In 1969, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, led by its president, James V. Fitzgerald (for whom the Reserve was named), passed a bill designating the Moss Beach tidepool area as a Reserve.

There was strenuous opposition to its reserve status. Most of the resistance opposing the proposal came from sports fishing and scuba diving associations. After the urging of teachers, scientists, the Sierra Club and local residents, the bill was passed by the California State Assembly and Senate in Sacramento, and the Moss Beach tidepools became officially known as the James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. The incredible tidepools make it a precious resource for studying marine life, the coastal ecosystem, and natural history.

In 1985, a group of citizens met to discuss the formation of a new volunteer support group for the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Virginia Welch, who had worked as a volunteer for 20 years with the San Mateo Park system, became its president. At the time, she described the goals of the newly-formed organization as “The protection and preservation of the Marine Reserve as a unique intertidal environment, and the promotion of educational activities for school children, residents, visitors and researchers, to see and touch many elements of a variety of wildlife ecosystems.” Learn more about the Friends of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

Today, the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is facing a challenge greater than any in its checkered history. Like the Steller sea lion that frequented the waters here only a few years ago, the precious marine life is in jeopardy. The impact of more than 130,000 people annually trampling the tidepools is threatening to destroy this sheltered refuge that has survived geological processes and violent storms for millions of years. Read more about conservation issues.

Over the past 31 years, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve has become so popular that in order to protect and preserve this coastside treasure, group visits (10 or more) are now by reservation. Each year over 130,000 visitors come enjoy the tidepools.

A Brief History of Moss Beach: Who, When, and Where

Excerpts from The Natural History of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
by Bart Oxley and Bob Breen

The Marine Reserve’s history records the existence of pre-historic animal life and early Native Americans as residents of San Mateo County. Until its designation as a reserve in 1969, there was unlimited removal of wildlife from its tidepools, and at one time, overflow crowds from San Francisco rushed to its shores to experience its touted reputation as a health spa.


Animal fossils and human artifacts are not uncommon at Moss Beach. The oldest fossil of record is a baleen whale estimated to be between two and five million years old. The fossil was excavated in 1996 when Jean DeMouthe, a geologist with the California Academy of Science, and fellow geologist Tony Summer removed it from a hill of sandstone. Since the time this whale lived and died, this portion of the coast at the edge of the Pacific plate has moved at least 40 miles northward from its original location along the San Andreas fault. At that time the coast range was covered by a shallow and quiet sea, with Montara mountain the only exposed land in the area.

During an archeological excavation at the reserve in 1994, scientists found a crescent of stone that is believed to have been used by early Native Americans. Mark Hylkema, archeologist, dug the tool out of the soil at the reserve’s cypress forest. The rock is about 5,700 years old predates other artifacts previously discovered in San Mateo County, and predates the Ohlones, a coastal Native American tribe formerly believed to be the country’s earliest inhabitants. The Ohlones first lived here beginning about 4,000 years ago.

Recent History : Wienke and the Development of Moss Beach

In 1881, a German immigrant, Juergen F. Wienke, left his job as a farmer and mining engineer in Germany to find the promise of a better future in America. It wasn’t long before he found opportunity in a lonely coastal community south of San Francisco, formerly owned by the Francisco Guerrero family, and at the time in bankruptcy. Learning that a railway was to be built from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, the ebullient Wienke immediately purchased what was to become Moss Beach. He told friends that it was “love at first sight.” Legend has it that while inspecting the reefs of his newly-acquired purchase he saw algae growing there that he called “moss.” Shortly after his purchase he married and brought his bride, Meta Paulson, to the “mossy” beach home.

A man of vision and ambition, Wienke saw the area as a vacation attraction and health spa for city dwellers in San Francisco. A year after his arrival he built his dream, a beach resort called the Moss Beach Hotel. The advance publicity of the hotel, and the ‚Äústimulating, health-producing” air of Moss Beach soon brought overflow crowds. The only direct route from San Francisco to the coastal communities in those days was a dirt road around San Pedro Mountain that had been constructed in the late 1870s.

In 1911, the Moss Beach Hotel burned down and was not rebuilt. But this did not dampen Wienke’s enthusiasm for Moss Beach. He planted hundreds of cypress trees on the cliffs overlooking Moss Beach. He later became mayor of Moss Beach, was a member of the school district, and created Wienke Way, once an avenue bordered by a thick, tall wall of cypress trees.

Natural History

Moss Beach represents a substantial historical investment in the biological sciences. Dr. Sol. F. Light from the University of California first started collecting here in 1916, and his classes started arriving in 1919. Biology students from Berkeley would drive all day and spend the night sleeping on the floor of Nye’s restaurant to be able to catch the next morning’s minus tide. During the day, Mr. Nye, for a price, would cook for the students.

Among those who studied with Dr. Light at Moss Beach were Paul Illg, University of Washington; Frank Pitelka, University of California; Olga Hartman, University of Southern California; Emery Swan, University of New Hampshire; Cadet Hand, University of California; Ralph Smith, University of California; and Joel Hedgpeth, University of California. Thus Moss Beach represents for many of these well known scientists their first significant marine biology experience.

Nye’s Restaurant at Moss Beach

Before World War I, a popular restaurant called The Reefs, owned by Charley Nye, was built at the beach. It was situated at the foot of the cliffs facing the tidepools. It was host to many celebrities of the time, including Jack London and Luther Burbank, who would board the Ocean Shore train in San Francisco to spend a weekend at Moss Beach fishing, catching abalone and dining at Charley Nye’s. The rail line was begun in 1905 simultaneously in San Francisco and Santa Cruz to run down the coast. The 1906 earthquake deposited most of the roadbed plus rail building equipment into the Pacific Ocean. The line restarted again, and ran to Half Moon Bay on the north end and to Davenport from the south end. Stanley Steamers transported people in between. The railroad was abandoned in 1920 due to competition from automobiles.

The restaurant was demolished by a severe storm in 1931, but was rebuilt as Reef II on ground above the beach and well back from the cliffs. It was often said that friends of Charley Nye would wade into the surf and pick up abalone at will, which Nye cooked for them. Nye told friends that he could go out at any low tide and pick up a day’s supply of abalone.

The former restaurant is now a house on Nevada Street by the parking lot. The only attraction that distinguishes it from others in the neighborhood is an array of abalone shells fastened to its frontage and spelling the words, “Reef II.”

The Prohibition years brought a new problem to the coast. Rumrunners discovered that Seal Cove, where the Distillery Restaurant is today, was an ideal spot to deliver crates of whiskey. In the dark of night, whiskey-laden ships from Canada would hover offshore. Sometimes coastsiders sailed out to unload the whiskey. Other times, smugglers would dump the crates overboard on the incoming tide for coastsiders to retrieve on the beach. The nearby Miramar Restaurant, then known as the Beach Inn Cafe, housed a speakeasy, complete with a bordello upstairs.

World War II Leaves Its Mark on Moss Beach

Many visitors to Moss Beach have asked about the concrete tower that projects above the surface of the water at the southern end of the Reserve. Questions and opinions have ranged from a damaged pier piling to a memorial monument. Actually, this storm-battered bastion is a relic of World War II when it served as a marker and warning for aircraft and commercial fishing boats in the area during gunnery practice.

During this period, the United States Navy built an airport at Half Moon Bay. The airport is still in operation today for small airplanes. The Navy flew PBYs on patrol as well as providing target towing aircraft over Moss Beach for gunnery practice. When target practice was scheduled, a red flag would be hoisted over the marker as a warning to other aircraft and approaching commercial fishermen in the area. Anti-aircraft guns situated at Montara would proceed to blast away at the target sleeve being towed. Today, the only function of the marker after more than half a century is that of a roosting shelter for gulls and cormorants. But the structure, a forgotten sentinel of the past that has survived storm and time, represents another milestone in the colorful history of Moss Beach.

Challenges in Becoming a Reserve

Following its designation as a Reserve, Bob Breen, a naturalist with San Mateo County Department of Parks and Recreation, became Fitzgerald Marine Reserve’s first naturalist in November 1969. Within the first year of management, more than 800 incidents of persons illegally removing intertidal life for food, aquarium specimens or curios were reported. One person was said to have had 42 Ochre sea stars he planned to boil, dry out and put on his family room walls.

Equally disturbing were the numerous motorcycles on the hill above the Reserve’s parking lot each weekend. Motorcyclists from all over the Bay Area knew this hill as the “jumps.” In addition, the beach also provided a speedway for riders at low tide, as the sand on the lower side of the beach was fine and tightly packed. One of the residents at the beach recalled that bikers would tear up the paths, drop garbage, then race down Nevada Street. She also noted that there was no control of crowds, and the noise of carousing groups at night was very disturbing.

“It was a godsend when the County designated this area as a Reserve, and we got a man like Bob Breen who could maintain order and turn the place into something people could enjoy,” she said. But without the assistance of wardens from the State Department of Fish and Game and the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, control of these problems would have been an impossible task for one person. Today, Breen is still the supervising naturalist, and has a small staff to help maintain the Reserve and the busy schedule of visitors to the tidepools.