Old newspaper article showing a drawing of Celia Sweet with her boat.

San Diego’s First Woman Bay Pilot

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we have a couple of stories for you to enjoy. This first one was written by Karen Scanlon about Celia A. Sweet.

By Karen Scanlon

Old newspaper article showing a drawing of Celia Sweet with her boat.
WOMAN GRANTED PILOTS LICENSE WINS HONOR THROUGH PROWESS Mrs. Celia A. Sweet Qualifies To Navigate Large Power Craft on Bay. For the first time in the history of its bay, San Diego has a woman pilot. Last week a license was issued from the San Francisco hull inspector’s office to Celia A. Sweet “to operate or navigate a craft of not more than sixty-five feet in length, propelled by machinery, in whole or in part by gas, gasoline, petroleum. naptha or electricity, and carrying passengers for hire.” The license is dated June 29, 1912. and is signed by James Guthrie and Joseph P. Dolan, United States inspectors of hulls. Mrs. Sweet is the wife of Jim Sweet, a member of the firm of Winston & Sweet, boat builders. Of the flotilla of bay craft Sweet has designed and built perhaps the Lady Meredith, The Jester and Relue are the best known. For a number of years Mrs. Sweet accompanied her husband on his trips about the bay lighting the beasons when he had that contract, and it was this practice that fitted her to win trophies and a bay license. Two years ago, to her husband’s speedy Relue, Mrs. Sweet won a handsome cup offered by the Tent City management, and the same season, in a series of races sponsored by the San Diego Yacht Club, she showed her ability to pilot in the racing game by defeating the best helmsmen in the harbor and winning a cup offered by the club. A number of times Mrs. Sweet has taken her women friends “outside” for a day on the ocean, and in other ways has shown herself a genuine navigator. There are pilots and then some more pilots on the bay, but Mrs. Celia A. Sweet is San Diego’s first and only woman pilot.

How a young woman from Kansas became San Diego’s first and only federally licensed female bay pilot is a Sweet story. 

Celia Aileen Rogers migrated west in the late 1800s with her father, a horse handler, and brother. Later Celia worked as an operator for the telephone company. On Saturday evenings, she would tighten her corset, straighten the pins in her upswept hair, and then make way along the dirt road to Fort Rosecrans where young ladies and soldiers attended well-chaperoned dances. Celia loved dancing, and it was on such occasion that she met James Relue Sweet.

 Sweet lived at the light station on Ballast Point, and undoubtedly made the acquaintance of many at San Diego’s new Army post. He served the United States Treasury Department as keeper of the seven bay beacons in San Diego Harbor—lighted kerosene lamps on buoys that marked the channel.

On July 4, 1905, Celia and James married. A somewhat harried ceremony took place on the ocean aboard the vessel Point Loma when the officiating clergy became seasick. Celia then moved into the keepers’ dwelling with her husband. There was no electricity or running water.

For James, the morning extinguishing and dusk lighting of the offshore beacons was a contest against the swift tides in the bay. The station’s alco-vapor launch, Sea Lion, struggled at six knots. It was no match for nine-knot currents pushing the sea. Sometimes the tenders of these beacons had to wait out a tide at North Island. 

Celia was exposed to these nuances by virtue of her lighthouse home. More than once her garden was awash by ships passing too quickly. Yet, the bay was her playground and she became accomplished at maneuvering a vessel among shoals that choked the channel. She often accompanied her husband, and boating coach, on his runs to light the beacons.

Celia was also adept at the politics of the U.S. Lighthouse Service with its pesky station inspections. She would have brownies baking in the oven to soothe the iron will and white glove of Captain Sebree.

Two children were born to the Sweets during James’ tenure at Ballast Point: a son, Alton, in 1906, and two years later their daughter Verla.

According to Alton Sweet’s daughter, Janet Sweet Corey, resident of northern California, “The doctor rowed to the lighthouse for the delivery and later forgot to record the births. Dad had to do all the paperwork years later to prove he’d been born.”

James was a clever and successful builder of many things, and took up the design and building of boats to supplement his annual income of $500. At the shore of Ballast Point, he constructed a boat ways that could carry boats up to 40 feet in length up rails where it was easier to work on them.

 Celia was quite at ease cruising the bay, children in tow, in any of James’ boats, particularly the wooden beauty Relue

The couple was active in a fledgling San Diego Yacht Club. In 1910, Celia took the notion to challenge other women to a boat race, but there were no takers. Instead, she competed against yachtsmen winning a series of races, and in another event, against the best helmsmen on the bay. Prowess on the water also earned Celia a racing cup put up by the management of Tent City—the working man’s resort on Coronado in the early 1900s.

The 28-foot motorboat was described in a local newspaper as, “speedy Relue slipping over the bay, the yeast at its bow, whipped froth white and flinging the brine on each side in a snowy cloud.” James, in Relue, set a Pacific Coast speed record of 22 knots. It certainly made tending the harbor beacons more manageable. 

As the Sweet children reached school age, the distance to town from Ballast Point seemed unreasonable. James left the Lighthouse Service in 1911 to organize a boat-building firm Winston-Sweet, and later Sweet Craft. 

Though the family left the lighthouse, Celia continued transporting passengers across the bay and, in June 1912, completed the studies and work required for a federal pilot’s license from the Department of Commerce and Labor. 

“I was number 1,” she told a newspaper reporter in 1972, on a visit to San Diego. She was the first federally licensed woman bay pilot in San Diego, and quite possibly in the nation, since her issue number on the license reads, “1.1”.

 Celia Sweet braved ‘deep waters’ for her day, liberating women to the thrill of speed and skill on the bay. She died in 1974, and is buried next to her beloved light keeper James, in Sacramento.

2 thoughts on “San Diego’s First Woman Bay Pilot

  1. What a fantastic story, I’m fascinated with this because it crosses and connects so much of the history we try and share every day at the park.

  2. What a wonderful way to share our Grandmother. She was such a delight. It was always a treat to hear her stories.

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