On a hot, windy August day back in 1971, First Lady Pat Nixon swooped down by helicopter to the southwesternmost tip of the continental United States and proclaimed it Border State Park.
She capped the brief, windblown ceremony by predicting that, someday soon, the barbed-wire fence that separated the United States and Mexico would be taken down so that peoples from both nations could mingle in friendship.
Fifteen years have passed and Mrs. Nixon's prediction has not come true. A fence--a sturdier, wire-mesh successor--still guards the international border. But the fence has not deterred the mingling of cultures that she had envisioned.
On many winter weekdays, the surf at Border State Park rolls in endlessly along lonely beaches, and the only signs of humans are the circular signatures left by Border Patrol vans in the sandy soil as they patrol for illegal border jumpers. But, on sunny, warm weekends, the park comes alive.
Mexican musicians serenade picnickers on the grassy knoll where Pat Nixon delivered her brief speech and formally handed the deed for 372 acres of federal land to state park officials. Youngsters from both nations merge in cooperative sand-castling ventures on the beach, beyond the border fence, which extends only to the high-tide line. And offshore, ignoring the invisible boundary line and the county Health Department warnings about sewage pollution, surfers from north and south of the border vie for positions on the hottest curls.
The park shows two faces during a single day. The peaceful recreational pursuits of the sunlight hours turn to war games at night as Border Patrol agents, border bandits and illegal immigrants play a three-way game of tag. Although the U.S. border agents may look the other way when Mexican nationals stray across the boundary line during daylight, they take their duties more seriously at night, when streams of immigrants seek to evade both the law and the roving robber bands in their dash for jobs north of the border.
Border Park, with its unbarricaded beach and breached fence, is one of the pipelines through which illegal immigrants flow.
The fanfare of the 1971 ceremony christening Border State Park faded fast. Despite state budget allocations of $2.2 million for land acquisition and $1 million for improvements, Border Park, except for a pleasant picnic area overlooking the sand and surf, looks much as it did when it was dedicated. The park is not included in the state coastal parks system or shown on state maps of its beach parks.
Don Pohl, chief state ranger for the Frontera district, admits that Border Park "isn't on anybody's list" for improvements or promotion, and is likely to remain forever in the shadow of the showier, more easily accessible state beach parks in northern San Diego County and along the Silver Strand.
Despite its unassuming appearance, the park has a checkered past rich in history and drama. As early as the 1920s, historians listed problems along the barren borderland that remain today: illegal aliens, careless hunters, packs of wild dogs from Mexico, careless campers causing brush fires, and annual flooding along the Tijuana River, which carried away buildings and buried cultivated fields under layers of mud. In more recent years, sewage pollution, smog and noisy, reckless dune buggies and motorcycles have been added to the list.
Border Park is the site of the first border monument marking the partition of Alta California from Mexico after the Mexican-American War in 1848. That
marker, a 20-foot-tall marble monument placed in 1851, stands astride the border about 200 yards from the ocean and has been proclaimed as both a state and national historic site.
The level mesa land in the park served for decades as Border Field, an auxiliary landing strip for the North Island Naval Air Station and former Army Air Corps field adjacent to the Navy field. After the U.S. entry into World War II in 1941, and for 30 years until its rebirth as Border Park, the area was fenced and guarded as a military installation.
For a while, during its military hitch, the border land served as a pilot gunnery training ground. Steam-driven targets dashed among the sand dunes on rails called "rabbit tracks." Air-to-air gunnery practice also was conducted from the site--until a drone target plane crashed into a barn in the Tijuana River valley in the early 1950s, killing seven race horses.
During its military occupation, 35 buildings were sprinkled around the site, including a 40-man barracks. In 1961, Border Field was closed and converted into a Navy electronics laboratory.
At present, the park is used mainly for picnicking and horseback riding, Pohl said. He believes it is the only state park where horses are allowed along the beach.
A year-round threat of contamination from sewage flowing down the Tijuana River has prompted health officials to place a perpetual ban on water contact activities along the park's oceanfront, taking away its most valuable recreational asset.