Morro Rock, the ancient landmark towering 576 feet above the entrance to Morro Bay, was named by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo during his voyage of discovery up the California coast in 1542. The last in a chain of long-extinct volcanoes, Morro Rock soon became a landfall for Spanish galleons sailing the coastal waters. The captain of one of those vessels, Pedro de Unamuno, put into Morro Bay in 1587, claiming the land for Spain. Don Gaspar de Portola and his party camped near the rock during their march to Monterey, and a page from his journal of 1769 notes the rock was an island at high tide, “a little less than a gunshot” from shore.
Three years after the Portola expedition, the settlement at Monterey was threatened with starvation. Remembering the abundant wildlife around Morro Bay, a party of men traveled to what is now Montana de Oro State Park and killed enough grizzly bears to feed the settlers for three months.
During Mexico’s rule of California, huge grants of land were made, with cattle and dairy ranchos covering thousands of acres around Morro Bay. Because the nearest rail line ended hundreds of miles away, local commerce depended on the sea for transportation.
After farming on San Simeon Creek some 30 miles north, Riley and his wife moved to Morro Bay in 1864. He plowed the better land and planted barley. He built the first house in Morro Bay, which stood on what is now Morro St. between Morro Bay Blvd. and Harbor St. And in 1870, on a homestead of 160 acres, Riley founded the town of Morro Bay and built a wharf on what would soon become the bustling Embarcadero.
The founding of the town was properly celebrated, as recorded in the following account from “Angels History of 1883.”
“The neighboring settlers turned out to the number of 200 to celebrate the Fourth of July, 1870, meeting at Toro Creek, where suitable exercises were held. A.M. Hardie acted as Marshall; Revs. A.B. Spooner and A.P. Hendon assisted in the spiritual portion of the program; L.J. Beckett read the immortal declaration; J. Grigsby orated, and Miss Leonora Hazen sang. Thus we see that Morro and it’s neighborhood had grown in numbers and were not deficient in patriotism.”
Those first citizens of Morro Bay not only had to contend with primitive living conditions, but with the forces of nature. At this time, the area was covered with grease wood and brush lupia, the only natural vegetation that would grow in the loose, sandy soil. Whenever an area was cleared, the winds would whip flying sand into houses and would clog water wells. The few well traveled streets were in such bad condition that a strong horse could barely pull a light buggy through the deep sand.
To combat the strong wind, Riley obtained eucalyptus seeds, which were nurtured into seedlings, but sold them to anyone who wished to buy and plant.
The seedlings slowly matured, and Morro Bay was eventually blanketed with trees. Gradually the rutted streets became wide avenues lined with stately eucalyptus. Fallen branches and leaves were used as fuel, and at the beginning and end of each day, plumes of blue-Grey smoke would rise over the town and the pungent aroma of burning eucalyptus would fill the air.
The town quickly grew in the 1870’s as schooners thronged the Embarcadero to pick up wool, potatoes, barley and dairy products. Boats entered the harbor through channels on the North and south side of Morro Rock. But the captains of these vessels feared the entrances because of high surf, surging tides and erratic winds gusting around the Rock.
Even with all its inherent dangers, everything still centered around the Embarcadero. Coastal travelers preferred schooners to stagecoaches, which were safe from unscheduled stops by bandits. Many early visitors were provided unique views of the Bay and Morro Rock through the enterprise of Captain Clark Church, who gave tours aboard his large sailboat, the “Jessie”. And nobody was really a resident in good standing until they had at least a row boat.
And at least one family had a piano – barely. The piano was the proud possession of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph C. Stocking, whose large home was located near what is now Morro and Olive St. One day in 1890, Mrs. Stocking was in the process of making donuts when a Chinese peddler knocked on the door. As she and the peddler became involved in their transactions, hot grease sitting on the wood burning stove boiled over, starting a fire which quickly spread throughout the house. Passersby chopped out doors and windows to save what belongings they could – including the piano.
In the late 1800’s the Embarcadero was feeling competition from neighboring Cayucos, where a deep water wharf had been built by Captain James Cass. Many ships called there rather than face the hazardous Morro Bay entrance. Even the most experienced seamen had good cause for their fears. Rev. A.B. Spooner, the entrance pilot, had drowned in 1877 while going to pilot in the steamer Mary Taylor.
While the Embarcadero was faltering, land development was booming. Throughout the early 1900’s, various real estate developers promoted Morro Bay. One of these promoters was E.G. Lewis, who built the famed Cloisters Inn, which was located at the seaward end of San Jacinto Ave. In 1927, hundreds gathered in front of the Inn to grab 40 by 60 foot lots that were auctioned for $250-300.
By 1930, Morro Bay had a volunteer fire department and a second hand fire truck. Standard Oil Co. of California had begun a major operation in Morro Bay, loading and unloading crude oil offshore. With the increasing development of the town, more and more attention was turned towards improvement of the harbor.
Since the late 1800’s, quarrying had taken place on the sides of Morro Rock to provide material for breakwaters such as the one at Port San Luis Obispo. In 1933, the Rock was again jolted by blasts as the WPA began construction on a jetty to connect the Rock with the mainland.
The jetty closed the north entrance to the harbor, but the south channel was dredged and a breakwater protecting the entrance was constructed. The Embarcadero bustled a commercial fishermen began bringing in huge catches of albacore, salmon, and cod.
Campsites were already going in at Morro Bay State Park when the WPA began revising the existing nine hole golf course in 1936. Many of the improvements were financed by a group of 150 businessmen and golfers who pledged yearly membership fees of $36.
In 1939 the population of Morro Bay had soared to 400.
A year later the U.S. Navy began training operations in Morro Bay. A base was constructed where the PG&E power plant now stands, and amphibious landing crafts frequently staged “invasions” along the beach north of the Rock. During World War II, naval operations were expanded and Army troops occupied the Cloisters Inn. Soon after the war, the Inn fell into disrepair and was destroyed by fire.
By 1951, the 2,000 residents of Morro Bay could boast of their 18-hole golf course. Two years later, groundbreaking ceremonies were held for the PG&E power plant, which would eventually provide the tax base for Morro Bay’s incorporation.
The State Park of Natural History was completed just about the same time as Atascadero State Beach was developed. The same year – 1964 – Morro Bay became a general law city and elected its first five man City Council.
In 1968 Morro Rock was declared a State Historical Landmark No.821. years of quarrying had forever changed the shape of the monolith, though it still covered 50 acres at its base. Now, under the protecting wing of the government, the “Gibralter of the Pacific” would be altered only by nature.