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The sea cave at the bottom of the Headlands, near the present day Ocean Institute, was used by rumrunners during Prohibition to hide shipments. Courtesy photo
The sea cave at the bottom of the Headlands, near the present day Ocean Institute, was used by rumrunners during Prohibition to hide shipments. Courtesy photo

By Carlos N. Olvera

The coastal bluff now known as the Dana Point Headlands was originally named San Juan Point, after the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Near the turn of the 20th century, it was labeled Dana’s Point and later shortened to Dana Point. Commercial development of the headlands promontory point was first planned and graded around 1923. S. H. Woodruff took over the development in 1927 and had an artist rendering made, which included a major Mediterranean-style hotel, planned to be a grand establishment, with high density construction surrounding it.

As Dana Point became a city, the bluffs use became the subject of serious debate. Today, the land is the site of the Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center located on Scenic Drive. The 60 of natural habitat act as a vessel to a trip back in time, and visitors can view many artifacts and pictures of the area at the center.

The picture of the cave located at the seaward end of the point, shows how big it really is with two entrances and a large “living room.” I have been told by many that it is the perfect “man cave” since it has no access at high tide.

And then there is this: “Around on the north side of the point is a cave about 50 feet deep, which can only be reached by vigorous climbing over very rough rocks at the lowest tide, and even then some wading has to be done. There is a legend connected with this cave, which in brief is, that when the old mission was sacked by pirates, they carried off a dark-eyed senorita. Before the pirates left the roadstead, her lover assisted her to escape from the vessel, and they fled to this cave for safety. A dreaded diablito, in the form of an octopus, who was then said to live in the cave, proceeded to devour them and years afterwards their bones were found in this cave.” [Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1888]

And this: “Away up on the side of one sandstone cliff, some venturesome climber for notoriety has carved the legend ‘R. B. 84.’ Rocky reefs here jut out into the ocean, and are eagerly searched for the latest novelties in shells which the tide has left. Gull rock is peak about half a mile out point, and is a roosting place for pelicans and a flock of these curious birds is always to be seen there.”[Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1888]

Today these rocks are known as the San Juan Rocks.

In 1897, it was reported that a schooner would use Dana Cove as a smuggling location for bringing men into California from Mexico. The cove was also home to large abalone beds as reported in 1912 and was harvested regularly by local fisherman. At this time, they were taking 800 pounds in a single day, as there were no limits then. When the then Deputy District Attorney was approached for a comment, he made this prophetic statement “abalones as a sport will be a thing of the past.”

During the prohibition era, from 1919 to 1933, Strand Beach was used as a landing point for illegal liquor shipments by rumrunners coming from the south, or from mother ships anchored off the coast. It was also suspected that the “cave” was used as a place of storage from drop-off to pick-up. The vessel Oakwood was one of these boats.

When all is said and done, the history in Dana Point abounds.

Carlos N. Olvera is Vice Chair of the OC Historical Commission and a Dana Point Councilman.

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