Title

How Dana Cove Became Dana Point Harbor

If you've ever enjoyed a sail out of Dana Point Harbor or dinner at one of the marina's restaurants, thank the engineers. Before construction began in 1966, the site of the harbor was a shallow cove where water lapped against imposing cliffs and two promontories provided minimal protection from the open ocean. When seas were calm, ships could anchor at Dana Cove or send landing craft to its narrow strip of sandy beach. In fact, the cove and an adjacent promontory owed their names to sailor Richard Henry Dana, who collected cowhides there in 1835-36 and later wrote about his visit in "Two Years Before the Mast." When swells rolled in, however, the seafloor amplified the wave action. Surfers gave Dana Cove a nickname of their own: Killer Dana.

To transform Killer Dana into a place fit for kayaks, paddleboards, and Bermuda sloops, the Army Corps of Engineers designed two massive breakwaters that would enclose the cove and turn away its notorious swells. Construction crews began carrying out the engineers' plans in the summer of 1966. Workers dumped roughly one million tons of rock -- larger boulders hauled in by truck from a San Marcos quarry, smaller rocks transported by barge from Catalina -- into the water to form the harbor's breakwaters. They then sealed the gap between the two jetties with a cofferdam and pumped the cove dry. This allowed them to dig the marina's channels and build its concrete seawalls without the interference of seawater. (It also stranded the cove's abundant sea life. Fish and Game workers relocated abalone and lobsters from the old sea floor, but their old habitat was forever destroyed.)

Engineers also repurposed one of the cove's two rocky headlands, San Juan Point, as earthen fill for parking lots and picnic areas and carved three access roads into the cliff faces, connecting the harbor to the coast highway above. In all, construction crews moved three million cubic yards of earth. Major work continued well into the 1970s, but in 1971 the first boats sailed into their slips, and Dana Cove had become a harbor.

Story continues below

 

Dana Cove and the Dana Point headlands in 1927. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Dana Cove and the Dana Point headlands in 1927. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

 

 

An undated view of Dana Cove from the Dana Point headlands. The promontory in the distance, San Juan Point, was demolished and used as earthen fill for the harbor's parking lots and picnic areas. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
An undated view of Dana Cove from the Dana Point headlands. The promontory in the distance,  San Juan Point, was demolished and used as earthen fill for the harbor's parking lots and picnic areas.  Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

 

 

Pictured here on a calmer day circa the 1940s, Dana Cove was known to surfers as Killer Dana for the huge swells that would sometimes roll in. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Pictured here on a calmer day circa the 1940s, Dana Cove was known to surfers as Killer  Dana for the huge swells that would sometimes roll in.  Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

 

 

Trucks hauled in granite boulders from a quarry near San Marcos to create the harbor's breakwaters. Other rocks came by barge from Catalina island. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Trucks hauled in granite boulders from a quarry near San Marcos to create the harbor's breakwaters.  Other rocks came by barge from Catalina island. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

 

 

The breakwaters kept Dana Cove's notorious swells at bay, creating a safe place for small craft. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
The breakwaters kept Dana Cove's notorious swells at bay, creating a safe place for small craft.  Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

 

 

Construction transformed existing Cove Road from a steep, one-lane road into a modern, two-lane access road for the new harbor. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Construction transformed existing Cove Road from a steep, one-lane road into a modern, two-lane access road for the new harbor. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

 

 

An aerial view of Dana Point Harbor under construction, circa 1970. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
An aerial view of Dana Point Harbor under construction, circa 1970.  Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

 

Dana Point Harbor as a work in progress, circa 1971. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Dana Point Harbor as a work in progress, circa 1971. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Though the county dedicated the new harbor in 1971, work continued through the late 1970s. This view shows the nearly finished Dana Point Harbor in 1977. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
Though the county dedicated the new harbor in 1971, work continued through the late 1970s.  This view shows the nearly finished Dana Point Harbor in 1977.  Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

 

 

These two USGS topo maps from 1948 and 1975 show how the harbor's construction transformed the coastline.
These two USGS topo maps from 1948 and 1975 show how the harbor's construction transformed the coastline.

 

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes