Yesterday we visited Dana Point, a little city on the shores of the Pacific not an hour’s drive away from my home. In my more than thirty years of living in Southern California I have never been to Dana Point before.
After reading Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana recently, I have had plans to go and see the location. Richard Henry Dana, with this book, gave Dana Point its name, basically on the grounds of the following passage from the book which I read out loud on the beach to celebrate the occasion:
Coasting along on the quiet shore of the Pacific, we came to anchor in twenty fathoms’ water, almost out at sea, as it were, and directly abreast of a steep hill which overhung the water, and was twice as high as our royal-mast-head. We had heard much of this place from the Lagoda’s crew, who said it was the worst place in California. The shore is rocky, and directly exposed to the southeast, so that vessels are obliged to slip and run for their lives on the first sign of a gale; and late as it was in the season, we got up our slip-rope and gear, though we meant to stay only twenty-four hours.
We pulled the agent ashore, and were ordered to wait for him, while he took a circuitous way round the hill to the Mission, which was hidden behind it. We were glad of the opportunity to examine this singular place, and hauling the boat up, and making her well fast, took different directions up and down the beach, to explore it.
San Juan is the only romantic spot on the coast. The country here for several miles is high table-land, running boldly to the shore, and breaking off in a steep cliff, at the foot of which the waters of the Pacific are constantly dashing. For several miles the water washes the very base of the hill, or breaks upon ledges and fragments of rocks which run out into the sea. Just where we landed was a small cove, or bight, which gave us, at high tide, a few square feet of sand-beach between the sea and the bottom of the hill. This was the only landing-place.
Directly before us rose the perpendicular height of four or five hundred feet. How we were to get hides down, or goods up, upon the table-land on which the Mission was situated, was more than we could tell. The agent had taken a long circuit, and yet had frequently to jump over breaks, and climb steep places, in the ascent. No animal but a man or a monkey could get up it. However, that was not our lookout; and, knowing that the agent would be gone an hour or more, we strolled about, picking up shells, and following the sea where it tumbled in, roaring and spouting, among the crevices of the great rocks. What a sight, thought I, must this be in a southeaster! The rocks were as large as those of Nahant or Newport, but, to my eye, more grand and broken.
Beside, there was a grandeur in everything around, which gave a solemnity to the scene, a silence and solitariness which affected every part! Not a human being but ourselves for miles, and no sound heard but the pulsations of the great Pacific! and the great steep hill rising like a wall, and cutting us off from all the world, but the “world of waters”! I separated myself from the rest, and sat down on a rock, just where the sea ran in and formed a fine spouting horn. Compared with the plain, dull sand-beach of the rest of the coast, this grandeur was as refreshing as a great rock in a weary land. It was almost the first time that I had been positively alone — free from the sense that human beings were at my elbow, if not talking with me — since I had left home. My better nature returned strong upon me. Everything was in accordance with my state of feeling, and I experienced a glow of pleasure at finding that what of poetry and romance I ever had in me had not been entirely deadened by the laborious life, with its paltry, vulgar associations, which I had been leading. Nearly an hour did I sit, almost lost in the luxury of this entire new scene of the play in which I had been so long acting, when I was aroused by the distant shouts of my companions, and saw that they were collecting together, as the agent had made his appearance, on his way back to our boat.
We pulled aboard, and found the long-boat hoisted out, and nearly laden with goods; and, after dinner, we all went on shore in the quarter-boat, with the long-boat in tow. As we drew in, we descried an ox-cart and a couple of men standing directly on the brow of the hill; and having landed, the captain took his way round the hill, ordering me and one other to follow him. We followed, picking our way out, and jumping and scrambling up, walking over briers and prickly pears, until we came to the top.
Here the country stretched out for miles, as far as the eye could reach, on a level, table surface, and the only habitation in sight was the small white mission of San Juan Capistrano, with a few Indian huts about it, standing in a small hollow, about a mile from where we were. Reaching the brow of the hill, where the cart stood, we found several piles of hides, and Indians sitting round them. One or two other carts were coming slowly on from the Mission, and the captain told us to begin and throw the hides down. This, then, was the way they were to be got down — thrown down, one at a time, a distance of four hundred feet! This was doing the business on a great scale.
Standing on the edge of the hill, and looking down the perpendicular height, the sailors “That walked upon the beach appeared like mice; and our tall anchoring bark diminished to her cock; her cock a buoy almost too small for sight.” Down this height we pitched the hides, throwing them as far out into the air as we could; and as they were all large, stiff, and doubled, like the cover of a book, the wind took them, and they swayed and eddied about, plunging and rising in the air, like a kite when it has broken its string. As it was now low tide, there was no danger of their falling into the water; and, as fast as they came to ground, the men below picked them up, and, taking them on their heads, walked off with them to the boat. It was really a picturesque sight: the great height, the scaling of the hides, and the continual walking to and fro of the men, who looked like mites, on the beach. This was the romance of hide dropping! Some of the hides lodged in cavities under the bank and out of our sight, being directly under us; but by pitching other hides in the same direction, we succeeded in dislodging them. Had they remained there, the captain said he should have sent on board for a couple of pairs of long halyards, and got some one to go down for them. It was said that one of the crew of an English brig went down in the same way, a few years before. We looked over, and thought it would not be a welcome task, especially for a few paltry hides; but no one knows what he will do until he is called upon; for, six months afterwards, I descended the same place by a pair of top-gallant studding-sail halyards, to save half a dozen hides which had lodged there. Having thrown them all over, we took our way back again, and found the boat loaded and ready to start. We pulled off, took the hides all aboard, hoisted in the boats, hove up our anchor, made sail, and before sundown were on our way to San Diego.
— Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast; A Personal Narrative (1911): WITH A SUPPLEMENT BY THE AUTHOR AND INTRODUCTION AND ADDITIONAL CHAPTER BY HIS SON (Kindle Locations 2302-2351). Houghton Mifflin. Kindle Edition.
I took a picture of the cliffs Dana is describing. It was still morning, and the marine layer over the coast had not yet cleared, hence the grey sky.
Later, after spending some time walking along the board walk and getting some lunch in one of the seafood places, we drove up the hill, where there are now housing developments with ocean view as far as the eye can see. However, we found the spot where Dana was likely standing when he took the hides off the ox cart and threw them down the cliff like huge Frisbees.
Here is the view from the top:
Moored down in the harbor is the Pilgrim, a full-sized replica of the ship Dana sailed on from Boston in 1835 on the trip he described in Two Years Before the Mast.
This is that the Pilgrim looks like under full sail, which I found on the Ocean Institute’s website. Click on the image to jump to that site for more information.
The Pilgrim moored at Dana Point is a replica of the original ship that was built in 1825 in Boston for $50,000 and designed for shipping back and forth between the American East Coast and California. To do this, they had to sail all the way around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. This replica was built in Denmark in 1945.
I truly enjoyed our visit to Dana Point, tracing some California history, and I strongly recommend reading Two Years Before the Mast, a book for which I gave a four-star review.