Our joint heritage with Mexico begins and ends with the historic landmarks known as boundary monuments. Between Imperial Beach and Otay Mesa, seven boundary monuments stretch along the border. I will be talking about all of them as time goes on, but certainly #255 is the most prominent, located at the San Ysidro border.
A Brief History of the Boundary Monuments
The border between the United States and Mexico, stretching almost 2,000 miles from California to Texas, was first created under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. A Boundary Commission was then established that erected 52 monuments. Boundary Monument #1 was erected overlooking the Pacific Ocean in what is today Imperial Beach.
The Gadsden Treaty of 1853 refined the border along New Mexico and Arizona so that the U.S. could build a railroad going out to the West coast along a southern route. This would become a very important railroad that connected the West to the rest of the country and opened Southern California up to mass emigration.
A new Boundary Commission was established in the 1890’s to supplement the monuments with another 206. The Commission started in El Paso during the year 1891 and numbered that monument #1. They then headed West and the monument at Imperial Beach was renumbered as the last, #258. They finished their work in 1894. The Commission insisted on being meticulous about the boundary line and therefore trudged through dangerous environments and dreadful weather conditions. Even today, signs near boundary monuments often warn people about the desert heat, the poisonous animals and the difficult terrain.
As border populations increased during the 1900’s, the commission installed 18 additional boundary monuments for a total of 276. In 1933 the San Diego Union reported that the boundary monuments were authorized to be repaired. Interestingly, however, the very last boundary monument in Las Playas/Border Field State Park is still marked 258, even as the number of monuments have increased.
Why Are There Two #255?
A mystery comes along with Boundary Monument #255. First of all, there are two. One currently resides next to the Trolley Station at San Ysidro. Only its middle part remains:
The original boundary marker was located approximately in its current location and erected by Commissioner Emery from 1849 to 1853. However, it was washed away by a heavy flood in either 1891 or 1895. During this time, Tijuana was a city that existed both on the U.S. and Mexican side. There were no fences or borders, only two custom houses. Both the floods destroyed the town of ‘Tijuana’ (in Spanish, thought to be originally a Native American word meaning “By the sea”) or ‘Tia Juana’ (in English and thought to be a word used by Mexicans to mean ‘Aunt Jane’). The town then moved 300 feet above sea level to its current location on exclusively the Mexican side.
The base and the top of the original monument were lost until 1979 when an agricultural worker found the middle part. The section weighs about two tons, is 44″ high and tapers from 32″ at the top to 40″ at the bottom.
When recovered in 1979, a small fracas ensued. First of all, the Baja California newspaper El Heraldo said that since the marker was found in San Ysidro, it means that district of San Diego is actually part of Mexico.
That was, of course, a joke. The marker was at first put into a warehouse in Old Town. The San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, however, insisted that it should return to San Ysidro. Local historian Joyce Hettich headed the selection site, although we are unclear what location she recommended. Whatever she said, a picture in an old out-of-print book San Diego & Arizona:The Impossible Railroad shows the boundary monument sitting in front of the newly built San Ysidro Trolley of 1981. At some point, the monument was moved across the street where it remains today.
The Second Monument
After the original monument washed away during the flood, engineers decided to replace the monument and also change its location to higher ground about 1,000 meters away.
Interestingly, in 1894 a new boundary commission spent 19 months surveying the monuments from El Paso to what is today Imperial Beach. All were completed by June 30, 1894, except for #258 (made of marble and sitting at the Pacific Ocean) and #255 (made of granite). The commission conceded that these were the two most frequented points and therefore they were handsomely rebuilt. Because relic hunters had chipped and carried away so much of the stones, both these monuments were then inclosed by a steel picket fence eight feet high to protect it from vandalism.
Today, when you visit #255 on the Mexican side, you can see that the concrete slab is what remains of the steel picket fence. The monument has rust along one side, showing the first chain link fence erected between the monument around 1955. The fence next to it has a door, which is bolted only on the American side. The boundary fence is located exclusively on the U.S. side. In this way, America can made unilateral decisions on the creation of the walls. However, international treaties dictate that every two years, the other country is responsible for the cleaning and up-keep of the monuments, so that’s why there is always a door by each boundary monument. When it’s America’s turn, they unlock the door and clean the monument.
The military landing mat, first erected in the 1990’s during Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper, has markings made by immigrants. The markings include the states of Mexico from where they originated as well as their names and the names of those they love.
The monument is located in a parking lot and not accessible to the public since it resides on federal land. Next to it, the well-preserved Custom’s House or Train Station was built in 1915 and still has the original wood along the windows and doors.