San Diego City Beat
December 21, 2011
by Kinsee Morlan
Before fences marked the U.S.-Mexico border, a series of small obelisks dotted the landscape and identified the line separating the two countries. Fifty-two monuments were erected between 1849 and 1857, and then, due to population growth in the border region and questions about where the international border actually was, more than 200 more monuments were built from 1891 to 1894, bringing the total to 258.
One of the original 52 monuments, Border Monument 258, still stands inside Border Field State Park, just a few hundred feet from the Pacific Ocean. It was the first monument built after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and set the international boundary. Historian Charles W. Hughes is among those who believe that two time capsules are buried under Monument 258—one placed in 1840 when the temporary monument went up and one possibly placed in 1851 when the permanent structure was built.
Made of a block of polished marble, Monument 258 was a hotspot for tourists on their way to or back from Tijuana. Some visitors would even chip off a piece of the marble and take it with them as a souvenir.
“If you came to San Diego between the 1850s up into the early 1900s, it was one of the places to go,” said Hughes, who published an article on the history of the monument in Journal of San Diego History in 2007 and considers it to be one of the oldest and most important historical sites in San Diego. “It was like going out to Cabrillo National Monument.”
Hughes said the U.S. military used Border Field State Park as a training ground and tested drones, or unmanned aircraft, just before World War II, which dramatically decreased visitations to the park. Since then, the park has remained largely underused, except by people separated by immigration status who continue to use the park as a way to meet up with family members and friends on the other side of the border. In 1971, First Lady Pat Nixon dedicated the land surrounding Monument 258 as Friendship Park, a symbol of the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico and recognizing the binational use of the land.
Last week on CityBeat’s Canvassed blog, we reported that a replacement fence had gone up at Border Field State Park, completely blocking access to Border Monument 258 from the U.S. side by three feet. The new fence, which was sited by the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), replaces the original border fence, which had bisected Monument 258, allowing access from both sides of the border.
Even in 2008, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) erected a double fence at Friendship Park, activists with Friends of Friendship Park made sure access to the monument was maintained, even if limited by a gateway that was locked outside of set hours. Members of Friends of Friendship Park said they were shocked and disappointed when they saw the new location of the fence last week.
“Those in the U.S. have a right to access the monument without having to get in their car, cross the border and drive to Las Playas,” said Nathan Trotter of Friends of Friendship Park. “I think it’s a crime for the IBWC or Border Patrol to deprive us of an object of such historical interest.”
Bruce Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation, agreed. “First of all, it’s American territory, and it belongs to us,” Coons said. “It’s really asinine to put the monument on the other side of the fence.”
IBWC spokesperson Sally Spener said the commission has yet to receive any complaints about the location of the replacement fence, but if it does, she said IBWC might be willing to relocate the fence.
“In regards to Monument 258, we are certainly willing to work with the community if they have specific concerns because of the unique nature and the unique role that Monument 258 has played in border history,” she said.
Coons and Trotter said they weren’t aware the fence was going to be relocated until construction began last week, so they’ve just begun lodging complaints with IBWC and elected officials.
“No notifications went out, so nobody in the community knew about this,” Trotter said. “So, I guess it’s good to hear [IBWC] might be willing to negotiate with us in moving the fence and allowing access to the monument again.”
James Brown, an architect and Friends of Friendship Park volunteer, said that IBWC isn’t allowed to build anything within three feet of the monument. He said even with that requirement, there’s a design solution.
“I wish I would have known earlier about the decision to relocate the fence,” Brown said. “The solution is simple—they just need to put the posts three feet away, and they can surround the monument with all the mesh they want.”