Engineer who helped design the harbor wasn’t allowed on site due to her gender

By Gary Walker

Pioneering engineer Valaria Johnson designing Marina del Rey harbor in 1963

Pioneering engineer Valaria Lincoln designing Marina del Rey harbor in 1963

When Valaria Lincoln worked in the early 1960s to design what would become the world’s largest manmade small-craft harbor, she wasn’t allowed to visit the construction site simply because she’s a woman.

More than 50 years and a massive cultural shift later, Lincoln and two of her male engineer colleagues will be among the honored guests Friday at the golden anniversary celebration for Marina del Rey — the harbor that Lincoln played a vital role in building.

As the first female engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Los Angeles office, Lincoln worked on design specifications for building the harbor and channels of Marina del Rey.

Because she was not allowed to go to the construction site, Lincoln, now 81, said she designed the planned harbor’s water depth, measurements and other design details based on the information that was provided to her as well as any engineering drawings that she could find.

“I wrote them from excavation to final clean up. I also used my imagination, which I think I got from my mother, who was an artist,” Lincoln, an Omaha native, told The Argonaut.

Despite the restrictions she faced simply due to her gender, Lincoln went about her duties with a steady hand.

“At the time I just took it in stride. It’s amazing that you can hold something in for so long and not realize it. I didn’t realize that I was angry about it until I started talking about it to you,” she said with a laugh.

Lincoln began working with the Army as a typist in the Corps’ specification and editing unit of the engineering section in 1961.

“I would see the plans that the engineers were working on and I’d think, ‘I’d like to do that,’” she recalled. “It just seemed very interesting.”

Lincoln, who came to the Army with a degree in international law and classical languages, asked her supervisor about becoming an engineer and the Army agreed to pay for her education — with one caveat.

“They made me swear on the specifications book that if I got this job [as an engineer] I wouldn’t leave the Corps,” she said.

Once she became an engineer, Lincoln began designing specifications for a variety of harbors and government construction projects. When the plans to design a small-craft harbor near the beach came across her desk, Lincoln said they did not immediately appear to be anything special or out of the ordinary.

“It seemed like just another project. I didn’t know that at the time it would be the largest manmade harbor in the world. It’s been very surprising to hear how important it has become to so many people,” she said.

Former Army Corps engineers Ron Weiss and Charles Holt, who worked with Lincoln, will be honored alongside her during Friday’s county-led anniversary commemoration ceremonies, which begin at 5 p.m. at Burton Chace Park.

Lincoln said Holt had pushed for her to be able to visit the construction site, but to no avail.

“He was the only one who wanted me to be out there,” she said.

Holt, 79, was chief of the navigation section for the L.A. branch of the Army Corps of Engineers and later was in charge of maintaining Marina del Rey harbor in the 1970s.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s been 50 years since it was first built,” said Holt, a civil engineer and a Westchester resident who retired from the Corps in 1993.

Nate Holden, a former L.A. city councilman who also served on the state Legislature, said Lincoln’s story is similar to many African-Americans who toiled in relative obscurity at the time.

“It’s nice to finally see her acknowledged for what she’s done. I’m sure that she suffered some kind of emotional distress because of the way that she was treated,” said Holden, a Marina del Rey resident.

Lincoln, a friend and former constituent of Holden, said she takes a lot of pride in her role in designing Marina del Rey’s harbor but has told few people about her role in the work.

She did mention it once during the 1980s while attending a cousin’s wedding on a boat in the harbor, however.

“The captain of the boat looked surprised. I’m not sure if he believed me,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln said the anniversary celebration will be a highly emotional moment for her.

“When I think about it, I have to tell myself to calm down. I haven’t had so much excitement in many years. It’s really the culmination of a career,” she said. “It’s the gold watch that I never received.”