Black Hill Morro Bay

Indigenous legacies. European explorations. Gold Rush greenhorns. Morro Bay's past is as vibrant as ever, and we're here to weave its tale. Join us as we journey through the history of Morro Bay, from ancient echoes of Chumash and Salinan societies to the founding of present-day Morro Bay!

Ok, let's go back a few years. As many as 10,000 years, in fact! The Salinan People and the yak tityu tityu yak tiłhini Northern Chumash tribe have lived on the Central Coast of California for hundreds of generations; Morro Bay's first known habitation by humans begins with their stories. Though both tribes are unique and separate from one another, each worships Morro Rock as a sacred site in their culture and mythology.

The Salinan word for Morro Rock is Le'samo'; the Rock and its surrounding lands have long been a place for the Salinan People to live and pray. The landmark is central to at least four of the tribe’s legends, including The Legend of the Serpent. The Chumash, on the other hand, call Morro Rock Lisamu. The Rock is an International Sacred Site for the tribe, where they have served as guardians and caretakers for thousands of years. The Rock still stands today as a powerful symbol for these tribes, and is a protected California Historical Landmark! Hiking and climbing the Rock are strictly prohibited, but it’s never a bad idea to rent a kayak and paddle around the Bay to get a closer look at this majestic natural wonder.

Now, back to history! In 1542, a Spanish explorer named Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sails into Estero Bay, immediately spotting the enormous, 576-foot tall volcanic peak (it's kind of hard to miss!). A missionary on another Spanish expedition names the peak "El Morro," the Spanish word for a crown-shaped hill, soon after Cabrillo's sighting. In 1769, the Spanish expand colonization efforts by building missions and settlements across what they call "Alta California" (translation: "Upper California"). Despite brave retaliation efforts, Indigenous Californians are forced to assimilate into European society, while diseases like measles and smallpox wipe out entire tribes.

After decades of restlessness in Spanish-American colonies, Mexico wins its independence in 1821. Alta California, now a province of the Mexican Empire, is opened for settlers to buy grants to their very own ranchos on the Pacific frontier. More American traders, trappers, settlers, and explorers make their way into California, and by the early 1840s, Mexico and the United States are at odds over the territory. The Mexican-American war lasts from 1846 to 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo cedes California to the United States.

Embarcadero Sunset Pier

1848 is a big year for California; on January 24th, 1848, the first nugget of gold is found. For the next decade or so, thousands of prospective prospectors flock to the region and homestead in search of their very own fortune. One of these golden upstarts? Franklin Riley. In 1864, Riley is the first to claim a piece of land next to the present-day Morro Bay National Estuary. In 1870 the Morro Township is officially founded as a trading port for cattle and dairy products. The same year, Riley builds the Embarcadero, and in 1872 lays out the street grid for Old Town. More homesteads and stores continue to appear throughout the township and surrounding area. By 1880, the United States census records 148 residents living in "the village of Morro."

In 1877, the townspeople receive a terrible shock as one of the town's other founders— Reverend Alden B. Spooner— rows out into an arctic storm searching for a missing steamboat. He capsizes in the North Channel near Pilot Rock, never to be seen again. Despite this tragedy, the town gradually flourishes into the early 20th century.

Morro Bay's mid century growth kickstarts on December 7th, 1941 with Pearl Harbor. Sixteen days after the attack, oil tanker SS Montebello is sunk by a Japanese submarine six miles off the shore of San Simeon (just a 30-minute drive from Morro Bay!). All crew members survive, coming ashore in lifeboats near present-day Estero Bluffs State Park. The sinking leads to beach patrols along the Central Coast and the construction of a wooden trestle bridge that would be used to connect the dock and sandspit from 1942-46. On the northern side of Morro Rock, the newly-built Morro Bay Amphibious Training Base prepares US troops for battles in the Pacific Theater. Men train for amphibious landings, battling on land and at sea, and even getting their sea legs. The base is decommissioned in 1945 after the war's end but purchased again by Pacific Gas & Electric in the early 1950s. The company transforms the abandoned base into the Morro Bay Power Plant, which is only decommissioned in 2014.

Since then, Morro Bay has grown into a coastal getaway and a cherished home to more than 10,000 people. We can tell you all about it, but we'd rather show you instead. Be a part of Morro Bay’s story and check out our Things to Do page to explore ways you can get salty!