Princeton by the Sea
Princeton by the Sea, with its odd mixture of commercial, industrial, and recreational industries, feels almost like a childhood playground to me.
It was the sight of most of by childhood fourth of July celebrations. The official fireworks display over the harbor is almost always obscured by the dense summer marine layer, transforming the show into colored blobs flashing in the fog followed by the sharp sound of aerial explosions.
As a child, I was much more interested in the illegal fireworks visitors would ignite on the protected beach of the harbor. Even more interesting was the fifth of July, when a good friend of mine and I would wake up at dawn, ride our bikes to the shore, and begin combing the beach for unused fireworks.
In the early days of my childhood, Romeo’s pier was still an active loading site for the harbor’s commercial fishing activities. The pier, constructed in 1940, is now officially condemned and scheduled for demolition by local authorities. In the time between its closure and fall into disrepair, sneaking out into its mysterious abandoned offices and facilities was a popular pastime for my group of friends.
Today, the only active pier in the harbor is the youngest of the three major piers that served our community in the 20th century: Johnson pier. Amesport Wharf, constructed in the late 1860s, was the first of the three. It was built at the site of modern Miramar, and was falling apart by the time Romeo’s pier came around in 1940. By the time the breakwater was constructed in 1959, Amesport Wharf was reduced to a few lingering pilings.
With its rich and ever-evolving history, Princeton by the Sea remains one of my favorite pieces of our slice of coastline. Having the opportunity to share its hidden treasures with visitors is a delight.
I had one such opportunity today, when a couple from San Francisco decided to take our historic tour of Princeton by the Sea.
When I asked if they’d been there before, they told me, “We’ve driven past here probably a hundred times. We never stopped!”
With the sun shining and the fishermen bustling about the harbor, it was a perfect day to visit. I could understand why the two seemed so pleased with the tour before it had even begun.
We started the tour with a look around Johnson pier. Crab pots piled high on the pier, most of the fishing boats are outfitted for squid harvesting this time of year. Until crab season returns in November, the crab pots will sit unused on the streets, docks, and parking lots of Princeton.
Now the epicenter of the harbor’s economic activity, this area houses a number of historic buildings. Hazel’s, open today as Barbara’s Fishtrap, was a favorite stop for Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio when they were in town. The Princeton Inn, today the site of the Italian restaurant Mezzaluna, was the namesake of this harbor town. The strip of buildings that now house a few local bars and restaurants was once a bustling open fish market.
The sight of fishing boats and the smell of freshly fried calamari wafting from Barbara’s fish trap is evidence that the seafood industry is alive and strong here. The enormous surfboards and the number of surf shops (including Jeff Clark’s Mavericks Surf Shop) are evidence of Princeton’s modern incarnation as a surf town.
Indeed, during most of its history, Princeton by the Sea was largely off the map for surfers. That all changed when Jeff Clark, then a student at Half Moon Bay High School, discovered the unbelievably huge waves breaking just off Pillar Point. That he paddled out and mounted these giants alone at age 17 is a feat in and of itself; the surf spot has claimed the lives of many professional surfers since its surge to popularity in the early nineties. Clark would keep the spot to himself for fifteen years before sharing it with the big wave surfing community. Today, it’s the site of one of the most important big wave surf competitions in the world.
I took my tour group for a walk out to the end of Pillar Point to take a look at the surf spot. Its waves were breaking at the relatively unimpressive size of about ten feet (the big wave season in early to mid winter), but the chance to see the place was impressive enough for these visitors.
“We’ve known about the competition for years and watched it on TV, but we never really realized it was right here in our own backyard,” commented the husband on the tour.
They appreciated the opportunity to discover the best viewing points for the competition, resolving to come watch at the next Mavericks event.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this tour is my inability to share every piece of history that I’ve learned about over the years. With so many anecdotes, historic buildings, and colorful historical characters, I could probably spend more than a day touring Princeton by the Sea.
For now, I need to appreciate the opportunity I have to share this little gem on the coastside with the visitors who come seeking a little insight from a local.
Thanks for reading and we’ll see you here on the coast!
-Michael Klear, Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours Guide and Blogger