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County’s ‘Morro Rock’ : Dana Point Headland, Statue Recall Past, Enduring Grandeur

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There’s a statue on a cliff overlooking the harbor off Coast Highway here that tells volumes about the area’s past and present.

Made of bronze, it depicts a well-muscled sailor of the mid-1800s heaving what looks like a huge map of California over the side. Situated midway along a cliff top trail directly in front of a row of modern condominiums, the scene offers a dramatic contrast between what is and what was.

The “map,” in fact, is supposed to be an animal hide. And the statue--called the Hide Drogher--is of a sailor throwing the valuable skin over the cliff to his shipmates below for transport back to New England at a time when condominiums would have seemed like dwellings from outer space.

The scene is from “Two Years Before the Mast,” an adventure book by Richard Henry Dana, for whom this city is named. Dana came here in 1835 as a young seaman aboard a two-masted sailing brig called the Pilgrim. Five years later, in his classic volume, he described the high promontory headland with its natural harbor as “the only romantic spot in California.”

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He also told of his shipmates tossing animal hides acquired from the Indians off the cliff, from which they sailed like kites to the small beach below.

“There was a grandeur in everything that gave almost a solemnity to the scene,” Dana wrote. “Not a human being but ourselves for miles and no sound heard but the pulsations of the great Pacific and the great steep hill rising like a wall and cutting us off from all the world but the ‘world of waters!’ . . . Compared with the plain, dull sand-beach of the rest of the coast, this grandeur was as refreshing as a great rock in a weary land.”

The grandeur is still refreshing. The hill still rises like a wall amid the great lapping waters. Unlike Dana’s time, however, it is no longer deserted; today a bustling pleasure harbor draws tourists by the hundreds and city dwellers live and dine in magnificent structures atop hills that once were swept only by the wind.

“It’s one of the most dramatic landmarks along the coast,” Doris Walker, a local historian who has written several books on the subject, says of the headlands, which comprise about 114 acres atop a 200-foot-high bluff. “It’s our Morro Rock--you can’t miss it. You go there and you have to say, ‘Wow, look at that!’ ”

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In fact, Walker says, the headlands were an important navigational point for migrating whales and a lookout point for the Indians long before Dana ever laid eyes on them. In the early 1800s, the cliffs were used primarily as grazing land by the Spaniards, who kept their herds of cattle away from the edge for fear they would fall off.

After Dana’s book made the place famous in the 1880s, according to Walker, a smattering of tourists began arriving to enjoy the view. But it was the completion of the Coast Highway in 1929, she says, that really made the area accessible.

Following World War II, scads of servicemen who had been stationed there began coming back to settle and build the town. And in 1976 the county completed Dana Point Harbor, a quiet anchorage with slips for 2,500 yachts.

The harbor retains some vestiges of its colorful history. Near the Orange County Marine Institute, which conducts classes in marine biology and oceanography, a full-scale replica of the original sailing ship Pilgrim floats in quiet dignity.

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And in a plaza at the harbor, a nine-foot bronze statue of Dana as a young seaman stands facing the hills he loved. One foot is set on a rope-bound bit of his ship’s deck, while in his hand he clutches the journal containing the observations that later formed his book.

Most visitors, though, come to the harbor to enjoy its quiet beach, fishing pier or picnic facilities.

“I like the breeze,” says Jose Hidalgo, 64, a retired construction worker who’s been coming for 24 years. “It’s nice; people just come to relax.”

High above those lazing on a summer day, however, loom the headland bluffs, as imposing and impenetrable today as they were in history.

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Scientists have identified 120 species of plants residing here, 16 of which are not commonly found elsewhere in Orange County. The headlands are home to two species of rare birds--the California gnatcatcher and cactus wren--in addition to such unusual reptiles as the California legless lizard and the orange-throated whiptail.

Geologists delight in the area’s array of rock formations, ranging from its smooth marine terraces, cut by the continual wave, wind and rain action, to the red iron-stained breccia and 150-million-year-old bluish rock found only at a few isolated points in Southern California.

All of this has contributed to a prolonged battle between local environmentalists, who want the area to remain open, and developers, who would like to build condominiums and homes on it. Recently, the M.H. Sherman Co. and Chandis Securities Co., owners of the headlands, submitted a plan to the city to build about 500 homes there, as well as restaurants, hotels and a large amount of developed open space, including public trails.

City officials say the proposal is still at the Planning Commission level and not likely to be reviewed by the City Council for at least six months.

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In the meantime, the area already hosts a handful of condominiums and restaurants. Much of the rest is enclosed by fences bearing no-trespassing signs. Yet they have enough holes in them to allow access to a steady stream of bird watchers, hikers, dog-walkers, hang gliders enthusiasts and radio-controlled airplane fliers. And those who come here generally leave with a heightened sense of awe.

“I’ve been coming down here a long time, and it hasn’t changed at all,” says Steve Lewis, 26, who grew up in the area and visits the headlands frequently. “I find myself getting in my truck to come here for the last 10 minutes of the day; seeing the sunset rejuvenates you.”

Dan Farrell, a 51-year-old teacher, says he appreciates the historical significance of the place. “This is about as close to original California as you can get,” he says, peering off over the cliff at the distant beach below. “It’s a very special place.”


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