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Early history of the West Coast
July 28, 2014, 05:00 AM By Darold Fredricks

Photo courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum In 1898, the ship New York ran aground on a Half Moon Bay beach.

In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino sailed from Acapulco (Mexico) to find a good port to land at when the ships that crossed the Pacific Ocean from the Philippines carried gold. Immediately, Vizcaino found difficulty in traveling against the current that later was found to go around the entire Pacific Ocean from Japan. To go north, he had to travel 600 miles to the west, turn back toward the shore hoping to make mileage to the north. This process had to be repeated numerous times to make any headway.

In 1769, three ships had left La Paz, Alta California with the aim of supplying Gaspar de Portola and his expedition upon arriving at San Diego Harbor. The first ship, San Carlos, left Jan. 9, 1769 and landed four months later, April 29, in San Diego. The second ship, San Antonio, left Feb. 15, 1769 and arrived before the San Carlos. The third ship was never heard of again.

In 1602, the explorer Sebastian Vizcaino discovered a vast, beautiful harbor he knew would be a good landing site for the Spanish in Alta California. Upon his return, he highly recommended the site for settlement and named it after the viceroy of Spain, Conde de Monterey. It was not until the Russian threat of settlement on the California coast that the Spanish sent Captain Gaspar de Portola to explore the area and make a settlement at Monterey.

Starting out from La Paz, Baja California in 1769, Captain Portola and his expedition traversed the devastatingly hot, dry, hilly desert of the Baja Peninsula and arrived at the harbor of San Diego on July 1, 1769. However, of the three ships from La Paz that were to support Portola, only two had arrived at San Diego and the men on the ships were very sick. After weighing his options, Captain Portola decided to continue on his expedition with far fewer men than he originally had planned on using.

Vizcaino became very cautious and kept far from the rocky shore to avoid the danger of being wrecked and sunk. He found out after passing the Los Angeles area that along the coast was a mountain range that had steep cliffs near the shore and very few good harbors. After he arrived at Monterey in January 1603 and after naming a point he sighted — Punta de Ano Nuevo for the day it was sighted (New Year’s) — he mapped the bay. It would be more than 160 years before any Spanish ship dropped anchor in that bay.

Portola’s expedition discovered the San Francisco Bay in November 1769 then returned to San Diego. It was not until 1775 that an expedition, one on land and one on sea, was sent to the Bay Area from Monterey. After all ships had missed seeing the entrance to the Bay for hundreds of years, Lt. Juan Manuel Ayala commanded the ship San Carlos into the Bay in August 1775 to map the area for six weeks. He had left Monterey Harbor on July 26, 1775.

The sailing ships of the time were at a great disadvantage when traveling along the coast of California. Shoals and reefs appeared numerous places and submerged rocks could rip the bottom out of a boat. If this were not enough, fog would sometimes cover miles of ocean for weeks at a time.

Attempts of find a good harbor along the San Mateo Coast proved futile. W.W. Weddell built a wharf by Ano Nuevo but that ended in failure. On May 1, 1853 the ship, Carrier Pigeon, with Capt. Azariah Donne at the helm, was wrecked on the rocks. On Jan. 7, 1865, the clipper ship, Sir John Franklin, was wrecked north of Ano Nuevo. In 1868, Josiah Ames erected a pier at Mairmar in 1868 but the weather and a fire stopped that enterprise. In 1868, Capt. Soule of the ship, Hellespoint, lost his ship near Pigeon Point with the loss of 27 souls. This wreck prompted a movement that resulted in the erection of the Pigeon Point Lighthouse in 1872. Finally, relief was given to the many lost ships that plied the coast through the fog, wind and adverse currents.

Due to the water hazards at Point Montara, a steam whistle was erected in 1875. It took a tremendous amount of coal to maintain the fire for the steam whistle so, in 1900, a whale oil lamp was set up to warn the vessels along this area. Later, a Fresnel lamp was installed.

Needless to say, these instruments were helpful but, nevertheless, the coast still posed numerous dangers to ships. The fog was especially dangerous. In 1897, the Columbia was stranded off of Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Thousands of gallons of white paint were salvaged by residents of the area and within the following year, every house within a short distance of the stranded ship acquired a new coat of white paint.

In 1898, the ship, New York, ran aground off of Arleta Park in Half Moon Bay. Its load of whiskey was saved by the residents of the area. Mussel Rock in Daly City was the scene of the sinking ship, William Grifford. Sharps Park was the site of a ship that ran ashore in 1909. So long as the wind blows and the fog prevails, ships are in danger while sailing along the San Mateo County coast.

Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.



Tags: ships, coast, after, expedition, portola, diego,

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