Times Past

Tragic earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia a reminder of what could happen in California

We live along the “Pacific Rim of Fire.” Part of the price that we pay for our scenic views and generally great climate is that it’s also a “tierra de los temblores,” a land of the shakes.

I thought of this early last week as we were driving home from San Diego and Pasadena. We heard about the tragic temblor in Indonesia just as we passed Refugio State Beach. Twenty minutes later, we were traveling through the tunnel at Gaviota Pass and the Lompoc turnoff. Refugio Creek and Lompoc were linked by the impact of a temblor in 1812.

There were two massive quakes that year. The first was on Dec. 8. It destroyed the church at Mission San Juan Capistrano, killing 40 neophytes. The second was in the Santa Barbara Channel on Dec. 21.

Mission San Luis Obispo has a connection to that event. Father Luis Gil y Taboada’s grave is marked at the right base of the sanctuary. Taboada witnessed what may be the greatest historically recorded earthquakes and possible tsunami in Central and Southern California.

Taboada (1773-1833) was sent here in 1830. He replaced Father Luis Antonio Martinez, who had been expelled by the Mexican governor José María Echeandía.

Taboada found that conditions had deteriorated considerably at San Luis Obispo since the departure of Martinez. He made repairs to the deteriorating buildings, but continuing ill health restricted his energy.

In December 1833, he went to Rancho Santa Margarita to say mass for the neophytes who were engaged in planting the winter grain crop.

Evidently, the journey over the rugged Cuesta trail sapped what remained of his health. At the foot of the altar in the Assistencia chapel, he suffered a violent attack of dysentery and began vomiting blood.

Father Juan Cabot was summoned from San Miguel and administered last rites before Taboada died on Dec. 15.

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It was 21 years earlier when he was stationed at Mission Santa Barbara when a 7.2-magnitude earthquake occurred on Dec. 21, 1812.

What appears to be the most complete historical record we have of a major tsunami in our region documents events following that temblor.

The earthquake had its origins near Santa Cruz Island in the Santa Barbara Channel. Within several minutes, it leveled Mission La Purisima to “rubble and ruin, presenting the picture of a destroyed Jerusalem.” Missions Santa Ines, Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Presidio, Mission San Buenaventura (Ventura) and Mission San Fernando, covering a radius nearly 100 miles from the epicenter, were severely damaged.

Angustias de la Guerra Ord told oral historian Thomas W. Savage of an 1832 conversation with Taboada, probably in San Luis Obispo:

“He told me that when he was in Santa Bárbara in 1812, the earthquakes were very strong… While he was at the presidio of Santa Bárbara, there was such a strong earthquake that the sea withdrew and turned into what appeared to be a tall hill. He and all the people from the presidio took off running toward the mission, singing litanies to the Virgin.

“I jokingly asked him why he had not gone to see what was at the foot of that hill.

“He told me that they drove a pole with a ball tied to it into the ground at a place where the wind did not blow. But the ball moved continuously for eight days. It stopped moving for two or three hours and then it began to move again. This lasted for about fifteen days.”

Taboada also reported that a sea otter trapping ship, The Charon at Refugio, was carried up a canyon by the wave and returned to the sea apparently without any great damage to ship or crew.

Ironically, the ship was named after Charon, who in Greek mythology ferries the dead across the river Acheron. The grave site marker in our mission links us with one of the great catastrophes in Times Past.

Dan Krieger is professor of history emeritus at Cal Poly State University in 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.
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