourism, and by making Mission Bay a destination it could be an economic driver.

During WWII, city council started making plans to create a municipal playground. The development happened in stages from 1944 with city planner Glenn Rick overseeing a multi-function aquatic park, and then in 1945 the first bonds are passed to pay for it.

How did he know what to build?

He looked at comparable parks and based the development on Newport Beach, which became the model. It was constructed through a series of phases — first in 1949 — and it would continue into the ’60s. Examples are dredging operations, which were used to create small islands and landscape, and diverting the San Diego River into the ocean instead of in Mission Bay so silting wouldn’t happen.

When did Sea World come into the picture?

When Sea World opened in 1964 it provided a focal point, and became the main attraction in the area. San Diego was able to gain support from the federal and state government, which reduced the tax payer amount. Then one-quarter of the land developed was devoted to commercial purposes to make it self sustaining.

Is Mission Bay purely recreational or are there natural, preserved areas?

There is a limited amount of natural area. When planning the area, there were competing interests, and some wanted conservation for environmental purposes. So some of the northwest portion is retained as natural wetlands.

How big is the bay now?

There are 32 miles of shoreline due to contours. At 4,600 acres, it’s the largest manmade aquatic park and the ninth largest municipal park and in the country.

What is most surprising about Mission Bay?

Most people are not aware what a created environment Mission Bay is. It was constructed and fabricated for the purpose of creating recreational opportunities.

Fun factoid about Mission Bay?

The first triathlon in the country was held there in 1975.

Learn more about Mission Bay at