History of Point Lobos

Whaling Activities at Point Lobos

photo of whaler's cabinPortuguese whalers from the Azore Islands arrived at Point Lobos in 1861 and set up living quarters in the meadow at the southeast end of Whalers Cove. Comprising one of 16 shore whaling stations established on the west coast of California, the whalers and their families made up a small community of 50-60 people. About 15-20 men were part of a crew that hunted Gray whales that migrate along the California coast between mid-December and May. From the top of Whalers Knoll, a lookout would spot passing whales and then raise a flag to signal the crews down at the cove. Open-top boats were rowed out to sea where men would try their luck with harpoons. If a whale was killed, it was towed back to the cove, hoisted out of the water and its blubber sliced into large strips. Next the blubber was cut into smaller chunks and melted in large iron cauldrons called "try pots", to produce oil used primarily for lamp fuel. With the advent of kerosene lamps in the late 1880's, demand for whale oil slacked off and the local whaling industry fell on hard times. There was a brief revival of whaling operations at Point Lobos in 1897 when a Japanese company set up business, but this operation lasted only a few years.

The Whaling Station Museum at Whalers Cove is the only on-site whaling museum on the west coast. It documents the historic whaling activities at Point Lobos with displays of historic whaling equipment and exhibit panels describing the lives of the whalers and their families. Next to the museum, you can see two of the old try pots used to boil whale blubber and view parts of a Fin whale skeleton that are over 100 years old.

Abalone Harvesting

photo of abalone harvestorsAs you walk along the Reserve's trails, chances are good that you will find fragments of iridescent abalone shell scattered about. The rocky shores of Point Lobos provide a perfect habitat for this muscular mollusk. Abalone meat has long been considered a delicacy in many cultures and its shell prized for use as mother-of-pearl furniture inlay and the manufacture of jewelry and buttons. While the Ohlone gathered abalone at Point Lobos, it was not until the Chinese arrived in the early 1850's that it was harvested commercially.

Jung Family, circa 1850s: Soon after the California gold rush of 1849, historians believe a small group of Chinese fishermen and their families set sail from southern China in 30-foot junks. Following the prevailing winds and ocean currents, they probably arrived at Point Lobos around 1851 and established what may be the first Chinese fishing settlement in California. By 1853 more Chinese arrived from the gold fields and settled along the coast at nearby Monterey. Word quickly spread about the abundant abalone beds and before long several hundred Chinese were engaged in the local abalone harvesting business. They also understood the rich potential of the sea and diversified their catch to include squid, sea urchins and a variety of fish. The Chinese settlement at Point Lobos consisted of about a dozen buildings, one of which remains and now houses the Whalers Cabin Museum. This building was honored by addition to the National Register of Historic Places in October 2007.

photo of Gennosuke KodaniIn the mid-1890's, a young marine biologist from Japan, Gennosuke Kodani, arrived at Point Lobos to investigate reports of rich beds of abalone in the area and soon sent for workers from his native village of Chiba. At first, abalone near the shore were harvested and dried in the sun on wooden racks set up along Coal Chute Point at the northeast side of Whalers Cove. As the supply of shallow-water abalone dwindled, the workers donned hard-hat diving suits and ventured out on boats into deeper water. Using hand-powered pumps to supply air to the divers, the Japanese at Point Lobos pioneered an industry that eventually spread up and down the California coast.

photo of Alexander AllenAround 1899, Kodani formed a partnership with Alexander Allan, who had recently purchased the property that now forms the Reserve, and together they established an abalone cannery that was located at what is now the Whalers Cove parking area. The enterprise was so successful it eventually accounted for 75% of the abalone sold in California. This cannery stayed in operation until 1928, and was dismantled in 1933 when the property became a state reserve. The Kodani family home was located near Coal Chute Point and is shown on the Reserve's map as Kodani village.

Although abalone meat was popular in eastern cultures, it was not considered a gourmet item by most Americans until the 1920's, when a new recipe developed by "Pop" Doelter, a local restaurant owner, caught on and the abalone "steak" was introduced to the American palate. Doelter used the Whalers Cabin as his processing plant from 1918 to 1920.

Coal Mining

In the mid-1870's, coal was discovered in the coastal hills just a few miles southeast of Point Lobos. After being mined, the coal was hauled by horse-drawn wagons to the old county road, east of what is now Highway 1. It was then loaded into ore carts that traveled along a short tramway to a coal chute built on a rocky point at the northeast side of Whalers Cove. The deep water of what is now called Coal Chute Point allowed coastal steamships close access to the point where they took on their load. The Carmel Land and Coal Company operated until the late 1890s when poor market conditions combined with high operating costs forced the mine to close. Behind the Whalers Cabin Museum, you will find a reconstructed ore cart similar to those used in that operation and other authentic mining artifacts.

The Quarries

In 1855, a granite quarry was established at what is now the Whalers Cove parking area. Point Lobos granite was used to build the U.S. Mint in San Francisco and the Navy shipyards at Mare Island in San Francisco Bay.

About 30 years later, a gravel quarry was operating at the Pit, a small cove nestled between Coal Chute Point and Granite Point. Today, visitors can walk on the Pit's gravel beach and trace the old haul road, now the Moss Cove Trail, that ends at the Reserve's northern boundary at Monastery Beach.

The War Years

photo of WWII army boatIt may be hard to imagine, but Point Lobos was once the site of "secret" military operations. By the summer of 1942 both the U.S. Army and Air Force occupied the Reserve, which was closed to civilians for the duration of World War II.

As early as December of 1941, a unit of the U.S. Army Coastal Defense Squad set up anti-aircraft gun emplacements and used the Whalers Cabin as their headquarters. It was followed in August of 1942 by the 4th Air Force Signal Corps, the Unit that used the Reserve as a site for their long-range radar equipment. Eighty men from this unit were housed in a tent camp located near the Reserve's entrance station and a radar station was installed on Whalers Knoll. While crude by today's standards, the radar station used the best technology available at that time and could detect objects as far as 150 miles away.

In 1943, the Army used Whalers Cove as the site of a school to train soldiers of the 543rd Amphibious Brigade in the use of amphibious landing craft. Their drills included landing the boats on the beach, then scrambling up to the meadow. This brigade was subsequently involved in 60 landings in the Southwest Pacific.

A Park is Born

Beginning in 1890, a series of events began which would eventually lead to the establishment of today's state reserve. Coal mining near Point Lobos had become unprofitable, so the Carmel Land and Coal Company subdivided the area around Whalers Cove into 1,000 residential lots for a development that was first named Point Lobos city but which soon became known as Carmelito.

Several years after the Carmelito subdivision was laid out, an engineer from Illinois, Alexander M. Allan, purchased 640 acres of the mining company's property at Point Lobos. Already a successful race track architect and real estate developer, Allan moved into a ranch house at Point Lobos in 1898 and set about to repurchase the Carmelito lots that had already been sold. Allan, like many others, recognized that Point Lobos was a unique and special place that should be preserved. Concerned over the environmental impact of an ever-increasing number of visitors interested in seeing the cypress trees and scenic coastline, Allan and his wife, Satie, set up a tollgate, prohibited camping, and allowed picnic fires only in specified areas.

Meanwhile, interest in preserving Point Lobos as a national or state park was gaining momentum. As scientists and foresters studied the Monterey Cypress trees growing at Point Lobos and at Cypress Point on the north side of Carmel Bay, they realized these trees do not grow naturally anywhere else in the world. By the mid-1920's, the Save the Redwoods League was actively involved in an effort to preserve the Monterey cypress. They hired the internationally known landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., to research Point Lobos and report on the areas most noteworthy of preservation. Olmstead's report described Point Lobos as "the most outstanding example on the coast of California of picturesque rock and surf scenery in combination with unique vegetation, including typical Monterey Cypress." With assistance from the Save the Redwoods League, the State of California purchased 348 acres at Point Lobos from the Allan family in 1933. Another 15 acres of cypress-covered headlands were given to the state by the Allan family and dedicated as a memorial to Alexander and Satie Allan. Further land additions have expanded the reserve to almost 400 acres now open to the public. In 1960, 750 underwater acres were added to create the first marine reserve in the United States. The marine reserve was designated an ecological reserve in 1973, and in 1992 became part of the Monterey Bay National Marine sanctuary, the nation's largest marine sanctuary.