Think all things historical are ho hum? Not along San Luis Obispo County’s north coast where signs of history greet you at every glance. What’s the story behind Morro Rock, Cayucos Pier and Leffingwell Landing? What’s with all the cows grazing on grassy slopes above the sea? And why are there so many old buildings along the main streets of towns, looking as if their walls could talk? The walls, as well as the beaches, bays and boardwalks, do have many tales to tell. But many visitors (and some residents) pass by the sights without knowing the fascinating back stories that accompany them. To enlighten you and thus enhance your experiences, we give you this abridged version of the histories of Morro Bay, Cayucos and Cambria.
The tales begin with the area’s most unusual natural setting—the dramatic geography of Morro Bay. About 23 million years ago, a chain of nine volcanic plugs rose from the earth, stretching from the mountains to the sea. The last in the string of peaks was perched at the edge of a natural estuary, protected by a long sandbar. The massive monolith dominates the landscape to this day, serving as an important navigational reference point for everyone traveling within visual range.
The earliest coastal residents include the Salinan and Chumash Indian tribes, who lived in the region for thousands of years. They built sturdy canoes and traveled up and down the coast, fishing and harvesting abalone and other seafood.
When Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo sailed by in 1542, he named the monolith “El Morro,” as it resembled the headdress of the Moors who invaded Spain. Morro Rock, as it’s now known, later became a landfall for Spanish galleons. (It was an island at high tide but connected to land at low tide.)
During the mission era from the late 1700s to 1820s, Spanish soldiers and settlers hunted, fished and farmed in the region. When the missions were secularized in the 1830s, much of the coastal land was divided into vast Mexican land grants—where ranchers raised cattle for hide and tallow trade. Later, the land was parceled off into somewhat smaller (but still relatively large) ranches, devoted first to dairy and later to beef production.
In the mid-1800s, Morro Bay’s harbor was a busy one. Nearly everyone owned at least a rowboat, if not a larger vessel, as locals preferred to travel up and down the coast by boat rather than stagecoaches, which were sometimes robbed. Local life centered around the waterfront Embarcadero, where boats moored and fish, seafood and other wares were loaded and unloaded, bought and sold.
Starting in the late 1800s, people began to quarry the sides of Morro Rock to get material to build breakwaters at nearby ports. In 1933 the WPA blasted Morro Rock to build a jetty to connect it to the mainland. This closed the north entrance to the harbor, leaving a southern entry point to the estuary on the south side of the rock. The WPA dredged the channel and built a breakwater to protect the entrance. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Navy developed much of the harbor in the late 1930s and early 1940s. During World War II the area became a training base for Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel boats (aka Higgins Boats). Amphibious landing craft staged “invasions” on beaches north of Morro Rock.
By the 1930s, Morro Bay had campsites and a nine-hole golf course at Morro Bay State Park. (The Morro Bay Golf Course expanded to 18 holes by 1951.) In 1939 the town counted 400 residents. Between 1930 and 1970, Morro Bay was a major hub for commercial abalone businesses. After 1970 wild abalone populations fell sharply for several reasons: overfishing, an increasing population of protected otters (they love to feast on the mollusks) and disease. Wild abalone industries are currently banned. In Cayucos, however, a few miles north of Morro Bay, The Abalone Farm produces about half the abalone sold at restaurants and shops across the nation.
In 1953 PG&E broke ground on a new power plant and built three 450-foot smoke stacks, which became another set of Morro Bay icons alongside Morro Rock. A fabulous Museum of Natural History opened in 1963, and Morro Bay became an official city in 1964.
Morro Rock—often called the “Gibraltar of the Pacific”—was designated a State Historical Landmark in 1968. The years of rampant quarrying had reduced its size significantly, but it still encompasses 50 acres at its base. People can walk near the rock, but no one is allowed to climb it except members of the Salinan tribe during biannual ceremonies.
In the 1700s, native Aleutian islanders came south to hunt otters along the coast, and the name Cayucos relates to the Spanish, Chumash and Aleut terms for kayak or canoe.
John Bains arrived in the Cayucos area in 1852 and opened the first local establishment, a store on Old Creek. The 30-acre Old Creek community and stage stop soon included a post office, a general store, a saloon, an eatery and overnight lodgings.
In 1867, English immigrant Captain James Cass moved to a 320-acre portion of the 8,845-acre Rancho Moro Y Cayucos land grant, about two miles north of the Old Creek settlement. According to legend, Cass was hauling goods between San Luis Obispo and San Simeon and stopped to rest at Cayucos Creek. Gazing at the ocean from his perch, Cass could easily visualize the area’s great potential as a shipping port.
Cass began a shipping business at what became known as Cass’s Landing. They shipped goods from the bay by hand-carrying the merchandise, wading out into the water guided by ropes to a small flat-bottomed vessel that Cass invented. The vessel would then carry the goods to the ship. The business thrived and in 1871, Cass built the first portion of the wharf. In 1876 he began the extension, with the help of investors, and completed it in 1877.
Schooners soon switched their docking plans from Morro Bay to the Cayucos pier, just four miles north, because it was safer than plying through treacherous surf entrances near Morro Rock. This caused a steep decline in shipping-related business in Morro Bay, but spelled fortune for the tiny town of Cayucos.
In 1876 Cass and Company built a spacious warehouse to complement the three smaller buildings. That same year, Captain Cass built a residence for his family across from the pier—a home that today has been fully restored and operates as an upscale bed-and-breakfast inn.
By the early 1900s, Cayucos had about five hotels and seven saloons, four banks, a school and two churches, as well as blacksmiths, general stores and numerous other businesses. A number of these buildings still exist and line the quaint streets at the center of town.
The advent of train travel in California caused a quick decline in the shipping industry in Cayucos. James Cass lived at his home until his death in March 1917, at age 93. In the ensuing decades, tourists discovered Cayucos and began to flock there for long summer sojourns. Today the tiny, well-preserved town continues to attract scores of visitors.
Cambria’s history is entwined with San Simeon Bay, which was the site of a whaling station that operated in the mid-1800s, just a few miles north. Settlers began to congregate along the coast a few miles south of the bay.
During the Gold Rush (1848 to 1855), there was great demand for cinnabar (quicksilver, or mercury), which was used to refine gold and silver. The Bianchini family, immigrants from Italian Switzerland, opened a cinnabar mine in Cambria, which attracted numerous workers to the area. The mine closed after Gold Rush, and remained dormant until it opened to supply cinnabar for munitions during World War II.
Cambria’s first resident was I. Jeremiah Johnson from Ohio, a rough-cut character who came to California during the Gold Rush but failed to strike it rich. He worked as a stockman for a judge in Adelaida, at a ranch called Dry Bones. In 1859, he left Adelaida and established a settlement by squatting at the intersection of two “major” country roads: Main and Santa Rosa. He set up a livery for donkeys, horses and other stock, which became very successful. Then he proceeded to build several hotels and saloons using the abundant Cambria and Monterey pine trees in the vicinity.
A number of other entrepreneurs planted roots during the “land rush” that came on the heels of the Gold Rush. They bought property around Santa Rosa Creek and developed and sold lots. These include Adam Leffingwell, who had a sawmill and shipped lumber from Leffingwell Landing, at the north end of Moonstone Beach. George Lull opened the first store and built what is now the oldest house in Cambria, on Main Street across from the Olallieberry Inn. The Bianchinis built a home in the village center around 1870. Today the historic residence houses Cambria’s Historical Museum.
The town was established in 1866. Peter Aloysius Forrester, who taught school in San Simeon, was also a mining consultant and a mapmaker who mapped the town and helped choose its name. The area’s topography reminded him of a mining town, Cambria (the Roman name for Wales), that he fondly remembered back in Pennsylvania.
Cambria was a bustling hub from 1889 through the 1890s. It was the second largest town in the county, next to San Luis Obispo. It was a center of industry, social life, farming and ranching. A ranch at Harmony (today a tiny collection of enterprises, with a post office and population of 18) was the region’s main dairy center. They made butter and cheese, packed them in ice and straw, and hauled them up to Leffingwell Landing to ship to San Francisco. Thousands of people would come to Cambria for Fourth of July and other celebrations, rodeos, car races, fancy dances and other events. Hundreds joined in holiday picnics under the rare stand of Monterey pines at Phelan Ranch, in the hills above the village.
A number of Chinese immigrants lived in Cambria. They settled on the present day Greenspace Preserve property located across Center Street from what currently is the Cambria Historical Museum. They farmed and harvested “sea lettuce” for sale in San Francisco and China, and were allowed to live on the property owned by the Gans family for about 40 years. There were houses, a laundry by the creek, and a red assembly hall which Greenspace has outfitted as a temple to memorialize that group of immigrants who lived harmoniously with all the other ethnic groups who settled there.
In 1889, the three-story Proctor Hotel and much of the surrounding business district burned down. This gave Cambria a major set back. Also, the new railroad was meant to travel through Cambria, promising new jobs and an influx of travelers and residents, but plans changed and the train tracks went through inland San Miguel instead. Scores of residents left Cambria to seek work elsewhere.
While Cambria no longer served as a major hub, it maintained its strong spirit of community and continued to provide plenty of opportunity for ranchers, farmers and other business people. Its rich history, quaint downtown, abundant pine forests and stunning coastal scenery also began to attract tourists and those seeking peaceful respite from busy urban centers—a trend that continues today.
The town’s name has always been pronounced CAM-bria. But in 1928 the CambriaPines Development Company began to subdivide areas in the hills west of the main village. When they advertised the lot sales on the radio, they used an incorrect pronunciation of the own: CAME-bria. This has caused confusion among visitors ever since.
The late local historian Paul Squibb advised, “Say CAM-bria as in Camelot, not CAME-bria as in came and went.”
Quiet Cambria became a major international news item in 1941. Just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the SS Montebello was heading up the coast to San Francisco. A Japanese submarine torpedoed the ship, which sank offshore near Cambria. A nearby tugboat, the Alma, chugged at full speed to rescue the 28 or so crew members that were ducking Japanese artillery while floating in lifeboats. The Alma is on view in the Morro Bay waterfront, next to the new Maritime Museum (scheduled to open in fall 2018).
This story was originally published in the 2018 summer issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.