The Coburn Mystery: Chapter 20 (original draft)

(The original draft of the Coburn Mystery contains many more details than the final, edited version of the book.)

(Photo courtesy Tony Pera)


While the Pacific Ocean crashed at Pescadero’s sandy feet, this extraordinarily beautiful place remained deeply isolated.

And perhaps, the residents watched with some envy as small coastal vessels, part of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s fleet, sailed by carrying letters and supplies from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. Both of those places boasted natural harbors but the little steamers didn’t stop at Pescadero because along this breathtaking–but windy and inhospitable stretch of coast–there were no natural harbors. The only plausible spot for a landing was at Pigeon Point, a six mile horseback ride over the rolling countryside.

At Pigeon Point there was a little semi-circular bay, partially sheltered from northern winds. It was the only place deep enough for small vessels to pick up local produce and lumber, and to drop off supplies. But Pigeon Point was also an imperfect bay where, hidden beneath the water, long rocky reefs waited like fingers ready to grasp whatever came their way.

One writer described the scene: “…black reefs that reared their ugly fangs like wild beats watching for their prey…”

Some 200 yard from shore a tall rock monument rose to a level equal with the steep rock bluff which partially enclosed the bay. (“Prisoner Rock,” I believe it is called.)


It was expensive to lug lumber overland, with the back-breaking labor performed by men and their mules. In an isolated place without a railroad, a wharf at Pigeon Point was the next best solution for a secluded village that needed a connection to the outside world.

But Pigeon Point, named for the shipwreck of the Carrier Pigeon in 1853, remained a dangerous place for steamers to land. No lives were lost in the wreck of the Carrier Pigeon–but over the next two decades, at least 24 men drowned.

((In 1853 the Carrier Pigeon, a fully rigged ship with a finely carbed pigeon on the bow, struck the invisible rocks, six miles south of Pescadero. Some 15 minutes later seven feet of water gushed into the hold; 30 minutes later the lower deck was flooded. The wounded ship lay 500-feet from the beach, pierced by the ledge of rocks that broke the ship’s back. The ship was a total loss, but the men survived. The ship’s commander, Captain Doane, had sailed from Boston with a cargo bound for San Francisco. He sent three Spanish-speaking witnesses who were at the scene on horseback to San Francisco to report the accident to the consignee.)

In the archives of the San Mateo County History Museum, there is another story telling how Pigeon Point got its name. Santa Cruz pioneer Eli Moore, the son of Alexander, when, hearing that the Carrier Pigeon had been shipwrecked, recalled seeing the big clipper a few days earlier. She was anchored in Santa Cruz bay. It was unusual to see such a big clipper and he thought it must have gotten there by error.

As the story goes, Captain Jacks, a crusty schooner master, shouted to the crew of the Carrier Pigeon: “Where are you headed?”

To which a sailor responded: “To San Francisco.”

“Then what are you doing here?” Captain Jacks supposedly snapped back.

Two days later, lost in a thick wall of fog the Carrier Pigeon drifted ashore six miles south of Pescadero near a point without a name (remember, it wasn’t called Pigeon Point yet.)

Shipwrecks drew all the locals, for there was often work to be done, and Eli Moore rode his horse north from Santa Cruz to see what was what. There was plenty to see and collect, including waterlogged merchandise, food, paint, even an intact stagecoach.

The insurance men had arrived at the scene, too, authorized to sell the damaged cargo at bargain rates. Unbroken packages were claimed by the underwriters–but broken packages could be claimed by anyone.

One unique item was the 18-passenger “Charlie McLean” stagecoach. Built in Concord, Massachusetts for Wells Fargo, the six-horse stagecoach could carry one ton of mail. It was rescued and later set a “stage record” for the fastest time between Reno and another town in Nevada, 20 miles in 94 minutes. Half a century later–when travel by stage was slowly being replaced by the lifestyle changing automobile–the aging McLean returned to the South Coastside where she was put to work on the San Mateo-Pescadero run.

At Eli Moore’s camp on a bluff near the wreck, there was plenty to eat and drink. Long handled shovels, salvaged from the Carrier Pigeon, made excellent frying pans on which bacon, ham and fresh eggs–preserved in lime water for the voyage around the Horn–crackled and sizzled. There were beans, sweet cakes, preserves and coffee, all courtesy of the wreck.

One of Eli Moore’s relatives–we don’t know his name–was also at the camp. He asked one of the insurance men what the name of the place was. The insurance man said, “There is no name.”

That’s when Moore’s relative suggested naming it after the wreck.

“You mean Carrier Pigeon Point?”

“No, that’s too long. The word “Carrier” should be dropped.”

And that’s another version of how Pigeon Point got its name.

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