Times Past

‘Culturally spectacular’ history of Pirate’s Cove one more reason it should be cleaned up

Elevated wave-cut terraces at what is now Cave Landing, or “Pirates Cove,” in 1865.
Elevated wave-cut terraces at what is now Cave Landing, or “Pirates Cove,” in 1865.

“The two forces faced each other in battle array, armed on one side with guns and lances, and on the other with book, holy water, and cross. [Fr.] Martinez began to read and [Miguel]Avila seized the book, thinking thus to escape damnation; but the padre went on, finished the rite in bad Latin from memory, and retired in triumph to the church.”

Theodore Henry Hittell’s pioneering four-volume “History of California” contains many colorful stories. Hittell was attorney to Juan Bautista Alvarado, the longest serving Governor of Mexican California, from 1836-1841.

Few of his accounts are as flamboyant as the confrontation between Corporal Miguel Avila of the Mission Escolte (guard) and Mission San Luis Obispo’s pastor, Fr. Luis Antonio Martinez. It took place in Mission Plaza in 1824.

Fr. Martinez had seen Cpl. Avila transacting some illicit business with one of the Mission neophytes. The Franciscan missionaries tried as much as possible to protect the Native Americans from the depredations of the soldados. Avila had been warned earlier. Now, Fr. Martinez was going to excommunicate the wayward mission guard.

Excommunication would mean that Avila could not still be in the mission community and would be forced to leave California. The matter was referred to Don José De la Guerra y Noriega, the Captain of the Santa Barbara Presidio, who persuaded his close friend, Fr. Martinez, to annul the excommunication for the sake of peace.

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Cpl. Avila was sent to Monterey, then the capital of Mexican California. In 1826, he married Maria Inocenta Pico, a daughter of the Pico family whose fortunes were on the rise. As his family grew, the Picos influence helped him obtain the Ranchos San Miguelito and Laguna at the mouth of San Luis Obispo Creek. The grant included Cave Landing, a mile southeast from the creek’s mouth.

Cave Landing had been used by the padres to load cattle hides and leather bags of tallow onto Yankee, British and Russian ships in the early 1800s. Avila, a notorious skinflint, didn’t recognize the site’s potential.

In 1855, he leased the site to Barkley Clements and Charles T. Commie. They sold their rights to Cave Landing to Captain David Mallagh, who built a warehouse on the cliffs with a long wooden chute leading down to the water. Visitors can still see the huge rings of iron fastened with iron spikes driven into the solid rock at the top of the cliff. Cables were tied to the rings to secure visiting ships.

Between 1860 and 1872, Capt. Mallagh controlled shipping and hauled passengers and freight to San Luis Obispo. During the Great Drought of 1862-65, he kept business alive by slaughtering the dying cattle at his Huer Huero Ranch near Creston. He boiled the carcasses and fed them to pigs that he shipped to San Francisco, where the hams were sold at great profit during the Civil War.

Captain John Harford convinced Mallagh to abandon his cumbersome landing operation and become manager of the “Peoples Wharf,” the short-lived predecessor of the Harford or “Olde Port” wharf at Port San Luis in 1871.

During the Prohibition Era, 1919-1933, Cave Landing became a favorite spot for rum runners evading the Coast Guard and U.S. Revenue authorities. There were many colorful “narrow escapes” as the “whiskey on the rocks” was moved down the narrow road in canvas-covered trucks with their lights dimmed to avoid detection.

During the late 1960s, the protected beach below Cave Landing became “clothing optional.” The appellation “Pirate’s Cove” came into popular usage, although there is no record of any pirate being present at the site.

Cave Landing is visually and culturally spectacular. The absence of any pirates aside, it is a significant historical resource. Now the County Board of Supervisors has directed that a plan be drawn up to deal with the gross deterioration of the parking area reported in this paper by Joe Tarica. I no longer feel comfortable taking visitors to the site.

That’s a shame, because it’s a place that speaks volumes about the way things were in Times Past.

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

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