Why Morro Bay residents love their dormant smokestacks

The sounds of bilge pumps churning and industrial-sized engines trying to fire combine with Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” dripping out of a single crackly speaker to score a too-bright early spring afternoon in the tiny Central Coast fishing port of Morro Bay.

Jeff French, who — at least according to his neighbors in the slips — has been fishing these waters since he was two, steps out from inside the control room of his vessel. Blue baseball cap pulled low over sunglasses, French still has to shade his eyes and let himself adjust to the midday sun.

Commercial salmon fishing season opens in early May and, like his contemporaries, French is busy making last-minute adjustments. Eighteen- to 20-hour days and an uncertain haul await.

He surveys the harbor before focusing on me. He leans in. “Now what’s that you want to know about the stacks?” he asks.

The lasting power of the Morro Bay stacks

All morning I’ve been patrolling the shoreline trying to figure out what, if any, utility the Morro Bay smokestacks have today. There are three of them. They are massive, dormant, decaying and dangerous. And thanks to a Morro Bay City Council decision last November, they’re slated to come down sometime between now and 2028.

The smokestacks are one of California’s great architectural missteps of the 20th century. A pollution-spewing, permanent eyesore; ghastly and oversized monuments. A tribute to a postwar give-us-the-budget-and-we’ll-build-it mentality stamped right on, and looming precariously over, one of the already more dramatic stretches of coastline in California.

The stacks, as they’re known to locals, also happen to be beloved.

The stacks subculture

The best-selling sweatshirt in Morro Bay surf shop Wavelengths is a logo with a silhouette of a power plant and three oversized smokestacks rising from it that says “3 Stacks and a Rock,” the town’s unofficial catchphrase.

Morro Bay’s local surf shop Wavelengths produces a “3 stacks and a rock” sweatshirt to commemorate the town’s most familiar icon. The item is the store’s top-seller.

Photo by Andrew Bridgen

A local microbrewery by the same name produces stacks-themed IPAs and pilsners.

Walk around any Morro Bay residential street and you’re bound to see a crew from Paul’s Precision Painting coating a home in white primer, the three stacks image slapped onto their trucks, trailers and T-shirts.

One of the most popular waterfront wine bars and bistros in town is, of course, named STAX.

Local surfers sometimes have the stacks outline tattooed on their forearms or on the inside of their wrists. Take a drive up and down the arterial Harbor Street and spy a handful of stacks-related display signs in stores or vanity plates on cars. There’s even a sign to flash with both your hands to declare your local legitimacy: throw your three middle fingers up to represent the stacks on your left and a fist to represent Morro Rock on the right.

The stacks are, quite literally, everywhere.

“We’re from from the Valley, from Fresno and to us — as kids coming from there to the beach — as soon as you see the stacks you know you’re here, you know you’re someplace special,” says Johnny Fonseca , out for a walk on the wharf with his wife, Martha. “It’s not that bad on the eyes and I think it’s a part of Morro Bay.

“People recognizes us for the structure. It should stay, keep ’em.”

‘The blight is the point’

Fonseca is not in the minority. Somehow the stacks, so out of place, so massive and gray and foreboding that they couldn’t help but quell a public into submission, have become the main ingredient in the town’s identity. Maybe their grandeur is part of the reason they’ve been stitched from the sight line into the public consciousness to the extent that even in their decline, they inspire love and loyalty.

Morro Bay's Embarcadero waterfront commercial district features fish markets, restaurants, shops and the Morro Bay smokestacks in the background.  The stacks are currently slated for removal by 2028.
Morro Bay’s Embarcadero waterfront commercial district features fish markets, restaurants, shops and the Morro Bay smokestacks in the background. The stacks are currently slated for removal by 2028.

Photo by Andrew Bridgen

“Maybe the blight is the point,” laughs Tom Jamason, a Templeton resident on a recent visit to admire the old power plant’s footprint. “I guess if you put something up for 70 years it becomes an icon. I should be an icon.”

Parent company has ties to Enron

The Morro Bay Power Plant opened with a single smokestack in 1955. By the end of the decade, one became a trio. PG&E operated the plant from its opening until 1998, when it was sold to Charlotte, North Carolina-based Duke Energy. Duke in turn sold to Houston, Texas-based Dynegy in 2007, which closed the plant in 2014 because of the expense to maintain it after nearly 60 years of operation. Dynegy, having run up a mountain of debt after acquiring corporate fraud behemoth Enron’s pipelines in 2002 following that company’s historic collapse, was eventually sold to Irving, Texas-based Vistra for $10.7 billion in 2017. Vistra assumed Dynegy’s assets, including the shuttered Morro Bay plant, along with its $9 billion in debt at the time of the sale.

And the 450-foot tall smokestacks, roughly 34 stories high, have been sleeping giants ever since.

Is there any possible way the stacks can stay?

The city of Morro Bay is moving forward with an agreement with Vistra, which promised last year to convert the old power plant into the world’s largest battery storage facility. Vista’s $500 million proposed project would also cover the cost of taking down the stacks and removing the power plant’s existing turbine, both built using hazardous materials.

A view of the Morro Bay smokestacks from the town's maritime museum.
A view of the Morro Bay smokestacks from the town’s maritime museum.

Photo by Andrew Bridgen

“The council has made a decision that Vistra can proceed with their battery project to potentially include the demolition of the power plant and stacks,” says Morro Bay City Manager Scott Collins, noting if the stacks are not removed by the end of the calendar year 2027, Vista would owe the city $3 million. “If you’ve ever toured the plant, it’s like a time capsule. Don’t know if you’ve ever watched the show ‘Lost,’ it’s like that, just being in this underground industrial. It can’t be repurposed for use. It’s our interpretation that it’s their best interest to remove the stacks.

“We know some of the city’s residents and visitors do have an affinity for them, but it’s ultimately not in the city’s best interest to keep them up.”

People ride horses as smokestacks from a former power plant loom over dunes in Morro Bay.
People ride horses as smokestacks from a former power plant loom over dunes in Morro Bay.


Last November, Collins told KCBX that Vista had yet to give the city its plan on how the stacks will come down, emphasizing the project will be lengthy and costly and similar to the current removal of a similar 400-foot-tall smokestack in Carlsbad.

“They don’t implode with these kinds of facilities because of asbestos concerns,” Collins said, noting work crews “literally start from the top and just chip away.”

The planned redevelopment of the site by Vista must also undergo several rounds of planning and environmental impact reviews, city officials said.

‘They let you know you’re home’

Back at the marina standing on the dock talking to commercial fisher French as he shuffles through some paperwork, it’s clear the stacks provide some aesthetic value.

Fresno residents Johnny and Martha Fonseca stop for a moment to admire the Morro Bay smokestacks at the near distance.
Fresno residents Johnny and Martha Fonseca stop for a moment to admire the Morro Bay smokestacks at the near distance.

Photo by Andrew Bridgen

Not 10 yards away up a metal grate ramp, tourists stroll on Morro Bay’s commercial promenade, the Embarcadero, a lineup of saltwater taffy and last-minute souvenir T-shirt stands mixed in with fresh fish markets, restaurants and pottery and art sellers. Almost to a person the visitors stop to pose for a picture in front of the stacks watching over the shoreline in the near distance.

“They are a landmark,” French admits. “For us fishermen, there is some purpose to it as a way to orient. We have other equipment, GPS plotters and the like, but when you’re coming in from a long trip and seeing them on the horizon, it can be a relief. They let you know you’re home.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: