LeBaron: Looking back 50 years after battle of Bodega Head

Exploring the story of Bodega Head, and PG&E’s hopes to build a nuclear plant there 50 years ago.|

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.

- Dave Pesonen, newly graduated from college, working for the Sierra Club, who was sent learn what was going on and learned so much so quickly that he quit his job and took on the full-time leadership of the growing protests. Now retired in Oregon, Pesonen will be a part of the Hole in the Head exhibition by way of an extensive interview taped last month.

- Doris Sloan, UC professor emeritus, was a young mother living in Sebastopol when she joined the fray against the power plant. What happened at Bodega Bay - and what has happened since - has been an important part of her life’s work. In recent years, she has compiled documents and interviews that will become part of the Bancroft Library’s collection of California history.

- Joel Hedgpeth, an internationally known marine biologist and director of the College (now University) of the Pacific’s marine lab at Dillon Beach who was the first to question publicly the wisdom of a power plant on a fault line and about the prospective damage to marine life from the heated wastewater. (Later, as the wickedly witty poet, Jerome Tichenor, he would delight protesters with anti-PG&E verses.)

- Hazel Bonnecke (later, Mitchell), a waitress at the “High Tides,” so-called to distinguish this relatively upscale bar and dinner house from the fishermen’s hangout on the Tides Wharf. Waiting on tables filled with PG&E personnel, county supervisors and various state officials, it didn’t take her long to figure out that the Headlands, which she had long ago decided should be a park, was in grave danger. (While she never acknowledged it, some say that Hazel is the waitress that overheard the word “nuclear” applied for the first time, and set The Press Democrat’s bay correspondent, Josephine Lora, on path to break the news to the world in a PD story.

Hazel began talking about it to anyone who would listen, passed petitions (she got several hundred on one Sunday, working the waiting line at the Grange’s popular Cioppino Feed). In 1959, she organized the Bodega Bay Chamber of Commerce to protest the plant (although many of the residents were more concerned with the power lines down Doran Park and the tidelands road than they were nuclear power). She began regular appearances at county meetings, talking where she could although there was - if you can imagine - never a public hearing on the matter at the Board of Supervisors. The land was in an agricultural zone, officials said, which did not require a use permit for a power plant.

- Lu Watters, a Cotati resident who worked as a cook at the Sonoma County Hospital in the early ’60s. He was also a musician of great renown, a jazz trumpeter known as the “Father of West Coast Jazz” who had played in all the top Dixieland spots in the Bay Area, with Turk Murphy and other greats. A health condition had forced his retirement and he had not played in 10 years when Cotati neighbor Bill Kortum told him what was happening on the Head.

Watters, who prowled the coast in his off-hours, wrote and recorded a song called “Blues Over Bodega ” and introduced it to a crowd of protesters on the Headlands. With a borrowed trumpet and the vocal of singer Barbara Dane, “the Bodega song” hit the charts on the Bay Area stations, spreading the word to a whole new audience.

These are just a smattering of a patchwork cast of characters that came together to get the attention - finally, in 1964 - of scientists important enough to convince the Atomic Energy Commission that the plant could not be allowed to happen.

What came of all this is almost too big to measure - a populace aware of new, scarcely regulated perils; a new breed known as environmentalists who truly believed they could fashion a brighter future for the our coast.

The fight over The Sea Ranch and the closure of 13 miles of coast would follow as would the Coastal Commission and Diablo Canyon nuclear protests and - you fill in the blanks.

The Battle of Bodega Head can be seen as the progenitor of organized concern for public safety and access and preservation on the California coast.

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