A Coastside Fairy Tale: Memories of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

A Coastside Fairy Tale

The other day I stumbled across a “storybook” I had forgotten about. The cover said:

Memories of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Moss Beach

Written by a friend* of the Wienkes.

When I was a little girl, in the 1890s, my family visited famous Pebble Beach near Pescadero. We stayed at the Swanton House in town, and in the morning a horse-drawn wagon took us to Pebble Beach where we had a great time sorting through the piles of colorful stones. One was pretty enough to wear as a pendant. I will always treasure the gem.

But there was another very special beach north of Half Moon Bay. We called it Moss Beach for the variety of mosses found there. I learned about the mosses from Dr. David Starr Jordan–the first president of Stanford University. He was a marine biologist who loved studying the living things at Moss Beach.

(Photo: David Starr Jordan and his dog, Jock.)

There was so much to discover, graceful sea urchins and rainbow colored shells–abalone. This was a new world for me.

That wasn’t all. Moss Beach was like a rock garden, with unusual formations and patterns everywhere. Some of the rocks had names. I remember Spray Rock and Arch Rock. Where did the rocks come from?

(Photo: This looks like “Rock-Hedge.”)

We would spend a week at the Wienke Hotel, run by Mr. and Mrs. Wienke, and their ambitious daughter, Lizzie, who wanted to be a teacher. That’s where we met Dr Jordan-who came to study the reefs, which at low tide, revealed fantastic sea life, unbelievable marine curiosities. The Wienkes were wonderful hosts and the remarkable beach only steps away.

(Photo: The Wienke’s Hotel in Moss Beach.)

I wish I had paid more attention to the guests who stayed at the Wienke’s hotel. They did sign a big book, a register of historic names.

Mr. Wienke had a plan to make Moss Beach, the town, as beautiful as the unique beach. He spent hours planting hundreds of cypress trees and one of the lanes was called Wienke Way.

My family lived in San Francisco, and we took the exciting Ocean Shore Railroad tour to Moss Beach. There was the prettiest train station there. And if you wanted to return to the City, the Red Star Auto driver fares weren’t high. He kept his car parked at the train station so he wasn’t hard to find!

Of course, the highlight of the train ride, was traveling over Devil’s Slide, enjoying ocean views I’d never seen before–and wondering if we’d make it to Moss Beach on time. More than once some big boulders tumbled onto the tracks and the train had to back up to Pacifica. That’s what I heard–it never happened to us.

Not far from the Wienke’s charming retreat, on the sandy beach, Charlie Nye built a cafe and dance platform. Right there by the reefs teeming with sea life. Charlie was the blind man who told stories about famous writers like Jack London renting his rowboats.On hot days the beach was crowded with picnickers.

(Photo: Nye’s on Moss Beach on a hot Coastside day.)

Everybody wanted to investigate the reefs at low tide, and the children played hide-and-seek games around the rocks, some of which were enormous enough to sit on.

My uncle took some of the pictures you see here.

* If you wonder who the writer of the Coastside Fairy Tale is, the “friend” of the Wienke’s is me, June.

Day dreaming through Moss Beach

This morning, early, I drove to Moss Beach, to the west side near the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. I wanted to see if Charlie Nye’s “Reefs II” was still there, at Nevada & Beach Streets; I heard that the historic building was gone.

Even though you’d think it would be easy to keep in touch with the communities of Montara, Moss Beach, Princeton, El Granada and Miramar, it isn’t–you can go decades without seeing someone who used to be your best friend or your former next door neighbor.

You can also go for years without knowing if your favorite old building is still standing.

I think Coastsiders get lost in their neighborhoods. I do, in mine, in El Granada, living on an avenue created by the designer of the Ocean Shore Railroad’s “showplace.” I can stay here for days without seeing anybody and feeling very happy about it!

People who do not live on the Coastside have no idea how good life is here.

Just recently a lady who works for Bank of the West in Burlingame told me how amazed she was to find that there were such beautiful, intimate communities off Hwy 1.

Here’s the point of this post: I drove up to Moss Beach to see if Nye’s Reefs was still there and I ended up at Nevada & I forget what the cross-street was. I didn’t see Nyes where it used to be.

This is embarrassing: Maybe I didn’t end up on the right street–now I’m not sure. Guess I’ll have to go back up there and check it out again. But the Moss Beach I saw this morning was very different from the one I remember just a few years ago when there were still many 1920s-style bungalows around.

Today I saw much larger, affluent landscaped homes reminding me of how long it had been since I visited the west side of Moss Beach.

Charlie Nye, Jr.: RIP —Father was a Moss Beach Pioneer/Known For Legendary Clam Chowder

Charlie Nye: We loved you dearly for being exactly who you were…terribly eccentric and a genial host.. who always made the unexpected guests who knocked on his door (often out of sheer curiosity) feel welcome at “The Reefs.”

Jenna Kinghorn, editor of “Between the Tides,”–the Friends of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve newletterhttp://www.fitzgeraldreserve.org/newsletter.htmlemailed me that Charlie Nye of Moss Beach (and “The Reefs” fame) has passed. Look for an obit in the March edition (online or via mail) of “Between the Tides.”

Charlie Nye, Jr. sitting amid the clutter of “The Reefs II” in 1980. The “Reefs II” was built on the cliffs overlooking the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve after the original Reefs built on the beach itself was destoryed in a storm.photo by June

Posing outside “The Reefs II” charlie.jpg

reefsbeach.jpgPhoto: A day at the beach– with “The Reefs” in the background. The building was destroyed by big waves during a storm more than 70 years ago.

Inside “The Reefs”: insidereefs.jpg

reefs.jpg The Reefs was built on the sands of the present day Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Stories about Charlie Nye: http://www.halfmoonbaymemories.com/2005/10/20/2-charlie-nyes-the-reefs-part-i/



Charlie Nye & The Reefs: Part III

Me at Charlie Nye’s Reefs II. Photo Suzanne Meek

In 1980 I interviewed Charlie Nye, whose father, also called Charlie Nye, had owned a wonderful restaurant called The Reefs in Moss Beach. It was unique, a foundation-less building with piers stuck in the sand. People came from all around to boat, collect shells and enjoy a bowl of ab chowder. The Charlie I talked with lived on the cliffs above the spot where the Reefs once stood. His place was called the Reefs II and across the way was another building that served as the Moss Beach Hotel.

Mother Nature kept reminding Charlie Nye, Sr. that the Reefs was a temporary building. Every time the tide was high the waves splashed against the Reefs. When it was stormy they lashed angrily at the building, wearing it down and tearing into the cliffs behind it, too.

Charllie Nye, Jr.: Finally there was a tidal wave and it lifted the Reefs off its pillars.

But Nye had anticipated this moment and already built the Reefs II on the safer cliffs above.

Charlie Nye, Jr.: This was completed, I think, in about 1926. Rooms were rented out to fishermen and people from the Valley who came when it got too hot. The Valley wasn’t air conditioned in those times. They came down for a month at a time.

Getting to Moss Beach from anywhere in the 1920s was frustrating.

Charlie Nye, Jr.: The road coming over Pedro Mountain was terrible, just awful. Words can’t describe it. It was just impossible. It went around turns and more turns, hairpin turns, short turns, backward turns. There were potholes on top of potholes. When you come down here today and complain about a few earth-slides on Devil’s Slide, well, that’s nothing compared to that old Pedro Mountain Road.
The way to Moss Beach via the Pedro Mountain Road

June: Any other memories of transportation in those days?

Charlie Nye, Jr.: I remember my father talking about the horse and buggy days. He said it took a full day to ride from San Mateo to Moss Beach. He said it could take four to five hours with a horse and buggy to haul lumber from Half Moon Bay to Moss Beach.

Charlie’s father loved his work.

Charlie Nye, Jr.: He ran the Reefs II until he was so blind that we forced him to stop. That was in 1967. He stopped serving food in 1965.

When I interviewed Charlie in 1980 the Reefs II was open on Saturday and Sunday–not for food but for conversation in an eccentric, historic environment.

Charlie Nye, Jr.: Curiosity seekers are coming in constantly. They say, ‘I didn’t know this was a bar. It doesn’t look like a bar. I often wondered what this place looked like. It looks like a curiosity shop’.

The Reefs II, as many knew it, doesn’t exist anymore–and I believe Charlie Nye has moved to Mexico.

Big waves brought The Reefs down:

Charlie Nye & The Reefs: Part II

The Reefs at Moss Beach

Charlie Nye’s father, also called Charlie Nye, saw opportunity when his neighbors gave up after the Ocean Shore Railroad showed signs of faltering.

The 1906 earthquake, with its epicenter at nearby Mussel Rock, struck a mighty blow at the work the Ocean Shore was doing near Devil’s Slide. After having read personal horrifying accounts of the earth moving in downtown San Francisco, I can only imagine the shaking at the Slide.

In the 1880s Mr. Wienke, whose wife,Meta, was distantly related to the sugar king Claus Spreckels, established a beach resort at Moss Beach. Getting people to come was hampered because Wienke’s hotel was isolated and the carriage ride a long, dusty, uncomfortable one. The railroad, which planned an iron road from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, promised to deliver untold number of tourists–and now nature had reduced all that to temporary rubble as the Ocean Shore people cleaned up and took financial nventory.

I guess the railroad was committed to see their project through to the bitter end and they plowed ahead–even coming up with a couple of little gas powered coaches, much, much cleaner burning than the billows of black dirty smoke emitting from the coal-powered engines as they choo choo-ed across the Coastside landscape.

“My father had a chance to acquire ‘The Reefs’ which was built by Wienke,” Charlie Nye, Jr. explained.

That was exciting for what the Reefs had been built right on the sandy beach of the present day Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. There was no foundation as the building stood on 16-foot stilts.

Charlie Nye: When the Reefs was first built it was built on the sand and there were rows of bathhouses on one side and a dance floor on the other side where they used to have an orchestra. There was a road to the beach and people used to drive down with their horse and buggies. There was a chute we used to sllide groceries down from the cliff to the beach.”

A romantic place like this instantly drew the famous of the time, the botanist Luther Burbank, breeder of plums and prunes, and many other plant varieities, and the great writer Jack London, who loved the sounds of the sea and whose adventurious sea stories were read by every male child.

Guests fished, boated and hunted abalone.

On the day the Reefs officially passed from Mr. Wienke to Charlie Nye, the new owner faceda smelly problem.

Charlie Nye (deadpan): A dead whale had washed ashore–and it was highly potent. They tried everything they could think of to get rid of the carcass. Finally they blew it up with dynamite and there was just more whale over everything.

It was either Charlie’s father or Mr. Wienke who had done the interior decorating at The Reefs, using only what could be found locally. Every inch of wall, from floor to ceiling, was covered with silvery blue abalone shells. The abalone chowder was a big hit and in later years Charlie Nye’s father revealed the secret to his delicous recipe: mince the abalone in a sausage grinder.

Charlie Nye & The Reefs: Part I

There was a time when you’d mosey on over to the foggy Coastside and head north to Moss Beach and walk around the tidepools of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve–and if you were the curious type you’d find a very unusual house at Nevada and Beach Streets– decorated with abalone seashells on the exterior that spelled out “Nye’s Reef’s II”.

This place with the abalone shells was an instant draw.

Knock on the door and you’d discover this is where Charlie Nye lived, an eccentric, loveable guy who opened up his home to visitors whenever he felt like it.

His father, also called Charlie Nye, had been the famous owner of a popular restaurant, featuring his special clam chowder recipe–but his son didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps. Usually wearing a black turtleneck, Charlie Nye, Jr. had one of those small refrigerators, a couple of feet tall, and if you were thirsty he’d offer you a soft drink. That’s as close as he got to the restaurant business.

Charlie Nye, Jr. inside “The Reefs II” in 1980photo by June

Charlie’s house was a charming one-of-a-kind– jam-packed with all kinds of old stuff including an antique piano which he played and overstuffed furniture and beach memorabilia and lots of dust .

It was a treat to spend an hour with Charlie.

He loved to chat and talk about his father who came to the Coastside after the Spanish-American War in 1898. “It was the one place he found where he didn’t suffer from remittent malaria,” Charlie told me.

His father settled in at Moss Beach and was introduced to the ambitious Harr Wagner, a San Francisco publisher and land developer who was trying to establish an artist’s colony in Montara. Wagner’s wife was Madge Morris, a published poet–and for the artist’s colony to succeed it was critical that the Ocean Shore Railroad do so, too.

But the timing of the building of the railroad was way off-track–the Ocean Shore Company couldn’t have had worse luck as the earth- shaking tremors of the catastrophic 1906 earthquake ripped up the work that had been done on Devil’s Slide and tossed expensive equipment and rails into the Pacific Ocean.

Not only were they way behind schedule, this was a financial disaster for the railroad, one that the Ocean Shore never recovered from. The railroad’s failure also threatened the success of a famous Moss Beach resort owned by Jurgen Wienke, also known as “the Mayor of Moss Beach”. (There is a street leading to the ocean named after him).

Guests arrived by horse and carriage at Wienke’s Hotel which was his sprawling home and gardens. His wife and daughter acted as hostesses to a bevy of famous guests including Stanford’s president. On the sandy beach below Wienke’s hotel, he constructed a small building with a deck–a seafood restaurant, a place where boats could be rented.

But once the locals surveyed the damage to the railroad at Devil’s Slide, the sound of misfortune filled the air.

Charlie Nye, Jr. told me, unlike the others, his father saw good luck in disguise.

Earlier times: Inside “The Reefs”