CORONADO — Curtis Allen remembers the days when "fellas" could take a date on the Coronado ferry for only a nickel. That was during the Depression, and nobody had the money for much else.
He remembers the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt boarded the ferry in a big black limousine.
And he still has bitter memories of the night a sailor died in an ugly racial incident.
Allen, 74, is retired and living on a quiet little street in Coronado. He's a tall, friendly man with a buttery voice and a penchant for Southern-style storytelling. He was born and grew up in Arkansas, in Mississippi River delta country, but moved to Coronado in 1933 to take a job on the ferry.
He worked a boat or captained one until the ferry stopped operating in 1969, with the opening of the Coronado Bay Bridge. He then spent what he calls "the worst five years of my life," working a toll booth on the bridge. He retired in 1974.
To his surprise, Allen is sometimes asked if he would like to pilot one of the passenger ferry boats scheduled to begin service in Coronado about a year from now.
"I'm retired," he said. "Why would I want to do that?"
The passenger ferry is part of the Old Ferry Landing Project, a commercial development similar to Seaport Village--including restaurants, specialty shops and a pier for the boats--now under construction in Coronado, just east of First Street and Orange Avenue. Tony Pena, director of community development for the City of Coronado, said the firm that operates the San Diego harbor excursion will also operate the passenger ferry.
Allen is just happy it isn't he.
He hardly pines away for ferry days. The truth is, the whole thing got to be a bit of a chore by the time the bridge was completed. Allen was getting older, tempers (of the ferry-going public) were getting shorter. By 1969, too many cars crowded the boats. The bridge couldn't have come at a better time.
Allen now finds time for golf three days a week, for sipping a soda with his wife in a lovely backyard. He loves the fact that Coronado is the "most insect-free place in the world." Everything he loves about Coronado happens to be everything he hated about Arkansas, namely bugs and bad weather.
When Allen tells stories about the ferry to civic groups or to his two daughters and two grandchildren, he usually starts by saying he came to California courting adventure. He had an uncle who worked at Rockwell Field, which until 1937 was a portion of North Island that the Army shared with the Navy. (It is now used exclusively by the Navy.) He came to visit the uncle and ended up with a job.
He turned out to be so valuable to the ferry system that by the time World War II broke out, he tried to enlist in the military and was turned down. His boss made an appeal to the service board to let him continue working on the ferry. Allen was disappointed; his boss wasn't.
Part of the Effort
He ended up feeling as if he had fought the war anyway.
"We were always hauling munitions around, even those great big bombs," he said.
He also hauled hundreds of sailors and, on one memorable day, President Roosevelt himself. The commander-in-chief was being ferried from the North Island Naval Air Station to San Diego. He didn't meet the man--the Secret Service was too protective. But he well remembers the secrecy--and the gravity--of the moment.
Allen was senior ferry boat captain from 1954 to 1969, meaning he oversaw the fleet of four boats. All held a remarkable safety record until the day of a banquet honoring that distinction. When the banquet started, Allen was on a boat, guiding it into harbor. That is, until everything went wrong.
The engineer lost his bearings, the boat heaved the wrong way and smashed into the restaurant where at that very moment a toast was being made to the gallantry and exemplary safety of Coronado's ace ferry corps.
"We hit the dock full speed ," Allen said with a lusty laugh. "It almost toppled the restaurant over. The engineer lost his job over that one--he made a huge mistake--but fortunately, nobody was hurt."
Safety was a frequent concern. Pleasure boats were the bane of the ferry's existence, especially on Sundays. Allen often had to maneuver out of their way, even when he had the right of way. Fog also was a demon, as was the current, which ran against the boats as they made their way from the end of Orange Avenue in Coronado to where Seaport Village now lies in San Diego.
Allen said would-be suicide victims frequently tried to kill themselves, using the end of one of the boats as a jumping-off point.
"As soon as they hit the water, it usually drove the fear of life back into 'em," he said.
Death and Life
Allen's most memorable moment--and perhaps the ferry fleet's most infamous--came on a night when two sailors started a fight. One was black, one was white. The black sailor stabbed the white sailor, then jumped overboard. He didn't know how to swim and drowned. The white sailor was rushed, cut and bleeding, to a hospital. He survived--barely.