Pirates, Romance, Smugglers : Caves of La Jolla Mix History With Mystery

Times Staff Writer

Gustav Schulz had a plan. The year was 1902 and Schulz, a German engineer and professor of philosophy, had recently arrived in this sleepy seacoast colony from his native land, planning to lapse into semi-retirement.

But instead of lolling in the sunshine, Schulz became fascinated by a geological marvel just north of La Jolla Cove--seven caves carved from the towering sandstone bluffs by centuries of pounding surf.

Schulz, an eccentric fellow often seen swimming with a hat on his head and a cigar between his teeth, got to thinking: What if he could construct a tunnel and enable visitors to clamber down into one of the caves? Wouldn’t people pay for such an enchanting view? Suddenly, the retirement was put on hold.


For the next 20 months, Schulz wielded pick and shovel, slowly burrowing upward through the roof of the largest cave and finally emerging atop the bluffs. The entrepreneur then built 133 wooden steps in the narrow passageway and began charging admission.

It was an instant hit.

In the years since, the seven caves have remained a magnet for the curious. Indeed, along with La Jolla Cove, a sheltered half-moon-shaped bay eroded by years of ceaseless ocean wear, the caves are viewed by local historians as the top geographical landmark in this trendy tourist mecca.

“No question about it,” said Bob Barrymore, president of the La Jolla Historical Society and owner of nearly two acres of bluff-top land above the caves. “The caves are one of La Jolla’s most symbolic features. And there are plenty of raconteurs with a story or two about them as well.”

On a peak summer day, as many as 200 visitors pay a dollar (50 cents for children) for the privilege of negotiating the cramped, dank tunnel that makes a steep descent to the floor of Schulz’s cave--the southernmost of the seven and the only one accessible by land. The head of the stairway is inside the La Jolla Cave & Shell Shop on Coast Boulevard, a privately owned business housed in a building erected by Schulz in 1906.

The journey downward is an adventure. Musty sea smells fill the air, and the temperature is kept cool by the sandstone walls and onshore breezes wafting up the passageway. Halfway down, the sound of crashing surf leaps up the tunnel.

At the foot of the aged stairway is a cavern 100 feet deep and 50 feet high, with a wood-plank walkway that connects with a deck perched 10 feet above the waves. Fossilized shell and water-level marks are hints that the ocean’s tidal muscle has pummeled this spot for millennia, as surf crashing against the sandstone created the cave.

The cavity’s walls and roof glow with colors from mineral deposits and vegetable matter, from the red of iron oxide to the pinkish purple of iodine found in kelp. Disrespectful visitors have also left their marks, carving names into the wooden deck and marring the rocks with scrawled slogans.


The cave’s opening offers an unimpeded northward view of Scripps Pier and La Jolla Shores. Gulls, cormorants and pelicans swoop past the entrance. Occasionally, a boat drifts by.

Most tourists who reach the cave’s floor seem impressed with the sight--if a tad unenthusiastic about the 133-step climb awaiting them on their return. But one woman visiting from Wisconsin last week confessed that the natural wonder was a bit of a letdown.

“Is this it? I’ve waited years to see this thing,” she complained to a friend as the two nonetheless snapped photos of each other posed before the cave’s opening. “I thought at least there’d be a bat or two in here.”

Other tourists never make the descent. Recently, a portly gentleman laden with camera equipment paid his dollar, entered the tunnel and promptly reemerged: “Oh, heck, 133 steps? That’s 132 too many for me,” he said, obtaining a refund and stomping rather disgustedly out the door.

The La Jolla caves were carved by the beating of waves on fractures in the bluffs, which are made of sandstone that eroded from mountain tops to the east 70 million years ago, according to Pat Abbott, chairman of the department of geological sciences at San Diego State University.

“Over the past tens of thousands of years, the waves have beat on the rock face, striking these fractures, or joints, and squeezing water into them,” Abbott said. “The pounding also moves sand grains around inside the fracture, creating a sandpaper-like effect that wears away at it to make the opening bigger.”

The height of a cave depends on how high the waves reach, he said, and the depth is determined by how far inward the erosion can extend before the cave’s walls collapse.

“Where caves occur depends on the vagaries of where the waves are focused, because the rock face is not all of equal strength,” Abbott said. “Once a fracture is there, the water flow tends to concentrate on it, continuing the widening process.”

Abbott said similar caves once existed at Sunset Cliffs but have mostly collapsed.

The caves’ colorful history did not end with the feats of their clever German exploiter, Gustav Schulz. Nor did it begin there. According to a history of La Jolla by James A. (Lefty) Leftwich, the scenic San Diego community owes its very name to the caves, which grace a treacherous bluff known as Devil’s Slide.

Defying the common belief that La Jolla-- joya means “jewel” in Spanish--was so dubbed by the Spaniards in the 16th Century, Leftwich writes that the town’s name originally comes from an Indian word, mut-lah-hoyyah, meaning “the cave place.”

Leftwich says that, gradually, the “mut” became lost and the Kumeye Indian word was shortened to “lah-hoy-yah.” The current spelling is likely a product of Spanish influence, he says.

Even before Schulz hit town, locals were trying to make a buck off the caves and the bluffs that crown them.

In the late 1890s, operators of the San Diego-La Jolla Railway Co. paid high divers $25 to plunge 140 feet into the sea from a springboard mounted on the cliffs in an effort to lure tourists and prospective homesteaders to town.

On a grimmer note, the La Jolla Historical Society says its files contain a photo of a horse being pushed off the cliffs--yet another stunt designed to awe onlookers.

One particularly daring--some say crazy--man, Professor Horace Pool, made the big dive more than half a dozen times. On the 4th of July in 1898, Pool illuminated his dive by dousing his body with inflammable oil and setting himself afire. He lived.

But later that year, Bert Reed, the son of San Diego’s mayor, died of injuries he suffered after plunging off the cliffs. That put a stop to such daredevil antics for quite a few years.

A somewhat safer pastime, also sponsored by the railroad, involved lowering visitors by rope over the edge of Devil’s Slide and allowing them to dangle and peer into the deep, dark caves, which can be somewhat difficult to enter from sea level because of the crashing surf. It was this activity that apparently inspired Schulz to dig his tunnel into the largest of the caverns.

The remarkable passageway opened the cave to a whole new wave of uses. According to legend, bootleggers used it to funnel whiskey to San Diego distributors during Prohibition. Smugglers of illegal aliens were also said to frequent the cave, using it as a stowaway spot and passageway for their mostly Chinese charges.

According to Historical Society files, Ellen Browning Scripps--benefactress of Scripps Institution of Oceanography--recalled standing on a point facing the caves and watching opium smugglers unload their goods into the cave.

The cave has frequently been used as a set for movies, including “Neptune’s Daughter” and a slew of pirate pictures. Seals and sea lions were said to have relied on the caves as a resting spot or as shelter from predators.

More recently, employees at the Cave & Shell Shop recall discovering that a couple had camped out in the cave overnight.

“They had a candle lit on the deck and I suppose it was very romantic,” said Carolyn Hashimoto, store manager. “I understand it was their last night together for a long time and the woman wanted to have a special memory.”

On another occasion, a drunken group in a large inflatable raft “docked” in the cave and hauled themselves and the boat up the narrow tunnel.

During summertime, Hashimoto said, the shop has “a continual problem” with swimmers--many with dogs in tow--who enjoy sneaking up the stairs after a daring dip at the cave’s mouth.

There’s one other little mystery about two of the caves--their names. The largest, the one explored by Schulz, is known as Sunny Jim Cave. Historians say there are three conflicting stories about the name’s origin.

The first, and most widely accepted, theory is that the cave was named after a cartoon character depicted on a box of British breakfast cereal, known as Force Wheat Flakes, in the early 1900s. The outline of the cave’s opening is said to resemble Sunny Jim’s head.

Others, however, maintain that the cavern was named after one-time California Gov. “Sunny Jim” Rolph. (Serious cave students dismiss this theory because Rolph’s tenure came well after the cave’s interior was made easily accessible by Schulz.)

A third story simply suggests that the cave was so dubbed because its opening resembles a smiling (sunny) man (Jim) facing leftward.

“Take your pick,” Barrymore said. “Nobody knows for sure nowadays.”

Only one other cave, the seventh in the row, has a name--the White Lady Cave. According to a March, 1963, column by Marie Breder in the La Jolla Light, this cave was named after a bride still clad in her white wedding dress who was swept away by a giant wave and killed.

The column, “Nostalgia Lane,” said that the honeymoon couple had crept into the cave at low tide and that the bride was claimed by the sea when her husband “was distracted momentarily.”

“The caves are a romantic place,” said Hashimoto, who descends into the bowels of ol’ Sunny Jim once each morning to make sure all is safe and tidy for the day’s visitors. “Who knows what’s gone on down there?”