Times Past

Two notable anniversaries: Sinking of the Montebello and a beach dance in Morro Bay

Ruth St. Denis dances in the surf at Atascadero Beach in Morro Bay in 1916. E.G. Lewis took the modern dance pioneer to Atascadero Beach when she visited a friend at his Colony.
Ruth St. Denis dances in the surf at Atascadero Beach in Morro Bay in 1916. E.G. Lewis took the modern dance pioneer to Atascadero Beach when she visited a friend at his Colony.

The end of 2016 was so tumultuous that I failed to acknowledge at least two anniversaries, both connected to Morro Bay. The first is better known. It occurred 75 years ago, when a Japanese submarine torpedo hit Morro Rock and ultimately sank the Unocal tanker S.S. Montebello six miles off Cambria in the early hours of Dec. 23, 1941.

The submarine later attacked the Atlantic-Richfield tanker S.S. Larry Doheny at sea. The Doheny was driven into the shallower waters of Estero Bay.

I’ve written several columns concerning that “hidden history” of the War in the Pacific.

The other anniversary is less well-known. It happened 100 years ago, in 1916, when Ruth St. Denis danced in the surf at E.G. Lewis’ Atascadero Beach a few hundred yards from the Rock.

St. Denis was a pioneer of modern dance whose fame rivaled that of Isadora Duncan. St. Denis introduced concepts of Eastern and ancient mysticism into her art. She began her career with producer David Belasco’s famed touring company in the early 1900s. In 1914, she married Ted Shawn and started the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in Los Angeles. She often appeared in her interpretation of Isis, the Egyptian goddess.

St. Denis formed a friendship with Stella Warden, a music teacher in E.G. Lewis’ new Atascadero Colony who was connected to many avant garde musicians throughout America.

St. Denis made two appearances in Atascadero, when she was taken to Lewis’ Atascadero Beach at the foot of what is now San Jacinto Street, where, in the 1920s, Lewis built his Cloisters Inn. She felt the urge to dance in the surf. Her dance both in the rough dunes and next to Morro Rock was caught by a photographer.

Lewis, quick to seize on good publicity, placed the images in his advertisements for the Colony.

My mentor as a public historian, Elliot Curry, former managing editor of the Telegram-Tribune, wrote at the time of St. Denis’ death in 1968 that “Dancing in the surf was not (her) greatest feat, but it will be long remembered in the archives of Atascadero because of this lively picture.”

Once the promised New Year’s storms have abated, you might want to celebrate this century-old event by taking a brief dance in the surf at Atascadero Beach.

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I’ll be talking on the geology and manmade configuration of Morro Bay at the Morro Bay Library on Saturday, Jan. 7, at 1 p.m.

On Monday, Jan. 9, I’ll speak on “Renaissance in Morro Bay in the 1930s” as part of the Morro Bay Natural History Museum’s Mindwalk Series, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the Veterans Memorial Building, 209 Surf St.

Morro Bay in the 1930s involved Prohibition stories of Canadian whiskey on the Rock, as economically hard-pressed farmers, fishermen and tugboat operators facilitated the landing of Canadian distillates near Morro Bay.

But it also involved a “literary renaissance.” Miles Castle and other refugees from a failed land settlement for English immigrants in the Central Valley joined with Neil Moses, a colorful newspaper editor, Dorothy Gates, a college librarian, and Dr. Jack Levitt, a physician from Minnesota, to form a literary society and journal and bring high culture to Morro Bay.

Dan Krieger is professor of history emeritus at Cal Poly . He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.