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”

Once Upon A Time

Looking out on El Granada beach, circa 1930s, as painted by the locally famous artist Galen Wolf

The two-story building was an Ocean Shore-era “bathhouse” and, to the south, there’s what looks like a farmer’s barn. For years Galen lived at Frenchman’s Creek and every corner of the beautiful Coastside was his canvas.

Galen Wolf, Coastside artist.

1918 Flu On the Coastside: Part III

The influenza pandemic struck the Coastside in September 1918. The killer flu had moved from the east to the west coast but strangekly the epidemic was not the lead story in the newspapers. Was it because World War I was still raging with young American soldiers dying in the trenches in Europe?

In the U.S. army bases– crowded with recruits waiting for orders to go off to war–were hard hit by the virus. In the big East Coast cities, the manufacture of coffins lagged far behind the number of bodies needing burial, according to Alfred Crosby’s book, mentioned in earlier posts.

Like wildfire, the virus cut a wide swath of devastation behind as it headed to the West Coast. At its peak some 30 cases were reported daily in San Mateo—fortunately, the deaths from this horrific flu never matched the numbers back East.

No matter, everyone was frightened of every sneeze, of every sniffle, of every cough. In San Francisco legislation required “every person appearing on the public streets to war a mask”. While protective masks were serious business, some in the fashion world made light of it, adding masks as an accessory to the latest fall wear for women.

The Coastside Comet’s Editor George E. Dunn. The Comet was located in Moss Beach and the building still stands on Hwy 1.

The Coastside Comet building later served as a U.S. post office, real estate and electric company office –and as the headquarters for local photographer R. Guy Smith–who had been the postmaster and real estate agent! What’s in all those bags?

Following San Francisco’s lead, a similar “mask” resolution was passed by a special session of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. The penalty for being caught without a “muzzle” was a $100 fine and or ten days in jail.

Most everyone obeyed the law and wore pads of gauze tied in place with strings around the head. Mailmen and barbers and store clerks wore the mask. They were hot, scratchy and impractical.

One of Pescadero’s most controversial citizens, Loren Coburn, a grumpy landowner who was always at odds with the villagers, wore the mask but still fell ill and died at age 92. The flu also struck down Howard Frey, who at 24 apparently fit the more common profile of those who died.

More importantly, some believed the masks violated their personal liberties–and they made their voices heard.

That year Thanksgiving was a real thanksgiving as the epidemic began to pull back, with the bureaucrats who promoted mask wearing taking credit. But there were skeptics and Coastside Comet Editor George E. Dunn was one who questioned the efficadcy of the gauge masks. Dunn knew Coastsiders who had worn the mask and still succumbed to the flu.

The Coastside’s George E. Dunn knew San Francisco Board of Health Chief Dr. William Hassler– (who wore the “snort” version of the gauze mask, which observers said gave him a “pig-like” appearance–and the editor asked, “Answer this. Why is it that some folks who wore a muzzle on their mouths caught influenza and some folks who didn’t wear a muzzle didn’t catch influenza? Speak up!”

If there was an answer, it went unreported. (Dunn was later vindicated, as medical evidence indicated the mask offeredno significant protection).

By December the worst was over–and six days later this ad appeared in George Dunn’s Coastside Comet: “Two secondhand flu masks for sale, both in good order….”

1918 Flu On the Coastside: Part II

At the end of World War I– between the fall of 1918 and the early 1920s– an influenza pandemic was stealing millions and millions of lives all over the world. It was a contagious, ruthless flu that preferred to take the breath away from adults in the prime of life–but in the end everybody was at risk.

The Coastside was isolated and that’s why folks from the surrounding areas thought they could escaqpe falling ill here. Entire families rented cute Ocean Shore Railroad era cottages that San Franciscans had built as second homes or to commute to the City from.

The pandemic hit the Coastside in mid-September 1918. The killer virus struck locals who, through their work and social status, had contact with many more people. Harry Nelson, the postman fell ill so did Father J. Sorasio.

Here were the reported symptoms,typical of the average flu: First fever, headaches and backaches. Bed rest and plenty of liquids was recommended but this time the prescription failed.

If you read Alfred Crosby’s book, “The Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918”, he writes that death came quickly for many victims, with autopsies showing blue, swollen lungs filled with a thin, bloody fluid.

One of my favorites:

People were terrified. They suspected coughs and sneezes were passing the virus. San Francisco enacted legislation requiring everybody to wear a mask when in public.

I’m sure there was great sadness down at Pigeon Point, south of Pescadero, when the two young sisters Emma and Clara Steele fell ill and never recovered to live out the rest of their lives. As the flu spread its blanket of doom and gloom, Half Moon Bay closed schools and set up “hospitals” inside private homes. But nurses and doctors were scarce as they had too many patients to care for and caught the flu themselves.

Clara (second from left} and Emma Steele, reclining, young Coastsiders who fell victim to the flu in 1918. Photo courtesy Mrs. Stanley Steele