California Historical Landmark No. 52: Mission Dam and Flume

Related to the historical landmark site of Mission San Diego de Alcala is the Mission Dam and Flume, located only a few miles away, upstream on the San Diego River.

One of the key reasons that the mission was relocated from the Presidio area (at the west end of Mission Valley) was the need for more water and fertile land for crops. Another reason was to locate the mission, whose purpose was to serve and minister to the native population, away from the Spanish soldiers at the Presidio. In 1774, the mission was moved up the valley to a small rise at a bend in the San Diego River, and the valley just north of the bend was prime farmland to support the mission. However to better control water for both the mission and the crops, a reservoir and irrigation system was needed. This was realized with the Mission Dam & Flume, which was completed in 1816. Today, the flume no longer exists, and the dam, sometimes called the Old Mission Dam or Padre Dam, no longer forms a full reservoir, but still partially impedes the flow of the river.

California Historical Landmark No. 52

After our tour of the Mission, we headed a few miles north and east, following the course of the San Diego River upstream, along the aptly named Mission Gorge Road, leading us into a group of mountains which are part of Mission Trails Regional Park. At the park’s visitor center, we were given some directions to find the Mission Dam, which is easily accessed by a one-way road that cuts through the park along the river gorge.

On the upstream side of the gorge, the land flattens out again, and so the top of the gorge became a good spot to dam the river to form a reservoir to hold water for the mission, six miles downstream.

Plaque text:

    After many attempts dating back to 1774 to provide a reliable source of water for crops and livestock for Mission San Diego de Alcala, a dam and flume system was finished between 1813 and 1816 by Indian laborers and Franciscan missionaries to divert waters of the San Diego River for a distance of 6 miles. The aqueduct system continued in existence until 1831 when constant flooding caused the dam and flume to fall into disrepair. They were not repaired due to the secularization of the missions.

    California Registered Historical Landmark No. 52

    First registered Dec. 6, 1932. Plaque placed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperation with Mission Trails Regional Park, City of San Diego, and Squibob Chapter, E Clampus Vitus, May 2, 1992.

Mission Dam by jawajames
Mission Dam, a photo by jawajames on Flickr.

The dam formed a reservoir about 300 yards long, and fed into a flume system, made with rounded tiles, that went down to the mission’s farmland and also to the mission (near where the site of the fountain in the central courtyard).

Nowadays, the ruins of the Old Mission Dam are a highlight of the park system, with a small picnic area located at the dam, and a view point on the north side of the dam. The marker is located at the end of the parking area just off of the road, and the dam is only a short walk away. The dam is also a nationally registered historic landmark, for its role as the first major irrigation project on the West Coast.

What is interesting to note: the Mission Dam is California Historical Landmark No. 52 (from 1932) but the Mission itself is No. 242 (from 1936).

The plaque is located at the end of the parking lot on the north side of Fr. Junipero Serra Trail (road) in Mission Trails Regional Park. To reach the parking lot by car, you can either enter the park at the Visitor Center entrance off of Mission Gorge Road (near Jackson Drive), & continue on the one way road up the gorge. After 1.7 miles, the parking lot is clearly marked and on the left side, when the road becomes two-way again. I’d suggest visiting this way, or at least hiking through the area, to better understand the terrain that the flume had to be built through, and why the dam location was ideal.

Or you can enter Mission Trails Regional Park from the east side (Santee), from Mission Gorge Road, west of West Hills Parkway, onto Fr. Junipero Serra Trail, and follow it until the road turns into the parking lot on the right (and the road becomes one way in the other direction). Located near the plaque are both a Mission Bell marker and a plaque proclaiming the dam as a National Historic Landmark, and other such recognition plaques.

The dam itself is only a short walk west from the parking lot and plaque. If you follow the trail farther downstream, you will encounter a bridge that will let you cross the river and double back on the north bank to the dam and a good vantage point.


Check out my set of photos of the Mission Dam and the landmark plaque.


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3 responses to “California Historical Landmark No. 52: Mission Dam and Flume”

  1. Jaynee Steinman says :

    Why is there a mission bell marker at this site when it is not part of the El Camino Real?

    • jawajames says :

      While perhaps it’s not part of El Camino Real, having a mission bell here is appropriate as the dam and reservoir were part of the San Diego Mission. Perhaps since the mission dam was likely served by a road connecting to the mission, one could consider such a local road still as part of the El Camino Real network (the original highway system of California wasn’t just one road that linked all the main missions, but a full network of roads, all basically named El Camino Real to connect the main missions and their assistencias (auxiliary missions).

      Or the bell could be one of the earlier bells from the 20th century El Camino Real mission bell project that eventually migrated from its original site and was saved/moved to be next to this mission-connected landmark. Better check the date on that bell and see when it was made!

      • Jaynee says :

        thanks, I thought that might be the case, but couldn’t find verification anywhere, but this appears to be the best explanation. I appreciate your input on question. I volunteer at Mission Trail Visitor Center and was asked about this!
        Thank you again!

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