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Then & Now

Historic Ship Maritime Museum Celebrated with Special Wine Release

By Judy Salamacha

“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” — Robert Penn Warren

For over 23 years, the Central Coast Maritime Museum Association endeavored to create a maritime museum and themed landscaped area that would memorialize the history and cultural development of San Luis Obispo County’s connection to its California coastal heritage.

In 2016, the City of Morro Bay supported a permanent site at 1210 Embarcadero. In June, the fleet moved from its temporary parking lot location where tours had been conducted on holiday weekends, and the Alma emerged from Morro Bay Harbor Department’s maintenance yard where the nonprofit’s President, Larry Newland and volunteers refurbished it for some 15 years.

In October 2016, the Maritime Museum of San Diego and local volunteers celebrated the inaugural tour of Cabrillo’s San Salvador in Morro Bay. Proceeds from public tours of the historic Spanish galleon replica, supported the future development of what would become the “Morro Bay Maritime Museum” or MBMM.

At the same time, community investors supported a charter member campaign called the 1542 Navigator Circle. By 2017, funding was finally secured to proceed with longtime plans to build the first museum structure.

Take a drive towards Morro Rock and you’ll see the construction zone of the first structure next to MBMM’s fleet, which includes the Avalon, one of two U.S. Navy DSRV submarines, and Morro Bay-based U.S. Coast Guard Rollover Craft.

Somewhat hidden is the historic Alma, built at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf in 1927. The tugboat gained notoriety on the morning of Dec. 23, 1941, when under the command of the late Merle Molinari of Cayucos, she was called north toward Piedras Blancas to rescue crewmembers of the Union Oil Tanker Montebello, which had been torpedoed and sunk earlier that morning by a Japanese submarine.

Keith Kelsey, a founding and current board member of CCMMA, heard tales of the Montebello incident while working in the family business. The Kelsey Family was the original owner/operator of Sylvester’s Tug Services.

Keith is now an active partner in Kelsey See Canyon Winery of Avila (www.kelseywine.com). Since the Alma was part of Sylvester’s fleet and in memory of the WWII historic incident, the Kelsey Family has dedicated an annual special-label wine series with 30% of the proceeds supporting MBMM — memorialized this holiday season as “The Alma: 2015 Zinfandel Reserve.”

During a recent presentation to the Morro Bay Rotary Club entitled “How World War II Shaped Modern Morro Bay” Glenn Silloway, president of the Historical Society of Morro Bay (see: www.historicalmorrobay.org), recalled how community members worked for years to establish a safe entrance to Morro Bay’s harbor, which would ultimately create an attractive bay and moorings for its future commercial fishing industry and recreational maritime tourism industry.

However, it was the sinking of the Montebello that finally caught the U.S. Navy’s attention. Leadership realized U.S. defensive action might be a series of island hopping battles led from the Pacific front, so by September 1942 a military base was established in Morro Bay.

Training of landing craft operations was a major focus. A wooden trestle was built to access the sand spit and the harbor entrance was finally permanently located south of Morro Rock.

By 1945 over 45,000 troops received amphibious training in Morro Bay.

Indeed, the S.S. Montebello’s sinking and the tugboat Alma’s rescue of crewmembers along with some quick acting Cambrians who helped save the crew before another lifeboat crashed into the rocky shores, is unique to our Central Coast history and development.

Hosted by Capt. Annie Clapp on the Chablis, The Alma: 2015 Zinfandel Reserve was first launched to thank the 1542 Navigator Circle members.

MBMM was also invited to introduce the wine at the Cambria Historical Society when members unveiled a new painting, “The Sinking of the S.S. Montebello” by artist Tom Gould, currently on display at the museum (www.cambriahistoricalsociety.org).

MBMM participated in Morro Bay Tourism’s Santa Crawl pouring samples of the wine at Junque Love in Marina Square. Participants appreciated learning the history and commented on the quality of the wine.

If you are still looking for that unique — and historic — holiday gift or wish to collect the first in an annual maritime wine series in support of MBMM, The Alma: 2015 Zinfandel Reserve is available from the following community partners: Chablis Cruises, Inn at Morro Bay, Kelsey See Canyon Winery, Morro Bay Wine Seller, Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurants, Fermentations of Cambria, and Spencer’s Fresh Market of Morro Bay.

Another great gift is a membership to one or more of the historical societies or museums in San Luis Obispo County. Let’s continue to preserve and repeat our communities’ stories for the benefit of future generations.

Editor’s Note: Judy Salamacha is secretary of the Central Coast Maritime Museum Association and the Morro Bay Maritime Museum.

Freelance writer, columnist and author of “Colonel Baker’s Field: An American Pioneer Story,” Judy Salamacha’s Then & Now column is a regular feature of Simply Clear Marketing & Media. Contact her at: [email protected] or (805) 801-1422 with story ideas.

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