Foolish Guillemot, Murre
The Americas

Eggflation, Pt. 2: The Egg War of The Farallon Islands

11-minute read

I am the eggman
They are the eggmen
I am the walrus
Goo goo g’joob

We left our northern California gold miners (and everyone else in the Bay Area) in 1848, woefully underfed and looking for eggs in all the wrong places. If you’re already confused reading this, go back and skim Eggflation, Pt. 1: The Egg War of Early San Francisco to get up to speed.

Eggcellent. Now, have you eaten a hearty breakfast? Let’s dive back in.

The Egg War Goes Ashore

It couldn’t be clearer to the entrepreneurs of Gold Rush era San Francisco that if you could find a way to get eggs to the masses, you could become insanely rich overnight. As aspiring gazillionaires began searching far and wide for solutions, others looked closer to home. Twenty-six miles offshore, to be exact.

That’s Strictly for the Birds

Hit the west coast of North America near San Francisco, and you’ll spot an unassuming 211-acre archipelago separated from the mainland by a small gulf. This wee string of outcroppings is called the Farallon Islands.

Often barely visible through the iconic Northern California fog, these jagged granite stacks are home to rodents, various creepy crawlies, and five species of pinniped that attract whales and sharks hungry for delicious, adorable seal blubber.

The Farallones also happen to support the largest seabird nesting colony in the contiguous U.S., a literal half of the planet’s population of Ashy storm petrels, and a metric butt-ton of western gulls. All in all, observers have logged over 400 bird species there.

What do birds lay? Eggs. When do we want ’em? 1849!

Protein was scarce during the egg war of the 1800s gold rush era
it was worth losing my fingers over this

Farallon Islands Getaway

Luckily for our animal brethren inhabiting the Farallon Islands, the place is incredibly inhospitable. Waters surrounding the craggy shores are notoriously choppy and have claimed numerous lives over the years by dragging boats into its infinite depths.

If you managed to reach the shore, good luck. The terrain is rocky, slippery, and steep, and did we mention surrounded by tempestuous currents and apex predators? Alright, so you’ve got legs of steel, the best hiking shoes REI has to offer, and reflexes like a cat. But did you remember a face covering? Because the odor of the Farallones is legendary.

Whiffed by ships a half-mile away, the islands give off a serious stench of bird poop mixed with marine mammal doodoo topped with your typical brine and sea smells. Research scientist Rebecca Johnson, who visited the islands extensively, is quoted in SFGate as saying the stink was comparable to “furry, sweaty, salty horses.” Very specific.

Johnson further explains, “Once I took a Coast Guard helicopter to the islands, and as we approached, the pilots were like…what is that terrible smell? We could smell it inside the helicopter.”

Maybe breathe through your mouth and focus on the soothing ocean waves. Oh, you can’t because the islands are also a sonic nightmare. Nesting birds screech night and day at a dull roar, with added rustling, squawking, flapping, and a veritable cacophony of avian melodies.

And if that wasn’t enough, you’ll also need to tuck your pants into your socks because kelp flies are everywhere. They prefer to spend their time burrowed inside the anus of a seal, but they’re not above crawling out of their cozy butt-hotels to venture down your shirt or fly into your face.

For all these reasons and more, the Coast Miwok tribe referred to the Farallon Islands as “Islands of the Dead,” while mariners nicknamed the place “the devil’s teeth.” Surely, the birds are safe.

Narrator: The Birds Were Not, In Fact, Safe

Never underestimate the motivation of humans seeking wealth.

Our story (allegedly) begins with gossip shared between men in waterfront gambling dens and saloons. Who knows who the first person to raise the idea was, but slowly folks began wondering about the seabird nests on the Farallon Islands. Might those eggs work as a substitute for the chicken variety?

When sharp-eyed, open-eared druggist Doc Robinson caught wind of the notion, he figured he’d take a crack at it. Spring of 1849 saw Doc and his brother-in-law charter a boat to the Islands, where they found an incredible amount of murre eggs.

Murre eggs are beautiful, coming in gorgeous shades of blue, green, white, and brown with black, gold, and lilac speckles. They’re also huge — about 11% of the mother’s weight — and pointed at one end, which some theorize is nature’s way to prevent them from rolling and smashing. Others suggest it’s a more efficient shape for heat transfer and confining fecal contamination.

Murre eggs
think I’ll take the gross chocolate kind instead

We can assume Doc and his brother didn’t stop to ponder on the mysteries of murre biology, fascinating as it is. Instead, they gathered as many of the softball-sized eggs as possible and returned to San Francisco. It was not an easy journey there or back. The pair lost about half their haul when they sailed into a storm on their return trip.

They netted about $3,000 anyway. (Psst — that’s in the neighborhood of $100,000 in 2020 money.)

A Poaching Scramble

While Doc was traumatized by his adventure to the Farallon Islands, he’d made a tremendous fortune. Rather than continue the egg enterprise, he took his cash and opened a pharmacy and a drama museum. Diversify or die, Doc.

The smashing success of the pharmacist and his brother sparked a stampede of fortune hunters to the islands in search of the same wealth. Within a week, the place crawled with humans — six of whom attempted to claim the islands as their own. They creatively incorporated themselves as the “Pacific Egg Company.”

The best time for “egging” the Farallones was an eight-week period between May and July.

As folks gathered and consumed unborn baby bird bounty, one thing became clear — you absolutely have to eat a fresh murre egg.

As you can imagine, coastal birds rely on the fruits of the sea for their daily caloric intake. That means lots of fish and various ocean-flavored items. It’s not a shock, then, when you eat one and experience a distinct fishy aftertaste. But eat an old or bad murre egg, and that flavor will linger on your palate (and in your nightmares) for months.

While striking, murre eggs are visually unappetizing — bright red yolk surrounded by translucent and slimy whites that don’t firm up, even when cooked.

You’ve got a weak contender if you’re craving Moons Over My Hammy, but they make a solid addition to baked goods if you can guarantee peak freshness.

How would you do that, you ask? You smash all the existing eggs to force the females to lay more, of course! Now you can be positive your harvest is fresh, and we can be positive you stink worse that the islands themselves.

Skeleton of the common murre, the nesting seabird whose eggs were ruthlessly harvested during the farallon islands egg war
“oh look, the future of murres” -an egger, probably

No Egg Left Behind

You can imagine how this panned out. An estimated 14 million murre eggs were shipped to San Francisco between 1849 and 1896. Every year during the egging season, fleets of men descended on the craggy islands to perform the ol’ smash and grab. Many were desperate Italian and Greek immigrants unable to find more palatable work thanks to ethnic discrimination from employers and violence from other job seekers.

These guys were more than up to the task of egging on the Farallones. They could deal with the rough sea voyage, subsist on a scarce diet, and were willing to risk life and limb for a stable income.

Who hired them to do this thankless, dangerous, dirty work? Why, our friends at The Pacific Egg Company. Of course, in the 1850s, there were plenty of non-incorporated fellows who did not give one single flip that a group of guys declared themselves the voltrons of murre egging. The opportunity for ample wealth combined with the stress of a very perilous day’s work created a powder keg of testosterone between the Pacific Egg Co. and other eggers who were happy to assert their rights to collect — with violence if need be.

The Egg War Begins

Things got increasingly messy on the Farallones. There’s the Pac. Egg Co. There are rival groups, which included Italian fishermen there on behalf of the United States Topographical Engineers. To add more chaos to the mix, the federal government claimed the islands to build a lighthouse. The power struggle would rage for decades, becoming fiercer every season.

It got to a point where egging was genuinely viewed by eggers as going into battle. Rival gangs routinely got into shouting matches, traded threats, and fought each other. Any method of brawling on was the table, from lobbing seashells at each other to shooting and stabbing. Even police dispatched to the islands couldn’t get these guys to stand down, preferring to leave altogether rather than risk it.

Early American patrollers and offices in the wild west
ain’t enough moonshine in the world, muchacho

You didn’t have to be on the islands to be in danger; you could have your catch hijacked on your way home. Boats transporting eggs were a massive target, with competitors going so far as to mount small cannons on their vessels to pirate the soon-to-be-soft-boiled bounty. San Francisco courts became overwhelmed with cases of larceny, assault, trespassing, property damage, police resistance, and even manslaughter.

Bureaucracy Now

None of this stopped the federal government from pushing ahead with lighthouse operations while neglecting to evict bad actors or protect the keepers stationed there. These poor guys — just trying to make a buck manning a giant flashlight — routinely faced threats and harassment from eggmen. By May of 1860, an armed mob forced the keepers from the islands entirely.

Things came to a head in 1863, when a group of fishermen attempted to seize the Farallones multiple times. An early iteration of the Coast Guard routinely shut them down, but they kept pushing. One day in June, the men set sail yet again, and upon approaching land they encountered an armed group representing the Pacific Egg Co.

The company’s foreman Issac Harrington basically shouted, “don’t even think about it,” at the offshore men in the boats. In turn, they responded by spending the night drinking and cussing at the men from a safe distance. By dawn, the fleet was rested (or drunk) enough to attempt another landing, and the Pacific Egg Company employees promptly opened fire. Not everyone survived.

Finally the government decided to take action…by giving full monopoly rights to the Pacific Egg Company. The enterprise continued to decimate the murre rookeries for years unchecked, meanwhile, lighthouse keepers had returned to work.

After a while, the Pacific Egg Company decided to expand their business by rendering seal and sea lion blubber into oil, which is exactly as disgusting as it sounds. Not only was this activity not legally kosher, but it also filled the surrounding area with piles of rotting carcasses. Oh, and vats of boiling flesh emitted thick plumes of smoke that interfered with lighthouse operations.

Everything’s Fried

As if that wasn’t enough, the company continued to be contentious. They made ridiculous demands like ordering the removal of a fog horn because it scurred the murres. They also barred the keepers from collecting eggs to eat themselves, going so far as to attack a keeper who was gathering a few. On May 23, 1881, the United States military forcibly evicted the Pacific Egg Company from the islands. It only took 30 years.

There’s a happy ending, though. Even though greedy plunderers nearly wiped out the colony, today, the Farallon Islands host a seabird sanctuary with a thriving murre population. They have a long way to go to get back to their pre-gold rush numbers, but if we can keep yolk-thirsty entrepreneurs at bay, they’ll stand a chance.

the Farallon Islands, just off San Francisco's shore but rarely visited

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Continue down the rabbit hole:

The Great Egg War, Egg Rush, War of the Eggs


SFGate. 17 fascinating facts about the Farallon Islands, just off San Francisco’s shore but rarely visited.
Peixotto, Ernest. Romantic California.
Smithsonian. When California Went to War Over Eggs.
Time. The Worst That Can Happen When Egg Prices Get Too High.
LitHub. How a War Over Eggs Marked the Early History of San Francisco.
Crysanthe, Eva. Garibaldi and The Farallon Egg War.
Behind the Bastards. The War of the Eggs.

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