Times Past

From 'rum-running' to displaced graveyards, little Cayucos' history is anything but sleepy

Gravestones of Mary Buffington and her younger siblings, James and William, who died of diphtheria within a week of each other in 1882 in Cayucos.
Gravestones of Mary Buffington and her younger siblings, James and William, who died of diphtheria within a week of each other in 1882 in Cayucos.

Turning off Highway 1 into Cayucos is a wondrous treat both for first time visitors and residents of the Central Coast. Although the population has increased, and some businesses have changed hands, the seaside town keeps a great deal of its historic character.

Highway 1 bypassed Cayucos in 1965 as part of a $2.6 million project.

The bypass resulted in some residents losing their homes. Eleanore Garcia’s home on D Street fell victim to a freeway off ramp.

Beginning in 1958, Cayucos got a taste of change when San Luis Obispo, the California Men’s Colony, Cal Poly and the Cayucos Area Water Organization began construction of Whale Rock Dam on Old Creek. The dam created a reservoir, necessitating the removal of the Cayucos-Morro Bay Cemetery from the future lake bed to a site well below the dam alongside Hwy. 1.

The tall, sometimes elegant and always poignant Victorian and Edwardian grave monuments had to be carefully moved along with the contents of hundreds of graves.

Today, the cemetery appears as if it were always where it now is.

Three modest grave markers testify to the impermanence of life in Old Cayucos. Mary Buffington and her younger siblings, James and William, died of diphtheria within a week of each other in 1882.

On Aug. 31, 1892, J. P. Andrews County Bank in Cayucos saw the most spectacular bank robbery in our county during the 19th century.

Cayucos was one of the most active rum-running seaports along the Pacific coast during the Prohibition era, 1920-1933. Dozens of rural farm families earned a little extra money during tough times by aiding the bootleggers.

During the early morning hours of Dec. 23, 1941, a Japanese submarine launched its attack on the UNOCAL tanker S.S. Montebello off Cambria. Part of the rescue operations for the crew of the sunken tanker came from the wharf at Cayucos.

Every July 4th, Cayucos hosts the most funky, wonderful hometown parade that I’ve ever seen.

In 1601, Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino saw several small canoes just south of Point Estero. He called them “Cayucos” or ‘‘little canoes.” Like the Santa Lucia Mountains, also named by Vizcaino, the place-name remained unchanged.

After the great drought ended in 1865, James McKinley divided Rancho Moro y Cayucos into a number of sizable dairy ranches. Dozens of Swiss-Italians, displaced by the creation of the Kingdom of Italy with its high tariff policies, fled Canton Ticino for the foothills of the Santa Lucias.

By the 1880s, Italian was the most commonly spoken language along our north coast.

In 1868, Captain James Cass, an English seafarer, came to Cayucos. The sea lanes were the only viable link between the dairies and the outside world. Cass built a short wharf and then extended it so that large steamships could dock and take on huge loads of butter and cheese from the dairies.

The town grew up around Capt. Cass’ wharf and warehouse.

There’s a special feeling of community that still survives in Cayucos.

I’ll moderate a discussion at 7 p.m. Friday with longtime Cayucos residents Eleonore Garcia, Margaret Negranti and Eleonore Molnar for “Cayucos History Night” on how Cayucos has changed in post-dairying times. Held at the Cayucos School, 301 Cayucos Dr., the Cayucos Historical Society event is free.

Patti Dunton, Tribal Administrator of the Salinan Tribe of San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties, will speak at 4 p.m. May 20 on aspects of the Salinan people who greeted Vizcaino in 1601. Dunton’s talk, “Sacred Places: From Past to Present,” is at the Veterans Hall, 209 Surf St., Morro Bay. Admission is free to Morro Bay Historical Society members and $3 to the public.

This column is by Dan Krieger. Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, 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.