By John Reese
MORRO BAY, California – The coastline surrounding Morro Rock was shrouded in fog; however, the sun shined brightly over the small port town Aug. 20, as representatives with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District joined the Chumash Tribe to celebrate the “Reunite the Rock” event.
The purpose of the celebration was to welcome home rock quarried by the Corps from the area more than a century ago. The rock was used to build the Port San Luis breakwater, which was constructed between 1889 and 1913. Construction records confirmed that approximately 250 tons of stone was taken from Morro Rock and used in the breakwater.
Morro Rock, known as Lisamu in the Chumash language, is considered sacred by the tribe. For the celebration, a small cargo of rock arrived by tomol – a planked, seagoing boat the Chumash people have used for hundreds of years to travel and for trade between the coastal and channel island tribes.
“The story of this reunification is one of hope and collaboration,” said Col. Julie Balten, the Corps’ LA District commander. “It is the story of realizing what is possible if we work together for something greater than ourselves.”
The Corps first contacted the tribe about needed repairs to the Port San Luis breakwater in 2017. The late tribal leader Fred Collins asked if the stone could then be returned to Morro Rock; however, at that time, the plan was to reincorporate every stone back into the breakwater.
Aware of the connection between the Chumash and the rock, the Corps committed to treating the breakwater material with respect as it was removed and reset during the project. The return of the stone to Morro Rock seemed an impossible dream that would never be realized.
However, in late 2021, the size of the existing breakwater stone from Morro Rock was not enough under current design standards for the Port San Luis repair, and the Corps discovered that it couldn’t meet its commitment to reincorporate all of the Morro stone back into the Port San Luis breakwater. A larger quarried armor stone was needed to bring the breakwater up to current design standards and maintain safe navigability within the port.
The smaller, older stone couldn’t be reused on the breakwater, so the Corps reached out to the Chumash to consider what to do with it. A plan was developed in cooperation with the tribal, local, state and federal partners to reunite tons of Morro rock to place the stone near the “Gibraltar of the Pacific.” The placement area will be about 1,500 feet due west of Morro Rock, in Estero Bay. While the purpose of the project is to reunite the displaced breakwater stone with Morro Rock, the project has been designed to provide ancillary environmental benefits to marine species.
During the celebration, the Los Angeles District received a warm welcome from the Chumash.
“While a project like this can take several years to permit, the Corps – with the help of the tribes and our state and federal agency partners – pulled this off in eight months,” Balten said.
In addition to the commander, LA District representatives in attendance at the ceremony were Justin Gay, LA District deputy district engineer; Blake Horita, project manager; Danielle Storey, archeologist; : Natalie Martinez-Takeshita, biologist; and Gabrielle Dodson, physical scientist.
The LA team took part in a human chain to carry stones transported from Port San Luis by the tomol up the rocky shore, where they were placed in a circle around a fire. A tribal elder blessed all in line with a smoking bundle of sagebrush. Once ashore, traditional ceremonial blessings took place for the rock and Chumash leader Violet Sage Walker, Northern Chumash Tribal Council chairwoman, who championed the cause.
“This is meant to be a healing ceremony for everybody that’s here, including all of our partners and allies, as well as the indigenous people from California,” said Michael Khus, board member for the Northern Chumash Tribal Council and a member of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation. “They’ve come from all over the state to visit us and partake in this. Our Chumash relatives are also here today.”
Pamela Leonard traveled from Mariposa, California, to the event in support of her husband, a Miwuk Tribe member, who wanted to participate. She sported temporary tattoos of Chumash petroglyphs made especially for the event.
“I’m here to support the indigenous people here, bring back some of their culture and reunite this rock,” she said.
The thick fog that surrounded Morro Bay remained about a mile off coast like a wall – allowing unusually sunny weather for the small town; the imposing marine layer never entered the harbor during the event. Hundreds of pelicans took flight to circle the top of Morro Rock, and a large colony of otters floated lazily past.
Morro Rock, the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” is now protected as part of Morro Bay State Park and is recognized as California Historical Landmark number 821.
“The good news is that Lisamu is finally coming home,” Balten said.