Elenore Meherin and Larry Clinton/Sausalito Historical Society
Pioneering female journalist Elenore Meherin was featured in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin in the 1920s. After taking a five-year break to be with her family, she began contributing personality profiles and historic columns to the Sausalito News in January 1944.
The paper introduced her series in glowing terms: “It is not often that the editor of a weekly newspaper has the pleasure of welcoming as distinguished a personality as Elenore Meherin to his columns… From 1918 to 1939, with only minor interruptions, she was one of the newspaper greats of the West. She still is, as far as we’re concerned.”
Her first column told of hunters who depleted the sea otter population nearly to extinction in the 1820s. Here’s her essay, with a few notations:
It’s only 174 years since the first white man gazed, astonished at the far-flung splendor of this San Francisco Bay; little more than a century since the first white settler stepped to the shores of Sausalito and decided that here was all of heaven any man could ask. The bay was a gold mine then more literally than it is now, for gold drifted in shining masses. Not the gold of metal, but of fur. For these waters that give us, with the season, sea bass, perch, lobster, gave in the old days the shimmering and almost priceless sea-otter. John Read, the intrepid Irish sailor who was first of white men to call Sausalito home, could stroll out from his shack any fine morning and meet a whole school of these sleek bathing beauties diving about where Bridgeway now skirts the water. He could cock his rifle and shoot. And there would be $5O in his enterprising pocket.
The individual otter varied from three and a half to nearly six feet in length and averaged three feet in width. William Heath Davis, who came to California in 1831, says the bay was crowded with them, and their capture was magnificent sport. Davis spent many a weekend at the Sausalito rancho of his friend, Captain William Antonio Richardson, and he often saw hundreds of the big creatures taken in an hour. The Russians came down from Fort Ross and hunted with great skill. They brought Aleuts from Alaska, bidarkas [portable boats with skins stretched over wood frames] made of whale bellies, and Russian rifles fashioned expressly for killing otters.
The Aleuts would slither out in their light canoes; the moment an otter showed his head, he was shot. For decades the Russians maneuvered with the native Californians to gain control of this wealthy trade. The natives knew they had riches drifting in on every tide. But they never succeeded in taking it. Perhaps the senoritas were to blame. Anyone of them could have wrapped herself from head to toe in coats as rich as mink, but they were a warm-blooded race and needed only a bit of lace or a silk from Cathay. The otter trade was California’s first gold rush. Within 10 years from the first trip of the San Carlos [when Europeans discovered San Francisco Bay], word of the bay’s fabulous wealth spread around the world. British, French, Americans and Russians watched each other with suspicion. For Spanish dominion over the provinces was already faltering.
The Spanish government made one valiant effort to garner the treasure. They sent a brilliant fellow, one Don Vicente Basadre, to open the fur trade with China, in 1785. The peltries were to be exchanged for quicksilver [mercury]. The governor of California, Don Pedro Fages, was delighted. He said he could furnish 20,000 skins a year. La Perouse, a visiting Frenchman, estimated the trade would prove more valuable than all the gold in the Mexican mines. By 1790, according to Bancroft, 9,729 skins were collected, valued at approximately $87,699. The boom ebbed. The Californians jumped to their silver-studded saddles, freed from the crass pursuit of trade, and hied to merienda [between meal snack] and fiesta, finding life and a twanging guitar in the moonlight happiness enough. The Russians never relinquished their interest. In 1823 they contracted with Governor Luis Arguello for the right to hunt otters in San Francisco Bay.
They would furnish Aleuts and bidarkas; the Californians would feed the hunters and furnish 19 Indians, to watch the Aleuts! The profits were to be shared. The Russians even agreed to sell Arguello their share at $45 a skin, payment to be in California wheat. In a brief space, they divided 1,500 otters. That was the end of the contract. From then until they were ruthlessly exterminated, the magnificent fur-bearers were the smugglers’ prize, and Shelter Cove, then called Whalers’ Wharf, was the smugglers’ hideout.
Although they were believed to have been exterminated, a small group of otters survived, and since being listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1977, the population has rebounded to around 3,000 animals for the past few years. The Marine Mammal Center at Fort Cronkhite began rescuing and rehabilitating southern sea otters in 1995 and has responded to more than 350 sick, starving, or injured sea otters.