Wednesday, October 28, 2020

welcome home

Every airport seems to have its own particular icon -- a spot that people try to see as they descend to their airport.

The Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. The Statue of Liberty in New York City. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris. They provide travelers with that point of orientation we all seek in life.

Manzanillo airport has one, as well, that welcomes me home after every trip. Peña Blanca. A large white rock island in the Pacific just offshore and southeast of the airport.  

It sits just off the playa de oro.  Beach of gold. Not coincidentally, that is also the official name of Manzanillo's airport.

The name is not unique to this part of Mexico.  There is another beach with the same name a mere 10 miles southeast in Manzanillo.  And almost every Spanish-speaking country has one -- or many.  Even Oregon has a Gold Beach.

In most cases, the name is merely a romantic, aspirational metaphor.  "Our sand is as beautiful as gold."  Or, more prosaically, it represents the cash that flows from tourist hands into local merchant coffers.

In the case of this particular playa de oro, it is the literal truth. Or a mix of truth and legend. A hundred years ago, it truly was a gold beach. 

We need to sift the facts from the legend as best we can.  The facts first.

One of America's fastest steam ships, S.S. Golden Gate, left San Francisco on July 21, 1862 with 338 passengers and crew, and a hold filled with over one million dollars worth of gold that was on its way to the East Coast to help finance the Civil War.  That amount did not include the gold in the money belts of the 337 passengers -- many whom were headed east with their takings from the Sierra Nevadas. 

On the evening of July 27, 1862 something went terribly wrong.  A fire broke out in the engine room.  With the flames quickly engulfing the ship, Captain Hudson put some of his passengers in lifeboats and then steered it to 
Peña Blanca in the hope that other passengers and crew members could seek refuge on its sheer slopes. They couldn't.

The captain then tried to steer the ship to beach, but fell short when it grounded 300 yards from the beach. The fire then destroyed most of the ship. Of the passengers and crew 204 died from burns or drowning. A mortality rate of 60%. Bodies continued to wash ashore for almost a year.

And the goid was gone. In the sand and surf of Mexico.

But because there is gold in them thar tales, the rumors started swirling.

We know that just a few months later, a salvage operation recovered most of the gold in the hold. At least, 80% of it. There were reports that people living in the area may have been successful in recovering a portion of the gold, as well. But that is where the facts end.

And when facts end, legends are born.

Almost immediately, rumors began about finding money belts stuffed with gold on the beach. Then, according to rumor, gold and silver coins started washing up on the beach. 

But the legend that keeps on living concerns Bart Varelmann, a retired American, who claimed to have salvaged enough gold, a hundred years after the sinking, to finance building a bed and breakfast in Manzanillo. Photographs of the hotel would indicate not much gold was salvaged -- if any. But I am certain he had great tales to share with patrons who were thirsty for a little local color. Especially, if that color was gold.

People still come to the beach, some armed with metal detectors, in the hope that prior salvages and the ill-natured sea have not recovered all of the gold -- because everybody seems to know somebody who knew a guy who knew a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales. Even if you have no Jack Sparrow dreams, the beach is worth visiting. It is one of my favorite beaches in the area. Well-signed, but badly-roaded, on Highway 200 just south of the airport.

After all, the place is called playa de oro for a reason.

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