NEWPORT BEACH — For most people, it’s just a row of rocks.
But for one family, the west jetty at the Newport Harbor entrance signifies foolishness, death and perseverance.
Bob Rogers told its back story at a Newport Beach Historical Society event Thursday evening. On this, the 75th anniversary of the jetty’s completion, he reminded people about his relative George Rogers, a man who lost his son in a boating accident and spent the rest of his life building a safe harbor opening.
“This is the death boat,” Bob said as he turned to a slide of George’s son, 15-year-old George Jr., at the helm of a wooden speedboat.
A Dodge Water Car, that boat was considered the “sports car of the sea” in 1926, when the photo was taken, Bob said.
Its skipper, George Jr., was a daring boy and strong from head to waist. He was heir apparent to his father’s paving and asphalt empire, but he wore polio braces on his legs and could only walk with crutches.
It would prove to be a fatal handicap. In June 1926, he and a group of teenage friends and relatives set out to Catalina on a stormy afternoon. The harbor entrance was shallow at the time — on low tide, as little as two feet of water covered the sand. Anyone sailing out would have to watch closely for shoals and breaking waves.
“Teenagers sometimes do dumb stuff,” Bob told the crowd inside the historic Balboa Pavilion ballroom.
Unfortunately, the Water Car was designed so its bow rose while accelerating, which often blocked the view of the skipper. George Jr. was unable to stand, so he straddled the boat’s rail in order to see ahead. Witnesses said a wave knocked the boat over and dumped the boys into the water.
George Jr., with his iron leg braces, was pulled to the bottom. The other boys survived.
To search for his son’s body, George chartered the Catalina Island glass-bottom boat, but they never recovered his remains. George renamed his family’s 120-foot yacht the Memory.
“Nothing brought him peace,” Bob said.
After selling his business, George set out to construct a safe harbor entrance. It was “a treacherous nightmare for navigation,” Bob said.
Other legendary wrecks established its reputation. In 1925, a fishing boat capsized amid massive swells, and legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku — who was hanging out on today’s Corona del Mar State Beach — rescued eight men. Another 17 aboard died.
The price tag for harbor improvements was $1.8 million, the equivalent of about $30.4 million in 2011 dollars. During the Great Depression, that was a daunting sum.
“With [the financial situation], it seemed to be impossible,” said Daren McGavren, 89, who still lives in Newport and watched Bob’s presentation Thursday. “But we knew we needed it.”
George traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for funds. He brought cases of whiskey for politicians left thirsty by prohibition.
Eventually, he secured $960,000 in stimulus funds available through the National Industrial Recovery Act, and $230,000 through senators and the Department of the Interior.
But he was still short $610,000.
While harbor improvement bonds had failed in prior years, George made the case that the federal government was going to pay for the bulk of the work. In 1933, he and others brought a bond measure to the ballot.
Bob showed a “yes” campaign poster of an ocean liner named Commerce gliding through “Orange County Harbor.”
The bond measure passed, and the Army Corps of Engineers built the jetty between 1934 and 1936. George led the inaugural boat parade on the Memory, with California Gov. Frank Merriam aboard.
“He was a wonderful man,” said Helen Ann Langmade, 89, whose father was George’s physician. She still lives in Newport, and said that the talk was completely accurate.
Soon after the jetty was dedicated, George was heading out of the harbor for a cruise with his family when he suffered a heart attack.
As they returned to find a doctor, George died in nearly the same place as George Jr. did ten years earlier.
Today a boulder stands near the base of the west jetty, serving as a monument to George and his role in its construction.