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Gunpowder Point: From Kelp to Gunpowder to Wildlife Refuge

Gunpowder Point

Across the street from the Living Coast Discovery Center, a walking trail leads to the old ruins of Gunpowder Point. Take a look at the extensive history provided by the South Bay Historical Society.

You can read a little bit beforehand or, while walking along the trail, enjoy the interpretive plaques. Two explain how ‘Gunpowder Point’ got its name:

Gunpowder From Kelp

Imagine standing here surrounded by industrial buildings and more than 150 huge redwood tanks. Today, only concrete pads and scattered structures hint at the industry that once operated on this site.

From 1916 to 1919, more than one thousand employees worked around the clock to transform kelp into a smokeless gunpowder, called cordite, for World War I. The Hercules Powder Company facility included a trolley line to E Street called Potash Junction.

South Bay Historical Society

Hercules Powder Company (South Bay Historical Society)

 

 

Kelp to Gunpowder

In 1916, the Hercules Powder Company in Chula Vista was the largest of 11 kelp-processing plants along Southern California’s coast. Giant kelp, macrocystis pyrifera, a large seaweed that grows offshore, was harvested by three kelp cutters operating night and day in San Diego’s coastal waters.

Barges containing cut kelp were maneuvered by tugboats to the pier at Gunpowder Point where the cargo was then pumped through a pipe to the processing plant. The kelp was fermented in 165 redwood tanks with a total holding capacity of over 40 million gallons.

Potash — an ingredient of black gunpowder, and acetone — a component of cordite (a smokeless powder), were produced here. 1500 people worked on the site until World War I ended, at which time the site was abandoned.

This concrete foundation contains a segment of the tracks that carried fermented kelp to the large concrete decanting basin visible to the north of the observation tower.

(This site was cleared and improved by Explorer Scouts Justin McNeil of Post 352 in 1997 and Daniel Moorhead of Post 874 in 1999 as their Eagle projects.)

Gunpowder Point is also extraordinary because although once an industrial area, the area has been restored into a natural habitat. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have an office here you can visit. The interpretive plaques along the trail also remind visitors that Native Americans lived here long before the Hercules Powder Company established itself. Natural wildlife (especially birds) and plants have also been restored to their natural state. The interpretive plaques read:

Living Off The Land

Native Americans built their brush homes, called ewaas, around the estuaries of San Diego Bay.

Native Americans known today as Kumeyaay, Ipai or Tipai have been living in this area for thousands of years. As skilled hunters and fishers they were able to utilize the abundant resources available within the marsh to survive.

Evidence of Kumeyaay life at Sweetwater Marsh include piles of shells from dinners long ago, chipped stone tools and grinding stones. Today, these artifacts are protected as important pieces of their heritage.

Kumeyaay used stone tools for arrows and hunting spears.

Pacific FlywayA River of Birds

Throughout the year, thousands of birds migrate to San Diego Bay from as far as the Arctic Circle to rest, feed and raise young. Some stay here for months, while others just visit before continuing their journey southward. They all get what they need to survive here in San Diego Bay before moving on.

  • Black brant geese migrate to sAn Diego Bay in the winter to feed on eelgrass.
  • Elegant terns migrate to San Diego Bay to nest along the levees in spring.
  • Western sandpiper and dunlins stop at San Diego Bay to refuel on insects and small crustaceans.

Hiking Trail

This is a fantastic hiking trail “takes you away.” Most impressive, however, is the South Bay’s push to turn industrial zones back into a restorative natural habitat. You can see that feat at Gunpowder Point, but also at the Otay Valley Regional Park, which I have written about before.

Address: Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, 1000 Gunpowder Point Dr, Chula Vista, CA 91910

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