The Notorious, Intriguing History of the Coronado Islands

My Harvard history major husband waxes on about the islands' checkered past

If you’ve ever looked out at the ocean from San Diego toward Mexico, especially on a clear day, you’ve probably seen the Coronado Islands just off of the coast.

This group of four islands is located about 15 miles south of San Diego and 8 miles from the coast of Mexico.

Coronado Islands, Mexico Map
By Peter Minton (EVS Island) (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
But few know much more about the Coronado Islands than that.

A Mexico Wildlife Refuge

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered the islands in 1542 and called them ‘desert islands.’ Today, they are home to various species of cactus, several kinds of birds including gulls, cormorants and pelicans, rattlesnakes, rabbits, mice, elephant seals, and sea lions.

Elephant seals on the Coronado Islands, Mexico

Today the islands are a Mexican wildlife refuge. While visitors may anchor there, to dive or snorkel, they are prohibited from going ashore.

The islands were once known in San Diego as a sports fishing location, especially for yellowtail.  In 2012, the Mexican government began strictly enforcing rules that required U.S. fishers to obtain multiple Mexican licenses to fish there, including a fishing license and a license for boats, some of which could only be obtained in Tijuana or Ensenada, as detailed in the San Diego Union-Tribune. This reduced American fishing around the Coronado Islands significantly.

All of that is sort of interesting. But few today know of the Coronado Islands’ more notorious and intriguing past, which includes pirates, human smugglers, rum runners, and even a Prohibition-era casino.

Coronado Islands Yacht Club

The following may be more interesting than Mexican fishing licenses and a unique species of rattlesnake.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Coronado Islands were used to smuggle Chinese into California, though this practice was halted abruptly in 1911 when a group of 10 Chinese nationals was found starving and dehydrated on the South Island.

During Prohibition in the United States from 1920-1933, the Coronado Islands were an integral part of rum running activity between Mexico, where it was legal, and California, under cover of the regularly heavy fog there. This brings us to the Prohibition-era casino, named blandly, Coronado Islands Yacht Club.

Coronado Islands Casino - Coronado Yacht Club
Photo courtesy of San Diego History Center

The casino was constructed in a cove known as Smuggler’s Cove at the time, because of the rum running. (And before that, it had been known as Pirates Cove for allegedly having been used by the pirate Jose Arvaez.)

The Coronado Islands Yacht Club was conceived and constructed in 1932-1933, as San Diego’s version of the famous gambling boats of Los Angeles. These boats were anchored just 3 miles off the coast of Santa Monica Bay since 1928, to evade the legal bans on gambling.

American businessman Frederick W. Hamilton and Tijuana businessman Mariano Escobedo cofounded the Coronado Islands Yacht Club. Fred Hamilton had been the president of Tufts University, a post he was forced to resign in 1912 because of his unpopular opposition to coeducation. He later became a manager of Benson Lumber Company in San Diego. Hamilton died back in Boston in 1940. Escobedo would then found Tijuana’s Jai Alia Fronton Palace in 1947. He died in 1960.

The casino opened in the summer of 1933. Speedboats shuttled Americans to the casino several days a week from the Municipal Pier at Broadway in San Diego. The venture was a moderate success at the start.

But Prohibition was repealed in the United States in December 1933, after the casino had been open for just six months, leaving it, “nearly deserted since repeal,” according to a newspaper account from June of 1934.

And when Mexico made gambling illegal in December 1934, that spelled the end for the Coronado Islands Yacht Club as a legal casino (after less than 18 months of operation). It shut down entirely at that time, albeit temporarily.

Six months later, in May 1935, the owners attempted to re-open and re-launch the Coronado Islands Yacht Club as a weekend getaway for seafood, hiking, fishing, and glass bottom boats, leveraging the couple dozen (or so) hotel rooms that they’d constructed originally to accommodate gamblers.

The South Island was an hour’s boat ride away from the Municipal Pier at Broadway in San Diego, and the periodic speedboat service was scheduled to require at least one overnight stay.

Even in this second incarnation, the “Yacht Club” is suspected to have continued to feature an unpublicized casino as an amenity for visitors. The Coronado Islands Yacht Club somehow stayed in business for another nine years, until 1944.

Celebrity visitors are reputed to have included Al Capone, Errol Flynn, and Charlie Chaplain. Their respective notorious reputations have fueled speculation and rumor for 75 years about what went on there.

Getting to the Coronado Islands

These days, you’ll still need a boat to reach the Coronado Islands. Only the pylons of the casino remain, but the wildlife lives there in abundance.

Tour operators offer diving, snorkeling and fishing excursions at sea at or near the Coronado Islands. From San Diego, check with Adventure RIB rides and San Diego Boat Tours for charters.

Have you been to the Coronado Islands?

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