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Firm as This Rock We Stand: Early Morro Bay's Growing Pains

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Morro Bay is confusing. To borrow a line from the movie Clueless, the iconic beach town is in its own way a "full-on Monet." From a distance, it is almost unbelievably picture perfect -- with its towering rock, soaring birds, large trees, and serene inlet dotted with anchored sailboats. Up close -- the picture gets a bit more complicated. Bird droppings cover many boardwalks, sidewalks and windows. At night, the Embarcadero, a long stretch of waterfront lined with fish and chip shops, kitschy gift stores and docked booze cruises, is packed with tourists ready to party. In the early morning, a walk farther down the waterfront reveals many weather-beaten, hardworking dock workers tending to old boats in the shade of a giant power plant, while tourists get breakfast at greasy spoons or charming cafes. All in all, it makes for a fascinating picture, equally gritty and idyllic, artsy and utilitarian, but ultimately, extremely beautiful.

In 1769, the Spanish expedition party of Governor Gaspar de Portola was making its way up the California Coast. In September of that year, they arrived in what is now San Luis Obispo County, and camped along the shore. Voyage diarist Father Crespi remembered:

Not far from the camping place there was a small village of heathen which seemed to be nomadic, for we did not see a single house. About 65 persons came to see us as soon as we arrived, and presented us with a sort of porridge made with roasted seeds which tasted like almonds and everyone liked very much. The governor returned the gift and they were all pleased. To the south an estuary of immense size enters this valley, so large that it looked like a harbor to us; its mouth opens to the southwest and we noticed that it is covered with reefs which cause a furious surf. At a short distance from it, to the north, we saw a giant rock in the form of a morro [snout, promontory], which at high tide is isolated and separated from the coast by little less than a gunshot.

What the expedition saw was a 24-million-year-old volcanic plug, long considered a sacred site by the numerous Chumash and Salinan communities who lived around it. With the dawn of the Spanish era, many of these people became wards of the brutal mission system, or fled farther inland. Morro Bay remained underdeveloped and isolated throughout the Mexican and early American period. In the late 1860s, settlers began trickling into the area. During this time, Morro Rock also began to be quarried. In 1864, a farmer named Franklin Riley moved his family to what is now the town center. It was a hard life. "When the wind blew, the flying sand was terrible," his daughter remembered. "It cut off at the top of the ground anything that was planted. It filled the houses and was blown into the water wells, no matter what was done."

Photo courtesy of the Moro Bay Historical Society
Photo courtesy of the Moro Bay Historical Society

Despite the hardships, Riley believed the natural inlet was ideal for building a port, which would enable the export of products from the surrounding dairies and rancheros. To combat the wind, he planted cypress and eucalyptus seeds along the dusty streets. He started planning a town site. 1870 is given as the official year of "Morro's" founding (the "Bay" would be added later). In 1872, a map of "Morro," signed by Riley's friend, the surveyor Carolan Mathers, was drawn up. A year later, a large wharf connected by a long chute to a new warehouse was opened in Morro. For a few years it flourished, enticing commercial schooners going up and down the coast. A man named John Schneider remembered watching the pranks his friends would pull while working at the warehouse:

[They] would flood the chute with kerosene…The sacks loaded with grain would speed down the chute so fast that the crew in the hold of this ship would not dare reach out to stop them. So the bags struck the hull and burst, sending the grain helter-skelter. This brought on the uproar the two lads wanted. A big Irish crewman would stick his head out of the hold and yell at the top of his lungs, “They’ve ‘iled the chute!”

Sadly, the wharf did not prosper for long. Morro failed to secure big freight companies to dock there, and a series of wrecks convinced captains it was not a safe place to enter. The warehouse was eventually converted into a dance hall. Most of the area's smattering of residents continued to farm. However, during the 1890s, a new industry developed in the small town. Hardworking farmers from Bakersfield and the Salinas and San Joaquin Valleys began coming to Morro in the summer, camping at places like the Snider Family Campground. Farmer Henry Hartwell Rhodes recounted his times at Morro years later:

The people who lived on these plains, when the harvest was over and before, travelled to the summer camps on the beach. Those camps were scenes of many joyous weeks of camp life, boating, swimming, bathing and clam digging. At night a great bonfire was built from the beach drift and sagewood which was plentiful. Around this the older people sat and ran over again the many instances of farm life on the hot sandy plains or reminisced of younger days, while the younger folks danced-and such dances we had-all out under the stars, the surf at our back and a large hole dug in the middle of the campground in which [we] roasted clams enough for all. It was usually 12 o’clock before our night finally broke up. How could we, who were doomed to spend the long summer months 35 or 50 miles away, working 16 ½ hours a day, feel anything but contempt for our work and a longing for the cool foggy coast?
As tourism increased, so did the number of new year-round residents, which included many Italian, Portuguese and Swiss families. But Morro was still a tiny place (the population did not exceed 400 until the late 1930s). During the next few decades, Morro was continually visited by developers from Los Angeles and San Francisco, who claimed they intended to build a huge resort or harbor that "would bring the Pacific Ocean within 87 miles of Bakersfield." A few projects, like the lovely Cabrillo Country Club (now the Morro Bay Golf Course) were actually completed. The beautiful isolation of the area led many well-known artists, including Charles H. Robinson, A. Harold Knott, and Charlotte and William Skinner, to move to Morro. The artistic community congregated at The Picture Shop, owned by British expat Olive Cotter.
Photo courtesy of the Moro Bay Historical Society
Photo courtesy of the Moro Bay Historical Society

The Morro Bay we see today was hugely shaped by World War Two. In 1941, the U.S. Navy built a base at Morro, building up the pier and docks, and deepening the harbor. A June 1944 article described the base as "the Pacific tomorrow:"

Every day columns of khaki-clad troops are taken in truck convoys from Camp San Luis Obispo to the Naval Amphibious Training Base at Morro Bay where they are given instructions in embarkation methods. [They] transfer to a simulated ship and [disembark] over the side of a large frame mockup and down rope ladders into landing craft…Through the narrow channel of Morro Bay stream hundreds of landing craft toward the open sea for a rendezvous. At a given time and place they go into action, racing through the swells and surf of the Pacific to the nearby beaches of Estero Bay where "enemy" troops offer simulated resistance by blowing up the beach with land mines, sending a stream of machine gun fire over the heads of troops and throwing up barriers wherever possible to make the "invasion" approximate the real thing. Sometimes the landing craft spend hours in the open sea before starting to land troops. Many men get seasick but most of them become used to it in time. The troops, sometimes Army, Navy and Marine Corps alike swarm through the surf, waist-deep, hitting the beaches in a prone position to be ready with their rifles for the enemy. Small tanks are brought up by the landing craft ploughing through water and sand and blasting through "enemy" installations.

After the war ended, commercial enterprises took over the infrastructure left behind by the Navy. The docks and moorings became home to commercial fishermen and scenic tour boats. The modern Embarcadero flourished. In the early 1950s, PG&E began building a $44 million steam-generating plant where part of the base once stood. Today, the town has a population of around 10,000 residents, and a steady stream of tourists. It is a unique place, filled with signs of its bumpy and colorful beginnings and its people's steadfast resolve. In 1959, the editor of the Morro Bay Sun recalled, "Never in our darkest moments did we despair through lack of promise in our community. We knew it was a natural, that someday it would be recognized and become a prosperous city. The appealing beauty of the setting just couldn't miss."

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

Further reading: Morro Bay’s Yesterdays: Vignettes of Our City’s Lives and Times, by Dorothy L. Gates and Jane H. Bailey

Special thanks to the Historical Society of Morro Bay.

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