Sonoma County Museum celebrates 50th anniversary of activist victory
Today, visitors of Bodega Bay know the famed Hole in the Head as a lush, tranquil pond home to a variety of migrant birds — but it could have easily been a different story had it not been for the motley band of individuals that came together to derail plans for the PG&E nuclear reactor proposed for the site in the early 1960s.
The Sonoma County Museum exhibit “Hole in the Head: The Battle for Bodega Bay and the Birth of the Environmental Movement (1958-1964),” is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of PG&E’s decision to abandon those plans. The exhibit is now open and will run until Feb. 9, 2015.
On May 23, 1958, PG&E President Norman R. Sutherland confirmed to Santa Rosa’s daily newspaper that the utility company had been negotiating for a site to build a “steam-electric generating plant.” In 1962 they had declared the plant would be nuclear and the reactor would be built on Bodega Head. It was planned to be one of the largest plants in the world.
Citizens of Bodega rallied together to voice their outrage and opposition to the plans.
“The whole battle brought together a really improbable collection of people,” said Gaye LeBaron, famed columnist for Santa Rosa’s daily newspaper.
LeBaron said the eclectic band of protestors included Rose Gaffney, a Polish immigrant widow of an Irish rancher; retired jazz trumpeter Lou Watters and his wife Pat; a San Francisco maritime museum director; a forestry student; a waitress at the Tides Wharf Restaurant in Bodega Bay; the leader of the most powerful conservation group in the West; and a young Sebastopol wife and mother, to name a few.
Kenneth Brower, environmental writer and son of David Brower, the executive director of the Sierra Club at the time, is amazed at the colorful cast of people the issue attracted.
“These characters,” Brower said, “they’re like Erin Brockovich times 20.”
Though there had been whispers of disproval from the beginning of the rumored project, it took a few years for the group to come together and really find their voice. For many, the opposition to the reactor truly solidified on Nov. 10, 1962, when the Association to Preserve Bodega Head and Harbor held an informational meeting in Santa Rosa to discuss the proposed plans.
During the meeting Alexander Grendon, a coordinator for the State of California’s Atomic Energy Development, became frustrated with the public comments and told the concerned citizens to “leave it to the experts.” Doris Sloan, until then a relatively passive observer who considered herself “just a housewife,” couldn’t stand for that.
“I was outraged,” she said. “Hearing that is really what got me and many other people involved.”
She helped out any way she could — writing newsletters, arranging meetings — whatever she could to help the cause.
Despite her passionate endeavors to help the movement, Sloan didn’t really consider herself to be an environmental activist.
“I wasn’t really aware of being an activist, I was just rabble rousing in Sonoma County,” Sloan said, “I was taking care of four kids at the time, so I didn’t really have time to reflect on what we were doing.”
On Memorial Day, 1963, the Bodega Head activists held their most creative rally out at the Head. They collected approximately 1,500 yellow, helium balloons — each representing a radioactive molecule — gathered at the coast, and released them into the air. Each balloon was tagged with a note that read, “This balloon could represent a radioactive molecule of strontium-90 or iodine-131 … Tell your local newspaper where you found this balloon.”
“It was marvelous fun,” Sloan said. “It such a great idea. Just genius.”
The balloons reportedly traveled as far as San Rafael, Fairfield, the East Bay and the Central Valley. Lou Watters’ wife Pat is credited with the idea.
At the exhibit’s opening on Friday, Nov. 6, Sloan remarked that Sonoma County Museum curator Eric Stanley had done “an outstanding job of telling our story.”
Complete with a replica 1950s bedroom and fallout shelter, the exhibit transports viewers to a time of uncertainty and fear, living in the shadow of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing.
“It gives you a feel for what it was like during that time,” Sloan said.
A large print of the present day, manmade pond hung near the corner of the exhibit caught Sloan’s eye as well.
“You look at that picture and think, ‘What a beautiful place.’ The pond, even though it has such an unpleasant history, it’s now such an asset — the birds and the nesting — it’s just so beautiful. I think, ‘Well, PG&E did something right, and left us this gorgeous hole in the head.’”
Sonoma County Museum member Jana Mariposa agreed, and expressed her gratitude toward Sloan and the other activists at the opening.
“You saved us,” Mariposa said. “You saved us. You really did.”
Mariposa moved to the area in ‘60s, when the battle was “still very much in the atmosphere.” Mariposa reflects in awe that the ragtag bunch of citizens was able to defeat the major corporation.
“It was David and Goliath,” said Mariposa, who hopes to encourage her friends to visit the museum and learn more about the history of the Head.
Brower agreed and said, “I don’t think there’s ever been a better example of that Margaret Mead line, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’”
Sloan is proud she played in enacting change, not only at the Head, but also in the climate of citizen involvement in general.
“It feels really good looking back, having played a part in making some changes in society,” Sloan said.
“When we started, there was never a public comment item on any agenda — Supervisors didn’t want to hear from any member of the public and the school board met around a table with their backs to everybody,” she added. “By the time we were done and by the end of that decade, citizens’ relationship to the government had changed and citizens were no longer expected to elect their officials and go home and keep quiet. The citizen participation in the processes of government was well-established and I feel very proud to have been part of that change.”
Sonoma County Museum is open Thursday through Monday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission is $5 to 7, free for children 12 and younger.
Go to sonomacountymuseum.org for more details.