Cuyler’s Harbor, San Miguel Island

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Cuyler's Harbor, San Miguel Island
Painting by Russell Ruiz
Santa Cruz Island Foundation collection
Cuyler's Harbor, San Miguel Island c. 1910
Photograph by Ralph Paulin
Trail to Cuyler's Harbor, San Miguel Island
Cuyler's Harbor looking east,
San Miguel Island

Cuyler’s Harbor, San Miguel Island (Cuyler Harbor; El Puerto de la Posesion by Cabrillo) is on the northeast side of the island, and stretches for about a mile to the east of its western head formed by Harris Point. It is the island’s safest and most popular anchorage. Princess Island (Prince Island) is located within the harbor.

Cuyler’s Harbor was named on February 17, 1852 by Lieutenant Commander James Alden, U.S. Navy, assistant in the Coast Survey aboard the U.S. Surveying Schooner Ewing, in honor of Lieutenant Commander Richard M. Cuyler of the U.S. Coast Survey. A. D. Bache’s Report of the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey for 1852 states:

“on the north side of [San Miguel Island] is a very good anchorage which I have named ‘Cuyler’s Harbor’ in honor of one of the officers attached to the party. Water can be obtained there at any time in the ravine just above the landing, and by digging in the sand at the eastern extremity of the beach.”

The place name appears on the 1853 U.S. Coast Survey map Reconnaissance of the western coast of the United States San Francisco to San Diego, A. D. Bache, Superintendent; the June 1882 U.S. Coast Survey map Pacific Coast from Santa Monica to Point Conception, including the Santa Barbara Channel, California, J.E. Hilgard, Superintendent. In May of 1896, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey sent the Gedney to rechart Cuyler’s Harbor.

In 1937, a stone monument to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who may have been buried on San Miguel Island was placed above Cuyler’s Harbor. An additional landslide was reported at Cuyler's Harbor in 1942. This place name appears as Cuyler Harbor on the San Miguel Island East topographic map.

Vessels wrecked at Cuyler’s Harbor include:

In the News~

December 25, 1852 [DAC]: “Charts of the Coast Survey. Mr. W. B. McMurtrie, the able draftsman of the Board of Coast Survey, and attached to the surveying steamer Active, at present in our waters, has furnished us with the recently finished charts of the surveying party on our shores. They are drawn by him and are engraved in the east in beautiful style on fine drawing paper. The sketches and charts before us are of Prisoners Harbor, San Clemente Harbor and Cuyler’s Harbor…”

July 23, 1877 [BowersFN]: “San Miguel Island. Cuyler Harbor is a beautiful little bay about two miles in width at the entrance and in the shape of a crescent. A small island rises near midway of the mouth of the bay, the rocks rising to the height of probably 100 feet. This is a great resort for gulls and other waterfowl to lay their eggs in the spring of the year. The island of rocks rises up like a sentinel to guard the entrance to the harbor.”

November 4, 1880 [SBDP]: “Trip of the schooner Dashaway to the islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz, owned by Messrs. Doulton and Neal. Left Santa Barbara wharf at 2 o’clock Tuesday last... Pilot Larco suggested that we had better pull back to Gaviota... Sunday morning Larco laid his net, and after a haul of about 300 pounds of fish, we sailed for Santa Barbara at 11 o’clock... We agreed with Larco’s suggestion to try again for San Miguel Island... Pilot Larco and the writer had never seen San Miguel before, which accounts for our position being a little to windward of where it should have been, as we were bound for Cuyler’s Harbor... Morning and light came at last... and with it Larco’s cheering voice, saying that we had better find another harbor...”

1895 General William Ward Duffield (1823-1907), superintendent of the Coast Survey (1894-1897), had worked for George Davidson for decades, collaborating with Davidson to create hundreds of coastal views that were engraved for Davidson’s magnum-opus, the Pacific Coast Pilot, 4th revised edition. In 1894, some sort of submarine earthquake and possible tsunami had occurred at Cuyler’s Harbor on San Miguel Island. Ferdinand Westdahl (1843-1919) and a crew were dispatched to re-survey parts of the island and the reconfiguration of the bottom of Cuyler Harbor after “The Upheaval” as it was called. Westdahl did a number of sketches from specific points. At the end of the work, he requested the ship captain stand offshore from the northern edge of the island and steam parallel to the island coast past the other end of the island as they returned to Santa Barbara. As though it were a final run for old times’ sake, Ferdinand Westdahl used the cruise to sketch what became the very last coastal view, taken from life, ever produced by the Coast and Geodetic Survey.

View of Cuyler Harbor, San Miguel Island by Ferdinand Westdahl. Sketch No. 3 on T-2211 (1895)

March 9, 1895 Captains Waters and Dally reported a series of disturbances and upliftings which occurred in the harbor. They found the boathouse which was previously at the waters edge was now 300 feet inland. The sheep corral had been raised 65 feet higher than it was before, and the upheaval of land left marine life, fish and abalones high and dry. William Waters wrote to the Director of the State Weather Service in Sacramento: “There has been quite a commotion on San Miguel Island. The land which formed a high bluff on the west side of the harbor has sunk more than sixty feet and forced itself under the beach, not only raising it, but stones which had lain at the water’s edge for years are now fifteen feet above it. So sudden was the change that fish and crabs were left high and dry and thirty feet above the harbor.”

March 17, 1895 [LAT/SB]: “A strange seismic disturbance is reported from Cuyler’s Harbor, San Miguel Island. The land forming the high bluffs back of the boathouse is said to have sunk sixty feet perpendicularly, forcing the beach and the rocks strewn along it for a length of 1600 feet some thirty feet upward and some 600 feet outward into the harbor. This change occurred on the 9th of March, and the ground is reported to be still moving.”

March 30, 1895 the Liberty was pounded to pieces on the southeast shore of Cuyler's Harbor following a freak landslide, which was reported to have generated an enormous harbor wave. Captain Dally had sailed her to Cuyler's Harbor when she sank. William Waters wrote to the Director of the State Weather Service in Sacramento: ‘There has been quite a commotion on San Miguel Island. The land which formed a high bluff on the west side of the harbor (Cuyler's Harbor) has sunk more than sixty feet and forced itself under the beach, not only raising it, but stones which had lain at the water’s edge for years are now fifteen feet above it... So sudden was the change that fish and crabs were left high and dry and thirty feet above the harbor.’”

April 2, 1895 [SFCall]: “Santa Barbara, April 1. Wreck at Cuyler’s Harbor. The sloop Liberty went ashore on the south beach of Cuyler’s Harbor last night. A high gale was blowing and there was a heavy sea in the harbor, causing her to foul and drag her anchor. No lives were lost, but the sloop is a total wreck. The Liberty was formerly registered at Wilmington and ran in and out of San Pedro harbor. Five years ago she became the property of Captain W. G. Waters, the owner of San Miguel Island, and has since been used as a freight boat, plying back and forth between the island and the mainland. She was a staunch little craft, a splendid sea boat, but framed for strength and safety rather than speed.”

April 7, 1895 [SFCall]: “Santa Barbara, April 5. The strange wrecking of the sloop Liberty in Cuyler Habor on San Miguel Island on the morning of March 30, which was briefly mentioned in press dispatches, occurred during a visit to the island of the Call’s correspondent. The wreck of the sloop was due undoubtedly to seismic disturbances beneath the water. The sloop had been lying for two days in her customary anchorage in the southwest curve of Cuyler’s Harbor. On the morning of March 30 the vessel lay a shattered hulk along the shore. The bows of the sloop were stove in and the mainmast was lying amidships, pointing sternward and enveloped in a tangle of rigging. The anchors, two in number, had dragged, and their thirty-fathom chains were wound around and around the keel of the vessel. Everything indicated that the sloop had received a severe blow from beneath the surface of the water and had then been caught in a maelstrom, which had rolled her over and over. This view is confirmed by the experience of Captain Ellis’ schooner, which anchored in precisely the same spot on Wednesday, April 3. At 12 o’clock, when the men were all below, a sudden severe shock sent the ship reeling and tossing, and brought the crew on deck. Immediately the waters began to boil in a way never before witnessed on this coast by Captain Oleson, who is familiar with the whirlpools and maelstroms of Norway. The schooner began to drag its anchor, weighing 485 pounds, and attached to a heavy forty-five fathom chain. Captain Oleson quickly slipped the anchor, after fastening a buoy to it, and got out of the harbor as quickly as he could set sail, only narrowly escaping drifting upon an ugly rock. Captain Oleson reports that the soundings of the anchorage, which were formerly four fathoms, are now seven fathoms, which shows a sinkage of six feet in solid rock at this point within a week.”

April 14, 1895 [LAT]: “An upheaval on San Miguel Island. Since the middle of March, when news of the mysterious convulsions of nature in Cuyler’s Harbor first reached the mainland, various and conflicting reports of the even have been published… The mysterious force which played havoc in the harbor seems to have fixed upon this boathouse as a signpost on which to hang the record of its monstrous antics. It stands in precisely the same location as before, measured by its relative bearing to distant points, except that it has been elevated by about twenty feet, and the house as well as the ground upon which it stood, together with the corral, a piece of land with a surface of perhaps 2500 square yards, has been slowly and steadily revolved, so slowly and steadily that the earth on three sides does not show a fissure or crevice, or if these exist, they must have filled in with sand… In front of the boat house where the tide formerly lapped the shore, there is now a bluff of sand and stone and gravel which extends into the harbor for more than 300 feet… The Coast Survey will soon send down a government party to determine the exact changes that have taken place in Cuyler’s Harbor…”

April 14, 1895 [SFCall]: “One of nature’s convulsions. San Miguel Island, April. It has fallen to my lot [Flora Haixes Loughead] to present the readers of the Call with the first accurate and reliable account, from the testimony of an eye witness, of the mysterious convulsions that have taken place at Cuyler’s Harbor on San Miguel Island, completely changing the aspect of the harbor along its inner shore… furrows are in places parted and crossed by deep fissure, and the footing is so uncertain that even ‘Jen,’ the 45-year-old mule who years ago was in the employ of the Coast Survey during the original mapping of these islands and who scents quicksands or a sand–slip as a horse will scent a grizzly, stopped short in the steep ascent and protested against bearing your correspondent further. In order to secure Kodak shots it became necessary to dismount and kneel on the quaking earth…”

January 14, 1896 [SBDN]: “Yesterday the Philadelphia spent the day looking for a proper location for target practice among the islands, and today for the same end in view will visit Cuyler’s Harbor on San Miguel.”

May 8, 1896 [SFCall]: “The upheaval along the shore of Cuyler’s Harbor, San Miguel Island, which occurred in March of last year, is at last to receive attention at the hands of the coast survey. The coast survey steamer Gedney, which will remain in this harbor until after the battleship Oregon’s trial trip, is under orders to proceed to San Miguel, take new soundings and measurements and draft a new chart of the harbor in accordance with the changes.”

May 13, 1896 [SBDN]: “U.S. Survey boat Gedneyv, after the trial trip of the Oregon, will go to San Miguel Island and re-survey Cuyler's Harbor. Captain Waters and Sid Law went over on the vessel last Monday.”

May 15, 1896 [LAT/SB]: “The United States Coast Survey boat Gedney will shortly go to San Miguel Island to resurvey Cuyler’s Harbor, which, it is said, was totally changed some time ago by an upheaval which elevated the entire harbor beach several feet, leaving a boat that was anchored there high and dry and several rods from shore.”

May 16, 1896 [SFCall]: “Santa Barbara, May 15. The McArthur and the Gedney are still lying in the harbor, the latter expecting to receive instructions which will cause it to weigh anchor tonight or early in the morning. The Gedney is taking on supplies preparatory to running over to San Miguel Island to make a survey of Cuyler’s Harbor.”

May 21, 1896 [SBDN]: “The Coast Survey vessels Gidney and McArthur returned this morning from San Miguel Island where they had gone to survey Cuyler's Harbor. Captain Waters and Sam Gaty returned on the Gedney.”

May 23, 1896 [SFCall]: “Santa Barbara, May 22. The coast survey steamer Gedney returned at midnight last night from San Miguel Island, where she has been making a resurvey of the changes in Cuyler’s Harbor caused by the upheaval of a year ago. The Gedney verified the change in the coastline along the west curve of the harbor, together with the shoaling of the water at this point and the reefs which arose, and has charted these changes upon the official map of the island.”

July 13, 1896 [SBDN]: “San Miguel has fallen and Captain Waters is no longer the owner of a foreign principality. Saturday night U.S. Marshal Covarrubias and his 15 deputies arrived on the Restless. They reported that after examining the papers in the case, Captain Waters had offered no objection to the survey and that U.S. Surveyor Stone had been left in his charge with seven assistants. The addition of the new territory to the United States was celebrated by raising the stars and stripes and the firing of a salute of 46 guns, one in honor of the new accession of territory. The deputies and surveyors crowded the little schooner uncomfortable and the wind being light, landing was made at Gaviota, where the party remained until Friday when they again set sail for Cuyler’s Harbor.”

September 14, 1905 [SBMP]:Vishnu reached the Marshfield; intercepts vessel off San Miguel Island. Colman cargo probably lost... After taking on a new stock of supplies [Engineer Cole] started on a second trip before daylight yesterday morning, and located the Marshfield on the east coast of San Miguel in Cuyler’s Harbor, and delivered the message... The steamer Chehalis, the steamer Sea Witch and the steam schooner Marshfield have tried to assist the stranded vessel.”

March 3, 1906 [SBMP]: “Captain Merry returned yesterday from a trip to San Miguel Island in his power yacht Vishnu. He left this city last Saturday, taking Captain Waters and ten sheep shearers to the island. The channel was very rough and it was necessary to stop over the first night at Valdez Harbor. The next night was spent in a harbor at Santa Rosa Island, Cuyler's Harbor on San Miguel being reached on Monday morning. The sheep were found to be in excellent condition.”

March 3, 1906 [SBMP]: “Complaint is made by boatmen returning from the Channel Islands that the San Pedro Canning Company is carrying away large quantities of abalones from different harbors on the islands. They have established a number of fishing camps where eight or ten Japanese equipped with diving suits are bringing up many shells from the bottom of the ocean. A camp was established at Cuyler's Harbor last Monday and the Japanese gathered over a ton of abalone meat on the first day. It is contended that such a wholesale attack on abalones will soon exterminate them from the places where they grow, and that one of the main attractions of the islands will be destroyed. The Japanese are under yearly contracts to fish for the San Pedro company.”

April 3, 1908 [SBI]: “There is 10,000 feet of lumber loaded on a barge at San Miguel Island waiting for smoother seas before it can be transported to Cuyler’s Harbor, where Captain W. G. Waters is building a house. Captain R. Vasquez, after waiting 12 days for the wind to subside, returned to Santa Barbara without taking the barge to sea.”

August 14, 1908 [SBI]:Anubis goes north in tow tonight. Captain von Salzen of the German steamer Anubis today is one of the happiest men on the Pacific coast. Before midnight his ship will leave Cuyler’s Harbor on San Miguel Island for San Francisco, in tow of the tug Goliath, and after six weeks in dry dock will be ready to take on another cargo and sail for her home port in Germany. Three divers have succeeded in patching up the holes in her bottom so that the pumps can easily keep the wrecked ship’s hold empty during the long tow to San Francisco…”

August 17, 1908 [LAT]: “In tow of the tug Goliath and the steamer Fulton, the German steamer Anubis, which went ashore on San Miguel Island, arrived here today to be repaired. Throughout the trip up the coast it was necessary to keep the Anubis’s pumps going constantly, as the repairs made at Cuyler’s Beach were only temporary.”

June 10, 1910 [SBWP]: “Islands scoured by scientific men. The little power launch Niedra, Captain Ed Hall, home port San Pedro, came in late yesterday afternoon from San Miguel Island for gasoline and water, and also to meet Captain Hall's wife and other members of his family who are expected to join him here for his return trip to San Pedro by way of San Nicolas. Incidentally, Captain Hall referred to a smashed foot which injury he received while attempting to make a landing, during a squall, on San Miguel. The Niedra is on a scientific expedition. At least, she is the transportation for two scientific expeditions which are engaged in the compilation of notes of the channel Islands and in the collection of curios and specimens. At San Miguel Island, the Niedra left Messrs. Willets [Willett] of Los Angeles and Appleton of Simi, Ventura county, and others, a party of taxidermists and bird men, who will probably spend two or three weeks on the island, with headquarters at Kiler's (Cuyler's). At San Nicolas, he will stop for Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Linton and party, who have been tenb weeks on the dreary isle in the interests of a new institution in Los Angeles, gathering curios.”

April 25, 1911 [SBMP]: “The powerboat Charm leaves this morning for San Miguel Island with two lighters in tow. These lighters will be used in taking sheep and wool from the beach at Cuyler’s Harbor to freight boats anchored in deeper water.”

September 15, 1911 [LAT]: “New theory about Comet. That the lumber schooner Comet did not strike Richardson Rock before going ashore on the north beach of San Miguel Island August 30, is the statement made by Captain Henry Short, master of the powerboat Charm, just returned from the scene of the disaster. It was the belief of Captain Borgenson, of the Comet, that in the heavy fog during the night, when his vessel was wrecked, he first ran upon the Richardson Rock, which lies three or four miles northeast from San Miguel Island. This is pronounced a mistake by Short, who says that the Comet must have struck Wilson’s Rock, a reef that is closer to the island. From his study of the situation, he says Captain Borgenson cannot be blamed for the wreck. The Comet is hopeless in its position. It lies in shoal water, with a line of breakers 200 or 300 yards wide behind it. The three masts are still standing, but the rigging is badly demolished and the sails torn. The whole bottom of the vessel must be gone from the manner in which she is pounding on the rocks. Lumber is scattered along the shore for a mile or more, but the cargo in the hold is still practically intact. Owing to the heavy sea that is continually breaking on this beach, it will be impossible to salvage the Comet to any extent, and to attempt to haul the lumber from the beach to Cuyler’s Harbor would be unprofitable, because of the sand hills that must be crossed.”

November 27, 1912 [SBMP]: “For the first time in making a passage to San Miguel Island during twenty or more years he has sailed the channel that intervenes, Captain W. G. Waters reports that he was compelled on his last trip to put in to Santa Cruz Island for two days until the high seas subsided. He reached home yesterday aboard the launch Charm. The return voyage was comparatively smooth, but at Cuyler’s Harbor at San Miguel Island, the waves were 10 to 15 feet high, while outside the breakers formed at nine fathoms. A heavy northwest swell was running, the result, he supposes, of a big storm up the coast. The salvaging of the lumber from the wrecked Comet has been abandoned for the present, on account of these weather conditions.”

August 9, 1913 [SBMP]: “Captain W. G. Waters, lessee of San Miguel Island, is moving about 1500 sheep from the island to market. Several cargoes have already been shipped to Los Angeles by way of San Pedro, and the Vaquero, the Santa Rosa Island Company’s new vessel, is at Cuyler’s Harbor, San Miguel Island today, for a further depletion of flocks.”

June 1, 1915 [SBMP]: “Vail & Vickers power schooner Vaquero is at Cuyler's Harbor, San Miguel Island, loading wool for Captain Waters.”

June 1, 1915 [SBDNI]: “Taking on a cargo of wool after Captain Waters at Cuyler’s Harbor, San Miguel Island, the Vail and Vickers’ power schooner Vaquero is at the island loading this year’s wool crop from the several thousand sheep there.”

August 23, 1916 [SBMP]: “John Russell, superintendent of Captain W. G. Waters’ ranch on San Miguel Island, had the misfortune a few days ago, to be kicked in the breast by a mule. He came to the mainland with the first opportunity that offered, when the power yacht Dreamer [Sanger] put into Cuyler’s Harbor while on a cruise around the islands. Dr. Winchester was called to attend to Mr. Russell’s injuries, which were found to be not of a serious nature. The injured man was accompanied by his wife. Both will go to Los Angeles today and the husband is expected soon to be able to resume his duties on the island.”

January 12, 1936 [LAT]: “Extraordinary was the way in which Harry Carr’s influence pervaded the lives of people, especially those whom he had known in the motion picture colony… Cecil B. DeMille also knew Harry Carr’s love for nature…’ Harry Carr was always intrigued with the Channel Islands and many times he asked me to take him aboard my yacht to Cuyler’s Harbor on San Miguel, and search for the coffin of Cabrillo…”

January 25, 1963 [LAT]: “Sacramento. Proposed new harbors, listed by county, location and amount: …Cuyler’s Harbor, $4 million; Chinese Harbor, $4.4 million.”