Martins beach

Gordon’s Chute.

Rear view

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to hear the Martins Beach case, which means the beach near Half Moon Bay will stay open to the public for at least the time being, there remains one question: Who was the Martin in Martins Beach?

The Rear View Mirror plowed through the extensive news coverage of the current court fight between beach owner Vinod Khosla and the Surfrider Foundation and failed to find an answer. After digging up old news stories from long defunct newspapers, we discovered he was Nicholas Martin, who died in 1915 and is buried in Union Cemetery in Redwood City.

According to cemetery records, Martin came to California from New York in the early 1850s and settled on the coast south of Half Moon Bay. In addition to owning the beach, his primary source of income was farming. Apparently, he was very successful because he became deeply involved in the construction of “Gordon’s Chute,” a huge wooden slide designed to move cargo from high coastal cliffs to waiting ships below, providing one of the more colorful chapters of coastal history.

Named for lumberman Alexander Gordon, the 45 percent angled chute built in 1872 was destroyed in a storm in 1885. The chute was used by farmers on the coast, who could now ship their produce to market without having to drive heavy wagons over the coastal mountains to Redwood City or San Mateo.

The Redwood City Democrat reported on the chute in its July 12, 1873 edition: “The steamer Monterey was at the chute lately and took aboard the balance of grain on hand, some 5,000 sacks. Templeton and Company are hauling considerable lumber to the chute and will have a sailing vessel to load as soon as they have sufficient cargo.”

According to historian Frank Stanger’s “History of San Mateo County,” the chute at the mouth of Tunitas Creek “was the most daring attempt to create a port on our coast side.” He said a high scaffolding was built to support a chute 350 feet long.

“At the outer end a swinging portion of the chute was supported by a derrick and could be lowered to the decks of vessels which anchored just beyond the surf,” Stanger wrote. “On top of the bluff, over 150 feet above the sea, were large warehouses from which sacks of grain and other produce were slid down the chute to the vessels below.”

In 1928, Roy Cloud wrote in his “History of San Mateo County” that Martin “constantly increased his holdings and was the owner of Martin’s Beach,” which was originally part of the Alviso land grant. Notice the apostrophe to show ownership. Most of today’s news stories about the court dispute drop the apostrophe in favor of Martins Beach.

An advertisement in the 1931 Standard Democrat newspaper made the name designation clear by saying “The Sun is Shining at Martin’s Beach,” adding that the public was welcome and offered “special rates to weekly vacationists (sic). Make your reservations now. Cabins, fishing, bathing.”

Martin and his wife Emma were parents of five daughters, among them Alice who married coastal constable and future sheriff Joel Mansfield in 1884, resulting in this unusual wedding announcement in the San Mateo Times-Gazette: “Miss Alice Martin, the amiable daughter of Nicholas Martin of Lobitos, was arrested by constable Joel Mansfield and brought before Justice John Pitcher on a charge of living a single life. On Constable Mansfield promising to protect the young lady through the world and care for her in the future, they were married by the justice.”

The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.

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