How About the Troops Coming to Fix the Broken Highway at Devil’s Slide?


Bring the troops here to fix Devil’s Slide

Yesterday, I left home in El Granada at 9:50 a.m.: it’s only four miles to Half Moon Bay but forty minutes later found me mired in traffic on two-lane Hwy 92 about a mile east of Half Moon Bay.

It was confirmed that there had been an accident–a big, locally owned commercial truck hit head-on and the traffic was impossibly backed up. As I crawled up the mountain I saw quite a few cars strewn on the side of the road, with steam spewing out of their overheated engines.

It took me 1 & 1/2 hours to drive from El Granada to 280 in San Mateo, a ride that used to take 20 minutes. The stagecoach in the 19th century did better.

(There was one benefit: at this very slow pace I enjoyed the beautiful coastside scenery that I hadn’t noticed in years when whizzing by—what a terrific opportunity to practice patience and meditation—-unfortunately, the meditation led to drowsiness and I realized, with lids growing heavy, that I better stay alert or I’d fall asleep at the wheel).

Later, on the way home (you’d better make your return early, or you hit the commute traffic and you’re back bumper-to-bumper) I shopped at the Half Moon Bay Safeway. Another “victimâ€? standing in the checkout line was calculating the cost of driving “over the hillâ€? and back–$20 was his calculaltion. He was numbed by his own mathematics.

It’s incomprehensible that there is no solution, even temporary, to reopening the breathtaking stretch of Highway 1 known as Devil’s Slide.

It’s alleged by some that “the U.S. military can build a road anywhere in the world in about two hours”. Hey, how about bringing the troops to Devil’s Slide? It would give these young men and women a healthy and useful project to work on.

If getting the army to Devil’s Slide isn’t possible, remember we’re just a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley and Stanford, the birthplace of high tech– and we ‘re drowning in Nobel Prize winners. Surely someone can come up with a solution to get Devil’s Slide re-opened.

In the grand scale of things, a broken road is a very small deal…but what if one day we had a real disaster like an earthquake or a tsunami…I shudder at the thought….

Just Shout When You Can’t Call 911…

What a weekend it was.

Last Saturday night, not only was Devil’s Slide shut down, the phones lines were down, the internet was down– God forbid if you had an emergency and had to call 911 because all you got was a busy signal (and one that sounded like a racing heartbeat).

For some unexplained reason the TV worked throughout.

And the local news told us that a landslide on Highway 92 (the only road open now that Devil’s Slide has slipped away) caused the service outages.

The time estimates on when service would be restored varied from unknown to 4 p.m. to midnight. Bay City News got it right on the button–around 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon the landline came back to life, followed closely by the cell phone & 911 and the Internet. (We celebrated…quietly).

During the hours we were “without connection to the outside world” we took a ride “over the hill” and saw the many phone company vehicles parked near the cemetery, presumably close to the site of the landslide. There’s been construction going on there and a fiber optic line had been severed. (Don’t think too hard about that!).

We listened to the radio news and a county official confirmed coastsiders couldn’t get through to 911. Until phone service was back on line, he said police vehicles had been stationed at signal lights along Highway 1. Cops were told to roll down their windows so they could hear anyone shouting for help.

24 hours without phones, without Internet, without 911. Funny– when we got it all back, we took it all in stride, as if nothing had happened at all.

As a dear friend always says: “If you hang by the neck long enough, you get used to it.â€?

1981: Talking About The Power Of Devil’s Slide & The Coastside

Patricia Erickson & Gene Fleet sitting in a Moss Beach garden.

Two Coastsiders I loved interviewing for the 1981 “Mystery of Half Moon Bayâ€? documentary were Patricia Erickson and Gene Fleet–two new age, spiritual friends who shared the belief that they lived in a unique, powerful place.

Gene Fleet (GF) worked at HMB Nursery and lived at remote Tunitas Creek near the former historical site, Gordon’s Chute– and the artistic Patricia Erickson (PE) lived in Moss Beach (the house with the big rainbow painted across the garage door) near the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

It’s 1980 and Pat and Gene speak freely about the power Devil’s Slide and the Coastside.

Patricia Erickson: I think it’s a power point….

Gene Fleet: …that the whole San Mateo Coastside seems to be blocked off by the earth, with Devil’s Slide to the north and on the south where Ano Nuevo is…There’s that whole cliff area which is continually falling in…

PE: …people that live here, I think they’re high energy people….I think people hwo live here are special people, too. I really feel that…And I think that they bring a degree of energy which stabilizes the earth, too.

GF…There is a basic grounded quality about people who come here. In order to be able to be here one can’t be too extravagant. There is a bit of that element coming in with commuter traffic and suburban development of the Coastside—but there is a stronger grounding element. It is expressed through various kinds of people living here…farmers and fishermen and people who are living in the mountains—various nationalities represented here…We’re all sort of in this together. In the fog together. In the anticipation of an earthquake, I mean, it’s constantly with us….

PE: I don’t cope with the fog. I think fog is a very powerful energy…We have a unique weather pattern which drives many people insane. We have a unique list of elements—and force and power here…One of the elements is isolation which Gene was talking about. You just don’t commute to movies every night…So people who live here are centers almost within themselves. People who can also join in the community but also seem autonomous channels of energy. There is a certain kind of person which stays here, which lives here, which thrives on it and which gets off on it and also channels into it….

GF: The Coastside has to evolve at its own rate. It will do so no matter what…As other influences come into the area, commercial ventures or economic things have to do with housing, different things which try to come in which aren’t appropriate just don’t happen….The whole thing of Westinghouse buying property and wherever that’s standing now. The proposed 4-lane highway coming in from the east and north and they have continually been blocked…Even this winter when Devil’s Slide threatened to disappear…

PE: People who need big complexes, all that development, obviously haven’t stayed. Energy’s magnetic. So, energy attracts energy. So the energy that’s here obviously is going to attract an energy. We’re magnets to each other. I feel, too, that part of the reason venture hasn’t occurred here is because that’s not what it’s all about…I think that first of all the earth, which is the very grounded thing here we’re living on on the etheric level is really not supportive of a freeway happening. My feeling is that the mountains themselves have a life essence form, a life energy on an etheric level which is saying “no, this is not going to happen.â€?

I also think that the people who live here-and I’m really going out on a limb because I know there’s a lot of people who’d like to move out fast or have a freeway but I think, basically, a great many of the people who live here, on the etheral level, support the mountain’s decision.

Those are the two energies that are compatable–the people who stay which keeps bringing in that energy which the mountain, you might say, has the first and last word–because no one’s going to control that mountain.

…To be continued…

Summer 1929: Tragedy at Sea Near Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Part III

The rescue ships carried the injured, stunned and stricken survivors back to San Francisco where they were created at the emergency hospital.
Rumor had it that attorneys for the San Juan and the S.C.T. Dodd scurried among the shocked survivors, urging them to keep quiet and avoid reporter’s questions. Clearly the attorneys were less interested in the passenger’s welfare than the liability of the ship owners.

Despite painful abdominal and spinal injuries, Theodore Granstedt could not be dissuaded from talking, charging cowardice on the part of the San Juan’s crew.

“When the crash came, the entire crew deserted their posts and saved themselves. They made no effort to launch a boat or save a soul,â€? Granstedt said before nurses on the scene convinced him that he was seriously injured and needed to calm down and rest.

Theodore Granstedt had survived what the San Mateo Times called “the worst maritime tragedy the Pacific Coast had experienced in more than a quarter century.â€?

The Times noted that 72 people—most of them passengers, many women and children—met watery deaths as the Standard Oil tanker S.C.T. Dodd rammed the San Juan 12 miles off the San Mateo County coast.

The following day Sheriff James J. McGrath and his deputies patrolled the coastline. Hundreds of curious county residents lined the shore as Coast Guard cutters continued a futile search for more bodies.

As the facts were gathered, the tragic story emerged.

According to survivors on deck at the time, the San Juan was sheared almost in half by thee heavy stern of the tanker Dodd and sank beneath the sea before most of the passengers in their staterooms, and the crewmembers in their bunks, had an opportunity to realize the vessel had been mortally struck.

There were indications that a terrific hole had been torn in the side of the San Juan by the impact and she started sinking at once. When the swirling waters reached the engine room, there was a hissing of steam and then the boilers exploded—shattering the ship from stem to stern.

Most of those fortunate survivors were on the deck or in the saloon at the time of the disaster. Those below in their berths or bunks were doomed.

“It was not a matter of four or five minutes before the ship sank,â€? Charles J. Tulee, the San Juan’s First Mate said. “It was a matter of only a few seconds.â€?

The second mate backed up Tulee’s version, adding that the vessel sank as he attempted to help some women and children into one of the lifeboats. That lifeboat was the only one that might have been launched—but it was shattered in the boiler explosion, hurling the women into the air, injuring many seriously. Only a few survived.

Until the results of an official investigation there was the usual finger pointing. The owners of the San Juan blamed the tanker Todd, listing the heavy blanket of fog that covered the Pacific at the time as a contributing factor.

Just as insistent was the Dodd’s Captain Bluemchen, who reported that in spite of the fog, the San Juan’s lights were visible, and that she suddenly changed her course, cutting across the Dodd’s pathway.

As Captain Asplund had perished in the disaster, the authorities would never know his version of the events.

Some critics opined that the San Juan was too old to go to sea, but others commented that the steamer’s hull had been inspected by officials and pronounced seaworthy.

Captain Frank Turner, a federal steamship inspector, added that the Titantic was a new ship but she sank almost immediately upon receiving a blow comparable to the one suffered by the San Juan.

The bickering and accusations continued until the official inquiry, including a trial, was completed.

According to reports, the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service Board found the San Juan inshore of the Dodd, tried to cross the oil tanker’s bow, was rammed and sank within a few minutes on August 29, 1929.

In other words, responsibility for the San Juan disaster was placed squarely on the shoulders of Captain Asplund. This decision did little to mitigate the suffering and loss of life.

The sinking of the San Juan remains one of the worst maritime tragedies that ever occurred off the San Mateo County coastline.

(The End)

Photo: The steamer San Juan, courtesy San Mateo County History Museum, Redwood City

Summer 1929: Tragedy at Sea Near Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Part II

As the San Juan continued south past Pigeon Point, the Standard Oil tanker S.C.T. Dodd was plowing northward up the coast toward San Francisco, nearing the end of her voyage from Baltimore.

The vessels were 12-miles out, off the San Mateo-Santa Cruz coastline when minutes before midnight the sound of a piercing whistle broke the stillness of the night.

Without any further warning, the sickening shriek of metal tearing metal roared through the San Juan’s staterooms. The Granstedts were thrown from their berths. Hearts pounding, pulses racing, the panicked couple threw on clothes and fled to the deck.

The oil tanker Dodd had rammed the San Juan and the old steamer was sinking. Once on deck, the Granstedts encountered an eerie scene of terrified passengers and crew dashing about madly—and the smell of fear was pervasive. Theodore Granstedt saw no order, only chaos.

Some passengers jumped overboard, others were swept away by the powerful waves. Through the foggy mist, Captain Asplund could be seen trying to help women into a lifeboat.

There was no time to reflect, hardly time for prayer: It all happened so fast.

One second the Granstedts were standing beside their good friends, John and Anna Olsen, and their daughter, Helen. The next moment the San Juan was plunging stern first into the sea, creating a whirlpool that sucked them all in the abyss.

Then there was a great and very loud explosion.

Of the original group, only Theodore Granstedt survived. The next thing he knew he had surfaced from beneath the cold water. Searchlights illuminated the sea littered with wreckage—but he did not recognize the faces of people struggling in the nearby surf, clinging to toolboxes, screaming for help.

Miraculously, before the seriously injured Mountain View man lost consciousness, he grasped the piece of floating debris that saved his life.

By now lifeboats had been launched from other vessels in the vicinity: the oil tanker Dodd, the lumber carrier Munami and the motor-ship Frank Lynch. Theodore Granstedt was one of the 38 surviving passengers and crewmembers.

Wife, Emma, whose anxieties were sadly proven valid was one of 72 presumed dead…as were the Olsens and Stanford student Paul Wagner.

Although many of the San Juan’s survivors were crew, Captain Asplund went down with his ship as did the purser, Jack Cleveland.

…To be continued…

Summer 1929: Tragedy at Sea Near Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Part I


(Above: Emma Granstedt, center; at right, Mrs. Olsen. Courtesy Patrick Moore, click here  4.jpeg (At right: Theodore Granstedt. Courtesy Patrick Moore, click here)

Emma Granstedt felt a premonition of danger as she boarded the popular “commuter steamerâ€? San Juan at San Francisco on Thursday, August 29, 1929.

The middle-aged Mountain View woman tried to explain the feelings she couldn’t shake to her husband, Theodore: She was worried about an accident at sea, she told him.

Theodore assured his uneasy wife that there was nothing to worry about. The venerable 47-year-old iron steamer made routine runs between the City and Los Angeles—and he reminded her about the attractively inexpensive fare, ranging from $8 to $10 per passenger.

He may have pointed to the San Juan’s advertisement in the local newspaper: “A delightful way to travel,â€? promised the ad. “One fare includes comfortable berth, excellent meals, open-air dancing, promenade decks, radio music—all the luxury of ocean travel. A trip to be remembered! The economic way that entails no sacrifice!â€?

Premonition or not, it was too late for the Granstedts to change their mind.

It would mean canceling the plans they had made with the Palo Alto friends they were traveling with, John and Anna Olsen and the couple’s 28-year-old daughter, Helen.

The Granstedts and Olsens were traveling to Southern California to attend a wedding anniversary celebration—and the trip also gave them good reason to visit the Granstedt’s daughter, Irene, who was pursuing an acting career in Hollywood.

Emma may have been consoled to learn that only a few days earlier the San Juan had been in dry dock at which time a new rudder and propeller were installed. The vessel was cleaned, painted and the sea valves overhauled. The steamer’s radio was in tiptop shape, and life-saving equipment included six lifeboats and 110 life preservers for adults and 17 children.

Steamboat officials, who inspected the San Juan, pronounced her safe and in fine condition.

Daylight faded and the sky darkened as the sailing hour neared on Thursday, August 29. It was customary for the purser, Jack Cleveland, to sell tickets to impulsive travelers who made a last-minute decision to sail from San Francisco to L.A. One such last-minute ticket-buyer may have been 24-year-old Stanford graduate student Paul Wagner, who was on his way to visit his family in Southern California.

On board the busy steamer there was no hint of anything out of the ordinary—but one significant change had been made: 65-year-old retired Captain Adolph F. Asplund replaced the regular commander who had taken time off for his summer vacation. The experienced Captain Asplund knew every inch of the San Juan, as he had been her captain many years before.

When the San Juan left port, there were 110 men, women and children on board, 65 passengers and 45 members of the crew. All were settling in and a few hours later the steamer approached the beautiful Pigeon Point lighthouse, south of the village of Pescadero.

By now many of the sleepy passengers, including the Granstedts and the Olsens, headed for their staterooms below deck to rest on their first night at sea.


…To be continued….

Photo: Pigeon Point, courtesy San Mateo County History Museum, Redwood City.

April 18, 1906: The Day the Earth Shuddered in Half Moon Bay

E1.jpegSybil Easterday’s rooster should have awakened her from her deep sleep on the morning of April 18, 1906. Instead the well known eccentric sculptress, who lived with her mother, Flora, in an artistic home at Tunitas Creek, south of Half Moon Bay, found herself captive to the sudden shaking and moving of the earth.

There was no fighting back with this earthquake; it was very powerful and held their very lives in the balance.

Flora Easterday, a pianist, desperately clutched a table to keep from falling. It looked as if she were on a violent jumping jack–like some giant monster was tearing away the floors and walls

When the shuddering stopped, the Easterdays rushed outside to make sure the world they had known was still there. What they found were huge cracks in the earth– cracks big enough to engulf a human leg, and they threw fistfuls of loose dirt into the fissures so that the baby ducks wouldn’t get swallowed up.

The Easterday’s Tunitas Creek home was a stone’s throw from the Ocean Shore Railroad’s future depot-—but until the day before the quake workers were laying tracks 15 or so miles to the north near Mussel Rock—where the San Andreas Fault rises from the sea and heads inland.

Actual grading for the railroad had reached several miles further south and as the ground trembled the land exposed hundreds of deep crevices. Boulders tumbled down near Devil’s Slide and the big rocks swept away the Ocean Shore’s expensive equipment as they rolled over the fragile cliffs into the Pacific Ocean. Seconds after the powerful vibrations ceased, the railroad bed was contorted beyond recognition.

The Ocean Shore Railroad had already experienced financial difficulties but it was the 1906 earthquake that struck the killer blow.


In Half Moon Bay the quake’s damage was swift and brutal, snuffing out life and wrecking businesses and homes on or near Main Street. The general store, Cereghino & Debenedetti, lost an entire wall, giving the impression that a tornado had blown through the building. That would be easier to repair than what happened to Levy Brothers, a much larger store– a brick structure that simply collapsed leaving behind nothing but dust.

Perhaps the greatest historical loss was the Vasquez Adobe, which dated back to the mid-1800s. In that tragedy a dozen people were buried alive.

Giant boulders also blocked the Half Moon Bay-San Mateo Road, today known as Highway 92. But intrepid stagecoach driver McFadden refused to allow the rocks to stand in his way.

His stagecoach arrived in Half Moon Bay with a screech and soon was surrounded by a crowd of locals, desperate to know how bad things were elsewhere. When McFadden breathlessly told them that most of San Francisco lay in ruins, his report was met with a stunned silence.

Photo (1) Half Moon Bay, before the earthquake
Photo (2) Cereghino & Debenedetti General Store, courtesy Henry Debenedetti
Photo (3) Levy Brothers, courtesy San Mateo County History Museum
Photo (4) Vasquez Adobe, courtesy Spanishtown Historical Society

My Love Affair With Devil’s Slide

There’s only two ways to get to San Francisco from the isolated San Mateo Coastside.

The sedate choice is with Highway 92, the same trail used by creaky stagecoaches 100-years-ago—and the breathtaking alternative, Devil’s Slide, a raw 11-mile stretch of twisting roadway, 1000- feet above the crashing Pacific surf, originally blasted out of million-year-old rock by the Ocean Shore Railroad engineers in the early 20th century.

I can’t remember when I first drove Devil’s Slide but it never bored me, even after a 30-year relationship.

Some people don’t believe that I’m not intimidated by the Slide—Devil’s Slide plain old scares them, particularly when the winds shake their cars and the thick fog makes their headlights useless.

I suspect it’s more than fear that keeps these folks off the Slide. Devil’s Slide brings one face- to -face with raw nature, the wind and the rock and the surf, some folks can’t handle that, they want to see nature harnessed, civilized and confined like a photograph on the wall.

Whenever people become complacent, Devil’s Slide reminds them where the real power resides .The Ocean Shore Railroad, an iron road that cut through the mountains along the Pacific, barely lasted a decade before the Slide twisted their tracks and reclaimed the roadway.

It was a constant challenge to the automobile commuters–using the same roadbed as the failed railroad—but in 1995 Devil’s Slide ruthlessly attacked, collapsing the road and shutting the Slide down completely for almost a year.

It’s been 11 years since then and things have been pretty quiet. An occasional car crashes into the surf but by and large it’s been peaceful.

Now I’m at home and the recent incessant rains have angered the Devil’s Slide gods. They’re hurdling four-ton boulders onto the roadway. It’s been closed a couple of weeks now and I’m heartsick at the prospect that my love affair with Devil’s Slide has been broken off again. I hope not for long.

The planners are already digging a multi-million-dollar, one-mile-long tunnel that they hope will “neutralizeâ€? Devil’s Slide.

I have a feeling their project will prove to be futile.