Odd Old News: Sea Lions Eating Cattle and Exploding Mules–The Stories Seem Mighty Tall Around These Parts

Shelter Cove

Cattle at Shelter Cove [From the Swanlund Baker Collection of the Humboldt Room Photograph Collection at HSU]

Nuggets of old news served up once a week by David Heller, one of our local historians.

Odd Old News has some tales from the coast this week that feature a few prominent names in early Euro-American Shelter Cove and Mattole region histories.

John Ray, and his brother William, came to the Cove around 1863, according to a newspaper account from twenty-five years later. Oral history has him trading a span of oxen for the rights to graze stock at Shelter Cove from the previous rancher there, a subject for a future Odd Old News article. Like many men who arrived in Southern Humboldt in the 1860’s he took a Native partner (Sally), ran stock, developed the wharf, and ran the Humboldt House hotel

John Mackey ran the Petrolia General store which was the social hub of Petrolia, and with his family, accumulated a lot of land along the coast north and south of Point Gorda, and in the Cooskie region. Whether he went on to fight his war with the Steller sea lions is not known, but it is true that sea lions were being killed along the coast for their oil at this time. A mature sea lion could yield up to 300 gallons of oil. In 1879 the Sea Lion Oil Company was engaged in killing sea lions on Sugar Loaf Rock at Cape Mendocino where the lions would emerge from the ocean in large numbers and bask in the sun on a rocky shelf about the base of the rock. Other entrepreneurs harvested Sea Lions for parts desired by the Chinese for medicine.

As all know, fisherman and sea lions are not the best of friends. Since 1876, “war” on sea lions has since been declared more than once along the north coast, and their populations has been reduced to save salmon runs for human use.

Press Democrat, March 9, 1876

Coast Items

Shelter Cove, March 3, 1876. Shelter Cove is one of the finest locations on the coast. It has about 5OO acres of fine tillable land, with 3,000 acres of good grazing land. It is the headquarters for all the south fork of Eel river country, and will be for the Mattole.

Shelter Cove has some of the finest scenery on the coast. Telegraph mountain–1,400 feet high, has one of the finest land slides one ever saw; it is formed at the head of a gulch that runs into the ocean, and is only about a quarter of a mile long. The slide is one-half of a mile wide at the top of the mountain, with perpendicular walls 800 feet high.

Point Gordo is one of the highest and most westerly points along the coast.

Here is situated a large and fine stock ranch, owned by John Mackey, who, by the way, is a very pleasant gentleman. Mr. Mackey had a large number of cattle grazing along the beach, and during the great snowstorm of February 10th quite a number of them took shelter on the beach under a high bluff, opposite Sea Lion Rocks*. The sea lions came out during the night and made a raid on them, forcing them into the water. As the sea was very rough there were a great number of them drowned. Some of the people supposed that the leader had escaped from Woodward’s Gardens as there had been captured a fine lion on these rocks for Woodward. Others thought they had got a taste for beef from cattle that had fallen over the bluffs.

Mr. Mackey declared war on the sea lion family. He has bought him a 28-pound brass cannon, and has ordered four tons of two-ounce bullets, and a kettle that will hold three hundred gallons. He has ordered one thousand barrels to be made, of California material; he has his furnace nearly completed, and he expects to commence a wholesale slaughter of the lion family about the first of June (if some enterprising Assemblyman don’t interfere), as they are the fattest at this season of the year. Some of these lions weigh as high as 2,500 pounds.

“Petroliani” is a thriving town, it has two stores, a hotel, a drinking saloon, a blacksmith shop and a livery stable. Martin, Sanders and John Mackey, have a large, fine store, and keep a good assortment of goods and sell for low prices. Petroliana is located close to the Mattole river, it has a fine farming and shipping country but no shipping point, which makes it inconvenient for the residents, having to pack their goods forty or fifty miles.


As John Ray was bound down the coast to Shelter Cove, with his pack train, on the 15th of February, while going around a windy point during a heavy gale, one of his pack mules, loaded with four hundred pounds of giant powder for parties prospecting a gold quartz ledge that was struck this winter on the south fork of Eel river, she got too close to the bluff and was blown into the sea from the height of eighty feet, as she fell, she struck on a rock, which exploded the powder; the wind was blowing such a fearful gale that it was impossible for Mr. Ray to ascertain the result. The explosion of the powder and the force of the wind caused the rest of the train to make better time for about two miles than Ray had ever known them to make before. Parties visiting the spot next day declared that there was fish enough on the shore to load a schooner; among the rest was a shark of the man-eating species that measured eighteen feet in length.


*The Mattole Lumber Company built a long pier from the mouth of the Mattole into the ocean across Sea Lion Rock in 1908, and the area got its shipping point.

Earlier Odd and Old News:

There are many more, but here are the most recent:



  • 🕯🌳It was a kind of sad and good story at the same time. Thank you David and Kym. Why the large print?🕊🖖🐸🌍

    • Yes I’ll agree with willie joke, the lettering messed with me.

      • Now the government is the one that spins tall tales. Death is everywhere . Be afraid. Your neighbor could kill you, and you can kill your grandma just by hugging her. Wear your muzzle and only communicate by zoom and FaceTime. Don’t send your kids to school. Education is the devil. O look!…… a shiny ball!

        • With your hatred and dismissal of science I sure hope you don’t trust anything that has came about as a result of scientific research. Why are you using a computer? I hope you never step foot in a hospital because, science.

        • I love all the old photos. Amazing how much things changed in not that long a time. If somebody has time they should try and re photo those spots. Even a not-so-interesting shot now, will capture something we might take for granted. Its the average everyday stuff from the past that’s interesting.
          I just pass through now and then, but I’m always trying to orient modern Briceland to some of the old pics. Going up the main stem of the Eel is a trip, places like Ft. Seward, and Alderpoint, and Blocksburg were civilization! Can you imagine a place like Willow Creek or Garberville, if the freeway went away?!

  • Mary Ann Machi

    The photo at the top of the article was taken in 1907. The ranch it depicts is believed to be a McKee property. For perspective, if you were standing just west of the Shelter Cove Campground, this would be your view (to the east). The Beachcomber Inn property is at the base of the grove of Eucalyptus mid-photo. That’s Machi Road along the lower right edge. Notice the cliffs in the background, mostly barren. There was damage from the 1906 earthquake even at Shelter Cove. Landslides took out most of the trees and vegetation from above Dead Man’s Creek.

    • So Mary Ann, is the photo of the slide we used the slide mentioned in the article? Or an earthquake slide, or what the earthquake did to the original slide? As you know the landscape so much better than I…. what is your opinion?

      • Mary Ann Machi

        David, I’ve never heard of Telegraph Mountain. Telegraph Creek, yes. Chemise Mountain (Chamisal on attached map) is the nearest named one, southeast of Deadman’s Gulch. The landslide in your photo is a result of the 1906 earthquake and the article predates that event. Could that info just be another bit of the author’s imagination? I checked all the maps I have back to 1874 and see no mention of Telegraph Mtn.

        • Mary Ann Machi

          Further digging finds this in a 1906 earthquake report. Note Telegraph Hill north of the Cove along with “slides”. Just where Kaluna Cliff is. Likely a relationship between Telegraph Creek and Telegraph Hill.

        • Mary Ann, 1876 was just a few years after they put in the telegraph line through the area, perhaps it was a new name that didn’t stick. My guess is that it was a name for Island Peak as it was named on the 1886 Forbes map. Located right near the Kaluna Cliffs, a steep formation that may fit his description, and…. on my Shelter Cove topo the high point at 1472 ft it says Telegraph.

  • Mary Ann Machi

    Ever wonder where the Humboldt House Inn in Garberville got its name? Likely from John Ray’s home named Humboldt House along Telegraph Creek in Shelter Cove. Even pre-1900 the Rays were hosting visitors from as far away as San Francisco. This photo was taken in the 1940s when it was long in decay (photographer unknown). Those trees on the far right are locusts and still stand today.

  • Mary Ann Machi

    What a fantastical tale of sea lions raiding cattle and herding them into the sea! There must be a kernel of truth here somewhere…… Perhaps this purported raid on cattle justified killing the sea lions for their oil?

    • In 1876, you could count the number of people on the planet who thought that killing sea lions in order to sell their blubber and internal organs required any justification at all without taking off your shoes.

      NB: Jains and similar don’t count. By their lights, no justification is possible. That’s a very different argument.

  • I would like to add that I was told I had some great great aunt that harvested sealions on the back side of Sugarloaf Rock. What they were also after were their whiskers for brushes as there was no nylon in those days.

    • Mary Ann Machi

      Reading up on sea lions. Found this on site about Alaska: “Sea lions were harvested for meat, oil and blubber. Bone and whiskers were used for tools, sinews for cordage, intestines and stomachs for waterproof containers and clothing, and the skins were used for baidarkas (kayaks). Unalaska sites have yielded implements and decorative pieces fashioned from sea lion bone.”

  • Here’s a very early photo, from the Dayton and Gayle Titus Collection at the Mattole Valley Historical Society, of the Petrolia Store mentioned in the article. It was actually called the Mackey, Sanders, and Loheide Store.
    John A. and Patrick Mackey, brothers from Ireland and some of the Valley’s first white settlers, were in charge there. The Mackey brothers, and their descendants, owned great swaths of land between the Mattole River and the coast, south of Petrolia and down toward Shelter Cove. We still call the general area around the mouth of Cooskie Creek, where until recently several old ranching structures remained (they have slowly and naturally been taken back to earth), “The Mackey.”

  • Love it when other historians add to a thread, thank you Mary Ann and Laura!

  • Ernie Branscomb

    Here I go, changing the subject again, but the evidence of a major Earthquake on the cliff above the cove made me curious.

    Shelter Cove had a terrible earthquake in 1906. I heard that the land shifted 6 feet. (Bullshistory warning!)

    The San Andreas fault slices right up the middle of Shelter Cove bay, then goes through the canyon above the flat and goes back out to sea at the mouth of telegraph creek. The frequency of major quakes is approximately every 150 years.

    The link below takes you to an interactive map of Earthquake zones.


    • Arthur Starr Eakle took a series of photos of the quake damage in 1906 as part of the California State Earthquake Investigation Commission documenting the effects of the San Francisco earthquake. https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/hb1290075d/dsc/?query=Eakle,%20Arthur%20S.%20#c00000847 will take you to his photos of the damage at the cove, (and other local places)–click on his name on the right. Maybe Mary Ann, or someone, can attach one of them for us.

    • Mary Ann Machi

      Ernie, Not BS! I have photos. Here’s one taken in 1906 by Arthur Star Eakle. The location was noted as “hill back of Cove.” Rather vague but I think that would mean above Wood Gulch (which is stretch of road from just past the million gallon tank to the mini-storage unit on Shelter Cove Rd.) Both Eakle & Francois Matthes documented damage at the Cove.

  • Talk about that one mule going out with a bang!

  • But where is that gold ledge on the South Fork of the Eel?!! They hadn’t had that gold and silver strike up Salmon Creek yet… 🙂

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