Trains, horses and buggies brought 3,000 San Diego residents–dressed in straw hats and bustles–to celebrate the completion of the Sweetwater Dam on April 19, 1888.
Dam Promised to End Water Insecurity
Hoses shot streams of water 70 feet into the air to prove that there was “plenty of it.” Two orchestras played. Signs proclaimed, “Climate, Soil and Water, but the Greatest of these is Water” and “Water is King.”
Displays boasted of National City’s agricultural bounty–now secure with a reliable water source. Rafters were adorned with palm fronds interwoven with flowers. Pampas grass plumes topped displays of lemons, figs and olives.
“The…unfinished warehouse transformed into a beautiful garden, fragrant odors from a million flowers…A grand ball finished up the festivities in grand style.”San Diego Union, April 20,1888
Prominent citizens gave speeches, including San Diego’s founder, Alonzo Horton, and Coronado’s founder, Elisha Babcock. But, Frank Kimball was the man of the hour.
Man Behind the Sweetwater Dam and the Railroad: Frank Kimball
Back in 1868, Frank Kimball purchased Rancho de la Nación because he believed the Sweetwater River could supply enough water for agriculture. Soon groves of olive and lemon trees filled National City, which then included Chula Vista and Bonita.
But, San Diego suffers droughts as part of its Mediteranean climate. A more reliable water supply was needed. Kimball discovered the location to build a dam, but not the funding.
In 1887, after decades of effort, Kimball convinced the Santa Fe Railroad to make National City the terminus of a transcontinental line connecting San Diego to the east coast.
To entice the railroad, the Kimball brothers gave 10,000 acres of his land to San Diego Land and Town Company. As part of the deal, the railroad syndicate agreed to pay for the Sweetwater Dam.
National City’s railroad wharf on the San Diego Bay linked the California Southern Railroad, and the region, to international shipping routes. National City had access to more markets for its lemons and olive oil.
Sweetwater Dam Construction
James D. Schuyler, American Society of Civil Engineers, supervised the dam’s construction. Sweetwater Dam stood 108 feet high, 700 feet in length, and created a reservoir with a 28,079 acre foot capacity.
The concrete dam is an gravity arch dam.
But, San Diego wavers between too much or too little rain. The drought of 1897-1904 dropped the level of the reservoir. Locals said, “all that was left was the stink.” In contrast, water overtopped the dam in 1895, 1909 and 1916.
This image from USGS shows the Sweetwater Dam overflowing in the 1890s.
Reservoir Fishing and Sonar Tests
From the mid-1890s through 1940, “famous old Sweetwater” was popular. Visitors walked across the dam and picnicked at the reservoir.
This cottage was built in 1929 as a commissary for fishing and duck hunting recreation. In addition to duck hunting, people could rent boats and fish for bass, crappie, perch and catfish. Sweetwater Reservoir currently only offers a shore fishing program.
The Navy tested sonar in the reservoir during WWII and left behind the quonset hut.
South Bay Water Security
San Diego’s South Bay continued to thirst for more water.
In 1945, as part of the wart effort, the Loveland Dam (technically Sweetwater Falls Dam) was built upstream on the Sweetwater River. It captures mountain runoff, near Alpine, and can feed it to the Sweetwater Reservoir. In addition, the Sweetwater Authority can receive Colorado River water from the SDCWA .
A Piece of San Diego History
Sweetwater was the first of the 24 reservoirs built in San Diego. Until the Hoover Dam opened in 1936, Sweetwater Dam was the tallest masonry dam in the world. The American Society of Civil Engineers recognized the Sweetwater Dam as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 2006.
Location of the Sweetwater River and Dam
The Sweetwater River runs alongside S.R. 54 and enters the San Diego Bay near the Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista. The Sweetwater Dam is located approximately 12 miles (19 km) east of San Diego and borders Bonita to the southwest and La Presa to the northeast. You can access the shore fishing program from 3203 Summit Meadow Road in Bonita, CA. The dam itself, and the buildings shown in this article, are not open to the public.