How an ‘ancient landslide’ keeps threatening a railroad, homes in San Clemente, Bakersfield and other Northern California communities.
It is one of the most famous and controversial photographs in the world. In the early morning light of January 17, 1969, a bulldozer plows through a cliff of dirt, rock and dirt clods over a wide expanse of sand, gravel and brush in the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean near the city of Pillar Point, California. The photograph, taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, shows the bulldozer, surrounded by a wall of cloud, plowing through the sand, rocks and trees that had kept the Pacific Ocean, which lies only a few miles away, away from a cliff face of the Pacific.
The landslide has taken out more than 1,000 homes and businesses in what is now a tourist attraction outside the city of Pillar Point. Along with the landslide, the photograph has become shorthand for an environmental catastrophe that has devastated the town.
For more than 25 years, environmentalists have made the argument that the landslide was a result of decades of coastal development along the California shore, starting before and continuing after the 1906 earthquake. Many scientists, including former U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have gone on record, as well as the Sierra Club and environmentalists worldwide, to say the landslide occurred due to coastal development.
But there is no evidence of a correlation between coastal development and the landslide, as the original photograph shows. Rather, it was caused by an accident in the development of the railroad. It happened, as has happened time and again in coastal California since the 1870s, when railroad companies constructed the line and put it across the sand and gravel that would be the site of coastal development. These coastal railways were designed to allow workers to traverse the hills in single-person teams, clearing land to be developed.
In the case of the California Railroad, the decision to use the sand-and-gravel site became a problem. There were also problems with the railway, because the soil had been compacted with large