The “Old Padre” reported the Charon, a sea otter catching ship, was carried up Refugio Canyon by a tsunami wave and returned to the sea without any great damage to ship or crew.
Father Luis Gily Taboada so described the effects of a Dec. 21, 1812 tsunami resulting from a 7.2-magnitude temblor in the Santa Barbara Channel.
The Franciscan was recalling the events surrounding the most destructive of the 19th century California earthquakes to Angustias de la Guerra Ord in 1832.
You can visit Father Luis’ original burial site at the right base of the sanctuary in our Old Mission.
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Ironically, the apparently unharmed ship was named after Charon, who ferries the dead across the river Acheron in Greek mythology.
There is further corroboration of the tsunami:
On March 16, 1864, The San Francisco Bulletin reported “A Boston ship, the Thomas Newland (Sic, the Thomas Nowlan, the same ship which took San Luis Obispo’s maverick priest, Father Luis Antonio Martinez, into exile in 1830), known before as the Charon, commanded by Capt. Isaac Whittemore, was lying off anchorage (at Refugio Bay), not far from the Gaviota Pass, Santa Barbara County, engaged in smuggling, with the old Padres, for otter skins, tallow and hard dollars — a nice little business in 1812 — when the sea was seen to retire all at once and return in an immense wave, which came roaring and plunging back, tearing over the beach fit to crack everything to pieces. This wave penetrated the lowlands of the gulches a mile from the shore, forming one of the most terrific sights possible to conceive.
“That old ship, then under the name Charon, afterward took 1,800 otter skins to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaiian Islands), and landed them, too; but a few days afterwards she was captured by the English man-o’-war Cherub and taken as a prize to London.”
The 1812 tsunami was accepted as a fact by 19th century historians like Hubert Howe Bancroft. The fear that other great tsunamis might jeopardize the Southern California coast affected planning for the nuclear power plants at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon.
Some scientists have attempted to discount the 1812 tsunami report.
V. J. Grauzinis, J. W. Joy and R. R. Putz of Marine Advisors Inc. discount these reports of a major tsunami following the December 1812 earthquake in their environmental impact report for San Onofre Nuclear Generating Power Station (1965), noting that stormy seas rather than a tsunami related to a seismic event was the cause of much of the damage. The authors claim to have made a search for the log of the Charon throughout the maritime museums of the world.
A reasonable historian might respond that smugglers seldom allowed their ship’s log to be taken in the event of capture by government authorities. Fears of self-incrimination would be a powerful motive for destroying an otherwise useful document of the Charon’s adventures.
Ethnologists believe that the 1812 earthquake, if not the tsunami, had the effect of driving the Chumash residents of the Channel Islands to the mainland and bringing them under more direct Spanish control, according to an 1884 account by Chumash Indian Anisetto Pajilacheet, who had been living on the island in 1812. The inflow of potentially dissident Chumash into the mission system might have been a factor in the Chumash uprising of 1824 at Missions La Purisima, Santa Ines, Santa Barbara and San Buenaventura.
The gravesite marker in Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa links us with one of the great catastrophes of the California Mission epoch.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly.