How Morro Rock nearly fell into oblivion

Every good story has a big bad guy, and the saga of Morro Rock’s narrow escape from being turned into a pile of rubble is no exception.

The 581-foot-tall wonder – one of the most beloved and remarkable natural landmarks off the Central Coast – was quarried almost into oblivion for nearly 80 years (1889-1969).

Yet it is estimated that around 1 million tonnes of this landmark sits today, piled above and below the waterline in the Morro Bay breakwater, which signals entry into the city harbour. The site is a sacred space for the Chumash and Salinan tribes.

“Morro Rock is basically an island,” local historian and Morro Bay Historical Society curator Roger Castle told SFGATE. “You could go there at low tide; the first excavations were made before the turn of the [20th] century.”

A view of Morro Rock from the port of Morro Bay. The rock was quarried for 80 years to create a breakwater that led to the harbour. In 1968 the rock was declared a historical monument, ending its mining days.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

“The only problem is the rock itself. The quality was not good enough and the [breakwater] at Morro Bay and at Avila, where it was used, both had to be rebuilt.

The Notorious Legacy of Colonel Earl G. Peacock

But the fact that the Morro Rock deposits weren’t good enough for their intended use in the port didn’t stop some from pushing to destroy it all, Castle said.

Others came before him, but no one was more vigilant in wanting to mine the 20 million ton rock until it disappeared into the Pacific than Colonel Earl G. Peacock, head of the western division of the Army Corps of Engineers.

A surfer watches and waits for a set of waves to arrive while sitting next to Morro Rock.

A surfer watches and waits for a set of waves to arrive while sitting next to Morro Rock.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

And it’s not as if his legacy is distorted by the prism of history, either. Peacock had overseen the quarrying of the “Gibraltar of the Pacific” for the completion of the breakwater on behalf of the corps in the early 1960s. He was rebuffed by nearly every agency, organization and local elected official in the era.

The attempt to stop the destruction of the rock from the early 1960s was a truly bipartisan effort. Key players included city officials, members of Congress, members of the Sierra Club, members of the press and state and federal agencies, residents of Morro Bay and, most importantly, Peacock’s own contemporaries.



Robert Louden, then deputy chief of the corps’ western division, said the agency had finished quarrying at Morro Rock after the breakwater was completed. “It’s a hard quarry to run, no longer economical, and now dangerous,” Louden told the Santa Maria Times on February 6, 1963.

“An irreplaceable monument”

Initially, when construction of the breakwater was nearing completion, it appeared that Peacock seemed fine with the amount that had already been dumped from the rock.

“It would only cost another $250,000 if they had to bring in rock from somewhere else,” he told the Oakland Tribune in March 1964, when the breakwater was completed. “Only half of the rock used for the breakwater came from Morro Rock. The rest came from a quarry in Cambria. We probably won’t need to take stones anymore… We are on the downward slope of this project.

Morro Rock known as

Morro Rock known as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific” was nearly mined into oblivion from the late 1800s through the 1960s.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

But Peacock quickly changed his mind and wanted to continue killing the rock in the name of other potential future projects.

In a surprise about-face, he sent a letter to Morro Bay Town Council early in 1965 saying the corps intended to resume quarrying soon.

In the letter, Peacock told the council it needed to consider whether “the preservation of Morro Rock’s aesthetic value as a landmark” should outweigh the apparent cost savings from continued mining. rock for projects in the region.

The Hanford Sentinel reported that the City Council immediately expressed “dismay” at the change in plan and at Peacock’s proposal to resume operation.

Accordingly, the council drafted a resolution saying that “Morro Rock is a God-given monument of rare and unique beauty, an irreplaceable monument”. Morro Bay Mayor Jack Surfluh said he was fed up with quarries and noted it was “time to take definite steps to determine what we want for posterity”.

A surfer and Morro Rock are reflected in the water at low tide as the sun sets with ash visible from a forest fire in Morro Bay.  Steve Lopez performs a California Coastal Tour marking the 40th anniversary of Coastal Law in California, California August 3, 2016.
A surfer and Morro Rock are reflected in the water at low tide as the sun sets with ash visible from a forest fire in Morro Bay. Steve Lopez performs a California Coastal Tour marking the 40th anniversary of Coastal Law in California, California August 3, 2016.Allen J. Schaben/TNS

The council and Surfluh were joined by the Los Padres chapter of the Sierra Club in a letter-writing campaign against Peacock’s wishes. Their plan was to show that the rock should stay and that any short-term financial windfalls from its destruction would pale in comparison to its long-term value as a recreational and tourist destination.

Jessie Drake, a San Luis Obispo County supervisor, helped develop a master plan for Morro Bay that focused on the rock as a destination. “It’s worth more to us than $5 million from a tourism business perspective in the future,” he said. The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors accepted and adopted the master plan.

A bipartisan effort to protect Morro Rock

Why the body could claim the landmark in the first place was also controversial at the time. Morro Rock was ceded to the State of California in 1935 by Congress. But there was a loophole in the act, which stated that while California could operate Morro Rock as a public park, the Secretary of Commerce reserved the right to use the rock at any time.

The Army Corps of Engineers fell under this jurisdiction. For a time, anything he wanted to do, he could do.

Morro Rock almost fell into oblivion at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

Morro Rock almost fell into oblivion at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

Shaw Photography Co./Getty Images

Due to the ambiguity of the rock act and the ongoing war between Peacock and those who wanted to save the rock from total destruction, Senator Clair Engle (D-California) introduced legislation in 1964 to cede the control of Morro Rock to the state of California. Rep. Burt L. Talcott (R-Calif.) introduced the bill in the House at the same time.

As the legislation progressed, the body eventually agreed to withdraw.

In late 1965, one of Peacock’s counterparts, William J. Herron, head of the corps’ coastal engineering branch, surrendered. “The military will respect Washington’s decision,” he said, adding, “The determination of preservation (of the rock) for aesthetic value is in better hands than ours.”

In 1966, the official title of Morro Rock was transferred to the State of California, with no loopholes. In February 1968, Morro Rock received California Historic Landmark status.

“Boom. Hey. It’s Morro Bay.

Although the rock remains protected today, some who live and work in its shadow lament all that has been taken.

“I just can’t imagine he’s not here,” surfer Diego Howell, who lives in Paso Robles, told SFGATE. “I would love to see it in its original form. When you turn the corner and see the rock and the chimneys, you just say, “Boom.” Hey. This is Morro Bay.

Locals and visitors to Morro Bay identify the place by its iconic three chimneys as well as Morro Rock.

Locals and visitors to Morro Bay identify the place by its iconic three chimneys as well as Morro Rock.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

There are other remnants of this era around the city. About a mile up the road from the rock is a house that shows the rock chips up close.

Art Criddle, a longtime resident of Morro Bay who worked on the breakwater for the body, would sneak back to the site at night, carrying away the rock remains, one truck at a time, in his Model A pick-up truck.

The result? His flagship stone house at 2738 Main St.

“I saw all the beautiful colors in the rock, and I had the idea of ​​building a house,” Criddle told the San Luis Obispo Tribune in February 1982, noting that he had moved hundreds of tons from the rare rock known as quartz. porphyry for three years.

He was so proud of his creation that for a time in the 1980s he even operated a restaurant in the building, called Dutch’s Criddle House.

Today Morro Rock itself is fenced off and off limits, still too dangerous to climb or camp in, in part due to the damage done to it over half a century ago. It is also a protected area.

While Morro Rock is essentially an island, infill projects have created a parking area next to it and the beach.

While Morro Rock is essentially an island, infill projects have created a parking area next to it and the beach.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

“Only the Chumash are allowed to climb it twice a year,” the historical society’s Castle told SFGATE. “It is also a protected nesting place for peregrine falcons. All in all a very dangerous place. It’s so easy to get trapped up there.

The current restrictions recall the sentiments of Leonard Penhale, a state park naturalist who was so disgusted by the amount that had been razed from the rock that he told the Oakland Tribune in 1963, “Let’s give the rock back to the government. federal. It’s been so chipped it’s a shame for the state to own it.

Although not in its original form, Morro Rock is still an important part of the California coastal landscape today, a true midway marker between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and a place both loved and considered a place of healing and tranquility. His legacy and footprint are still mostly intact, so much so that Penhale and others who fought for the rock could breathe a little easier knowing their fight was not in vain.



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