South Bay Yesterday: The house that stands today at the corner of Oaklawn and D Street in Chula Vista is unique in the South Bay. It was built by Lorne Dunseith during World War II and looks like a boat. In fact, it is a boat.
Dunseith had moved to San Diego in 1934 and lived in a trailer court on National Avenue until he was ready to build a house. However, he had trouble getting building materials during the war until he heard about the tuna boat “Lusitania” that was being stripped down to the keel for renovation. He bought the old top of the tuna boat and had it transported to his lot in Chula Vista for $120.
He put the main deck on a cement foundation and added a second story that had the same appearance as the lower deck. He kept some of the original portholes, converted others to normal windows, but kept the brass fittings for use inside the house. He made a staircase out of the wooden rails taken from the outside top deck. The wheelhouse was removed from the top of the boat deck and became a separate building next to the house.
Despite grumblings from some neighbors, his do-it-yourself project passed building inspection and he moved in with his wife Nell in 1950.
The “Lusitania” was an important part of the tuna clipper revolution that changed the industry in the 1920s. The Japanese fishermen in San Pedro began to build larger tuna boats in the early 1920s to go as far south as Turtle Bay, 350 miles down the Mexican coast. These boats would fish in Mexican waters and off-load their catches onto tuna tenders for transport to the canneries. In 1924 the Mexican government imposed a tax on these foreign fishermen.
Manual Rosa, a Portuguese fisherman in San Diego, believed a larger tuna boat that could fish outside the three-mile limit and bring its catch back to San Diego without using tenders would be able to legally avoid the Mexican tax. Rosa had the 108-foot “Lusitania” built in San Pedro in 1927, and it joined the “Atlantic” built in 1926 by the Campbell Machine Company of San Diego as the first of a new generation of long-range tuna clippers.Rosa took his revolutionary boat 300 miles south of Turtle Bay and discovered the fertile fishing grounds of what became known as the Lusitania Bank.
In 1930 the Van Camp cannery declared the “Lusitania” to be the “high boat” of the 500-ship tuna fleet when it brought back an American record 110 tons of tuna in a trip of six days and 23 hours. Rosa built three more ships like the “Lusitania” but they were taken by the Navy in 1940 for war service, leaving only the aging “Lusitania” available for fishing.
Rosa decided to rebuild his ship, giving the old superstructure to Dunseith for his house, and launching a new “Lusitania” built on the original keel that remained in operation until 1970.
About the Author: Steve Schoenherr is Professor Emeritus of SDSU and Co-Founder of the South Bay Historical Society. His is author and co-author of several books, including Bonita and Chula Vista Centennial.