LeBaron: Looking back 50 years after battle of Bodega Head
I had a nice visit with Hazel Mitchell last week.
Truthfully, it took place 11 years ago. It was, of course, a conversation that was videotaped five years before Hazel died. But it was great just to see her again and to listen to her tell her story of the Battle of Bodega Head.
There’s a lot of buzz around that half-century-ago adventure this week. It’s reunion time for those who took part or just remember.
An exhibit due to open next weekend at the Sonoma County Museum has occasioned meetings with old friends. Some, like Hazel and Joel Hedgpeth and Rose Gaffney and Karl and Jean Kortum and Lu Watters are gone, but others, like David Pesonen and Bill Kortum and Doris Sloan and Barbara Dane are very much with us and ready to share memories.
The Hole in the Head exhibit, borrowing the catchy title given to what remains of PG&E’s grand plans for a nuclear power plant, will open Nov. 2. (Reception Nov. 6.)
It will occasion lectures and music and field trips and discussion opportunities until early February.
Bodega Head and what happened (or didn’t happen) there is a big chunk of Sonoma County’s history. And, as such, is a fitting prelude to the Old Post Office on Seventh Street becoming a purely historical museum as the art component prepares for a mid-2015 move to its new home in an adjacent exhibit space.
It is appropriate that this promises to be more of an “enterprise of great pith and moment” as Hamlet would put it, than recent history exhibitions, which have been relegated to the mezzanine in the cramped shared space.
History curator Eric Stanley has had his visits with Hazel, too. And real-life conversations with many others, including the dean of Sonoma County’s environmental activists, Bill Kortum, who was called to the battle by his brother Karl, director of the San Francisco Maritime Museum; David Pesonen, the acknowledged leader of the protest that resulted in PG&E’s retreat 50 years ago, who became the director of the State Division of Forestry under Gov. Jerry Brown (in his first stint in the office), and Doris Sloan, whose involvement set her on a path that led to the establishment of an environmental studies program at UC Berkeley.
The Bodega Head episode set a lot of people on new paths.
Regarded as the de facto birth of a new preservation paradigm, with early conservation patterns from the days of John Muir emerging as modern environmentalism, it set in motion two important streams of political thought.
One, anti-nuclear, the other, the salvation of the California coastline.
In the 1950s, when it all began, we were still decades away from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and Fukushima. Nuclear power was looked upon by many Americans as the answer to all energy problems and perhaps even a way to help us feel less guilty about Hiroshima.
It had been a long time since the San Andreas Fault had toppled the towers of San Francisco, and nobody gave much thought to what was being built on earthquake faults.
Bodega Head sat bare and beautiful. The only questions about it were what the indomitable Rose Gaffney, whose ranch was the largest of the properties there, would do with Horseshoe Cove, a destination for hikers and abalone pickers who dared to risk the wrath of Mrs. Gaffney, who was known to wield a baseball bat - and, on appropriate occasions, a shotgun -to keep trespassers away.
It was known that State Parks had been looking at the Head since it first captured other stretches of the Sonoma Coast in 1929. And the University of California had been measuring Horseshoe Cove as a possible site for a marine biology laboratory.
Gaffney, a Polish immigrant who had inherited the land from her late husband, seemed to favor both or neither, depending on the day.
There were rumors about PG&E and a power plant but they were just rumors - until two significant things happened: State Parks dropped Bodega Head from its “wish list,” and the UC announced it was no longer interested in the cove.
That was 1957, and for the next seven years, determined people would come from all directions to investigate, question and protest the proposed power plant, which would give up Horseshoe Cove to UC in favor of a site on the inner bay.
Along with Gaffney, the cast of characters included:
- Karl Kortum, who knew Gaffney and became her ally. He wrote the lengthy letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle that got wide response and was taken as a call to arms to stop PG&E. His wife, Jean, organized the responders into an influential body of Bay Area protesters.
- Bill Kortum, the veterinarian who understood that radioactivity could be carried on the wind to the pasture to the cattle to milk drinkers. He asked a Humboldt County colleague to send him a thyroid gland from a slaughtered cow that had grazed downwind from the atomic power plant just south of Eureka. He found enough radioactive iodine to raise concerns with dairymen and chicken farmers.