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Could shipwrecks from prohibition smuggling off Montaña de Oro still be polluting the water?

Along the California coastline, there are numerous mussel-watch stations composed of bags of live filter-feeding bivalves placed on mooring lines anchored to the ocean’s floor or on pier pilings. Organizations like universities, the state Water Resources Control Board, NOAA or California Fish and Wildlife (CFW) maintain these stations, which measure trace metals, harmful algal toxins and other water pollutants.

You see, just one adult mussel can filter up to 15 gallons of seawater per day as they feed on plankton. Pollutants in the water accumulate in these bivalves (mussels, clams and oysters) tissues over time.

Along the Pecho Coast (Point San Luis Lighthouse northwestward to Montaña de Oro State Park), CFW has several of these stations. They exchange the bags of mussels about every three months and send them off to the Marine Pollution Studies Laboratory at Moss Landing in Monterey Bay for analysis.

Copper found from shipwrecks?

Over the decades, the only time any of these stations have detected trace amounts of metals (minute amounts of copper) have occurred in Spooner’s Cove at Montaña de Oro State Park. So, where was the copper coming from?

Turns out, the copper may be leaching from bronze bearings from shipwrecks located near the cove from vessels used to transport alcohol during prohibition in the 1920s through the early 1930s.

Gary Manninen of Atascadero told me a fascinating story about his father Fred.

Fred was born in 1905 in Ohio from parents who immigrated from Finland. He moved to California and lived in a beautiful bohemian style home by a large grove of cypress trees near the end of the present-day Coon Creek Trail in Montaña de Oro State Park. Sadly, the house burned down in 1956.

Smuggling liquor from Spooner’s Cove

During the Great Depression, jobs were as scarce as hens’ teeth, and he had to feed his family. He decided to transport Canadian whiskey from Spooner’s Cove where smugglers’ boats would come ashore at night and move the liquor to the Froom Ranch in western San Luis Obispo that served as a safe house.

Historian Pete Kelly who grew up in Avila Beach told me, “One of the Spooner’s sons was busted for importing opium into the cove around 1910. That was not illegal, but not paying taxes on the product was. During prohibition, a lot of booze entered Spooner’s Cove. Smuggled up Coon Creek and down Perfumo Canyon to San Luis Obispo using the old Spanish smuggling route.”

According to Manninen, his father and associates cut a rough trail that allowed a Ford Model-T to carry bottles of spirts through Coon Creek Canyon over the Irish Hills to the Froom Ranch. The Irish Hills are rugged with deep canyons and steep rocky hillsides with dense vegetation; the difficulty of this journey was immense.

Manninen told me his dad avoided the law by not traveling through See or Perfumo canyons but instead chose the most challenging path that led to the Froom Ranch. When he reached the safe house, they unloaded the boxes of whiskey, fed him dinner and paid him a $5 gold piece. From this location, the liquor was distributed to speakeasies along the El Camino Real.

John Madonna, who was born in San Luis Obispo and now owns the Froom Ranch, told me he heard similar stories through local and family folklore. I would like to thank Manninen for this fantastic piece of Central Coast history, but more importantly, his service in the U.S. Army during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1969.

All are invited to climate change talk

I will be giving a presentation about climate change and what it means for our local weather at the Morro Bay Library from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5. All are welcome.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.
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