Sam Trotter – The Timber-Beast of Big Sur

Redwood fellers, Felton, California, 1906

The redwood tree can grow to be more than 350 feet tall, and as much as 25 feet around at the base. Some redwoods live to be more than 1,000 years old. They’ve proliferated in forests across the globe since prehistoric times. An absence of resin makes them practically fireproof, and a high content of tannin makes them fungi resistant and bad tasting (to insects).

By the 18th-century, the habitat of the coast redwood had shrunk to a tiny sliver, extending from present-day Monterey County, California to the Oregon border, in a narrow strip never wider than twenty miles from the coast.

The first white men to see a coastal redwood were likely the members of the Portola Expedition. Fray Juan Crespi wrote in his diary on October 10, 1769, of seeing one near present-day Watsonville:

“We broke camp in the morning, and after crossing a river named by the soldiers Rio de Pajaro, we headed in a north westerly direction … Because of the condition of the sick men in litters we halted again after traveling a little more than a league near a little lagoon where there was ample feed and much wild game … The plains and low hills were forested with very high trees of a red color unknown to us … different than cedar, although the wood resembles cedar in color and is very brittle. Because of the red color they were named palo colorado.”

Once the California Gold Rush ensued, in the early 1850s, rumors made their way back to San Francisco about the gigantic trees said to be found up the coast.

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Judge James Trotter

Martin Alexander Trotter was born in rural Carroll County, Missouri, on Sept. 2, 1841. He was a bright boy and when he was old enough to attend school, he went to live with his uncle, Judge James Trotter, who resided in the nearby city of Carrollton.

Martin’s ancestors were from Ireland and most of them were named James. His paternal grandfather (another James Trotter) and grandmother Mary, lived in Washington County, Tennessee, where Martin’s father William was born, in 1798.

Grandpa James Trotter fought against the British in the War of 1812, serving with the 7th Regiment, Mounted Militia, under Captain William Wood. In 1813, he was killed at Pickaway Plains on the Ohio River, southwest of present-day Circleville and his body never recovered.

In 1825, 26-year-old William married Martin’s mother – a widow with two children, named Sarah Ellis Anderson. In January 1833, William moved his wife, mother, and kids to Carroll County, Missouri, shortly after the county was organized.

Martin Trotter

Martin Trotter grew up to be an extremely large man with large hands – physical traits that he passed on to his sons and grandsons. He was a farmer and a carpenter, and he also raised mules – skills he would pass on to his sons. He had beautiful penmanship and at one point in his adult life, worked as a clerk for Carroll County.

Martin’s father died when he was 16 years old. Martin and his widowed mother Sarah, lived with Martin’s two older brothers, who farmed in rural Wakenda, Missouri, at tiny township just north of the “Malta Bend” of the Missouri River, where the steamer Malta sank, in 1841. Today, the wreck of the Malta lies in a cornfield 1,000 feet from the Missouri River due to the river’s everchanging boundaries.

In 1860, Martin married Melissa Jane Sherwood, the daughter of a local farmer. The couple settled eight miles west of Carrollton, on McCroskie Creek, in Trotter Township, Missouri – today an uninhabited agricultural area. Their first child, Louella Cyrne was born there on August 20, 1862.

Melissa Jane Sherwood Trotter

But Melissa Jane took sick and died of a fever, on October 12, 1862, at the age of 21.

Melissa Jane’s 1862 estate consisted of:

A pony mare, a yearling colt, a milk cow heifer, a bureau glass, two bedsteads, three stands, one dining table, a tin safe, two chairs, two rocking chairs, a Franklin stove, a U.S. map, four tableware and tea sets, a washbowl and pitcher, two feather beds, two window blinder curtains, a brass clock, a fourteen gallon “stove ware,” and one trunk.

She was buried in the McCroskie Creek Baptist Church Cemetery, in Trotter Township. Twenty-two-year-old Martin was left alone in the world, holding his two-month-old daughter in his big hands.

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Six months later, on April 14, 1863, Martin married again, this time to a 17-year-old farmer’s daughter named Sarah “Sally” Jane Shinn. Sally was from Trenton, Missouri, a village sixty miles to the north.

Sergeant Martin Trotter, 1863

During the Civil War, Martin Trotter served as a sergeant in the 6th Regiment, Missouri State Militia Cavalry of the Union Army, 3rd Regiment, First Organization, Company C. Sally’s first child, John, was born while Martin was away at the war in 1864.

Samuel Marshall Trotter, the fifth of their eight children, was born seven years later, on December 2, 1871.

When Sam was still a toddler, his three-year old sister Jessie Ann died. Seven months later, Sally gave birth to Sam’s little brother, Martin Oliver. But the little boy sickened and died when he was 15 months old. A year later, Sally had another child – a boy named Albert.

On May 15, 1878, when Sam was six years old, his mother, Sally gave birth to another little boy named David. But Sally died two weeks later, of complications from childbirth, at the age of thirty-two.

One month after Sally’s death, her son Albert died before his second birthday. The following month, her baby David died; he was not yet two months old.

Martin Trotter did his best to comfort his five motherless children. He’d buried two wives and four kids. Although this was not exactly uncommon in his generation, life had dealt Martin Trotter a challenging hand.

On March 26, 1879, the 38-year-old widower remarried for the third time, to a local divorcé named Phebe Jane Meagher. Four months after their wedding, Martin and Phebe were baptized and confirmed members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They had two sons, Charles and Paul, in 1880 and 1891, respectively.

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Apparently, there were a lot of Trotters in Carroll County, Missouri. Sam remembered that his family worshipped at the Trotter Baptist Church and they lived in Trotter Township. Sam’s middle name is Marshall. According to Sam, he was named for Mr. Marshall, one of the teachers at the nearby Trotter School, where Sam was a student.

Sam’s father encouraged him to stay in school, but at the time, Sam didn’t see the point. Later in life, he admitted that in his youth, he didn’t really understand the importance of an education. Around the age of 12, he dropped out and took a job with his cousin, “Uncle Dave” Standley, who raised mules on his ranch in Carrollton, Missouri. The pay was $15 a month, plus three meals a day, lodging, three saddle horses, and his own saddle – and all the hay the horses could eat.

Missouri Pacific Railroad locomotive

When he was a teenager, Sam moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he lived with his oldest brother John. He found work with the Missouri Pacific Railroad. But railroad work was very dangerous in those days. In 1889, one in 35 railway workers was injured at work and one in every 117 were killed on the job.

Sam sprained his spinal cord on-the-job and spent two painful months in bed. He didn’t return to work for six months. Unable to afford a nurse, Sam’s father, Martin came west from Beaty to care for him during his convalescence.

He was worried about how he was going to pay the doctor’s bill. After borrowing $50 from his brother John, he’d amassed nearly $100. He went to see Dr. Hughes to pay his bill but was surprised to only be charged $19. Sam told Hughes that he’d heard that he charged a lot of money.

Dr. Hughes laughed and said, “You heard right about the price, but when I find a boy like you that has a good future, I do not want to hinder you from going ahead, by giving you a big doctor bill.”

This experience made a lasting impression on Sam.

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Union Depot, Kansas City, Missouri, 1890

Sam went back to his father’s place in Trotter Township, Missouri. During his recuperation he hunted duck and pursued the pretty girls at the local dances. He became friends with young lady named Molly, whom he’d met at a dance, and soon they were engaged to be married.

Sam had read about the wonders of California and made up his mind to “Go West” someday. When he told his parents of his ambitions, they tried to be supportive. But they likely understood what Sam was still too young to realize – if he went to California, he would probably never return to Missouri.

On February 14, 1891, when he was finally well enough to return to work, he took the train back to Kansas City, Missouri. Far from home and alone in the big city, Sam met a pretty girl named Susie and soon they were dating.  When John ’s wife, Mamie – Sam’s sister-in-law – found out that Sam was dating Susie while he was already engaged to Molly, she read him the riot act.

Under pressure, and perhaps contrary to his own desires, Sam endeavored to do the right thing. He reluctantly broke up with Susie, but he felt so ashamed after doing so, he couldn’t face her again. So, he simply left town.

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In 1891, at the age of nineteen, Sam Trotter boarded a train and travelled 2,000 miles across the continent, to Los Angeles, California. He had cousins who lived fifty miles northwest of Los Angeles, in Piru, a small agricultural community among the orchards of southern California’s Ventura County.

Sam meandered north, looking for employment, which he ultimately found work in Boulder Creek, California, working for the G.C. Notley Company, in the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

George Andrew Notley, and his younger brother, William Franklin Notley, were born in East St. Louis, Illinois, at the Missouri border, in 1864 and 1865, respectively. Their father, an Englishman from Dorest named William Luffman Notley, was a professional lumberman who’d immigrated in 1851, and married a New Yorker.

Santa Cruz, California, 1870

William Luffman Notley moved his family west, leaving Illinois in 1868. According his great, great granddaughter, Anne F. Verti, “they must have traveled by boat to the Isthmus of Panama. There, they crossed by land and went, again by sea, to San Francisco. ”

William Luffman Notley moved his family to the temperate seaside timber town of Branciforte (present-day Santa Cruz) where his youngest son Godfrey Charles Noltey, the most ambitious of the Notley Brothers, was born, in 1869

In the 19th-century, loggers, like sailors, miners, and circus folk, were societal outliers. Furthermore, half of the men who worked in the forests were foreign born, and many were uneducated. They lived in lumber camp bunkhouses and tents, or in timber towns, and quite a few different languages were spoken. Nearly of Notley’s neighbors in Branciforte worked in the timber industry. According to family oral history, around 1875, Notley homesteaded in Boulder Creek.

Santa Cruz County’s old growth redwood forests contained some of the biggest, tallest trees with the straightest grain in the lower forty-eight – a veritable timber-beast’s paradise. Around 1890, William Luffman Notley’s sons formed G. C. Notley Company.

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The rough and rowdy men who felled the giant redwoods were known to one another, as “jungle-buzzards,” “timber-hounds,” “wood-savages,” “brushcats,” “lumberjacks,” and “timber-beasts.” If an outsider used one of these terms, it was considered pejorative.

At the turn of the century, the Industrial Workers of the World (the I.W.W. or Wobblies) began utilizing the term “timber-beasts” to describe lumberjacks. These mostly immigrant workers lived in isolated camps, far from cities and civilization, which allowed the timber company owners to abuse and endanger them, without interference from pesky union organizers. The I.W.W. lumber strike of 1917, finally led to the eight-hour day, significantly improved working conditions for Pacific Northwest timber-beasts.

The June 28, 1931, issue of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper ran the following item:

“Guy Williams has compiled a dictionary of picturesque logger talk in the great Northwest. A few samples:

Bow and Arrow     – an Indian.

Herring choker      – a Scandanavian.

Kraut                        – a German.

Meat burner            – a cook.

Push                          – a foreman.

Timber-beast          – a logger.

Blockade                  – moonshine liquor.

Marihuana [sic]      – a loco weed with pronounced narcotic effect smoked in a cigarets.

Monkey blanket     – a griddle cake.

Now you’re loggin! – words of high praise.

Tin pants                  – a dressy person

Vee                             – a five dollar bill.

“Incidentally, from the logger came such Broadway phrases as ‘taking it on the chin,’ ‘punk’ for bread, ‘putting on the nosebag’ for eating, ‘lousy,’ very bad and ‘live one’ – a logger with a bank roll.”

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Old growth redwood, 1910

In 1892, Sam Trotter began working for the Notley Brothers in Boulder Creek. His first was months were spent cutting cord wood. At that time and place, redwood was so plentiful, it sold for 90¢ a cord, when pine went for $1.25 a cord (4′ x 4 ‘ x 8’). And redwood fence posts sold for just 3¢ each.

The 19th-century timber industry relied on human muscle power – the chainsaw didn’t come into widespread use on the California coast until after the Second World War.

In the 19th-century, giant redwood trees were felled using a long two-man crosscut saw. Only redwood trees with straight grain were harvested, as all the boards were made by splitting the logs with mauls and wedges – sawmills large enough to handle the enormous tree trunks did not yet exist.

Occasionally, there were accidents. Many a timber-beast was haunted by the memory of a gruesome injury that befell one of his comrades. They were plenty of lumberjacks missing arms or legs. Some sources state that logging was five times more lethal than most other 19th-century professions.

Garth Sanders wrote in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, May 10, 1955:

“The only reasonably safe method for a greenhorn to learn timber cutting is to pair up with a seasoned timber beast and stay with him until he learns the ropes … Lumberjacks who have worked for years in the woods are cagy deliberate individuals for the most part. They move deceptively, appearing slow but working fast … But they have learned the lesson of 1000 stumps. They know what to expect from almost any given tree. A moderately strong breeze in the timber is enough to make them head home without earning a dollar … Such a wind might dislodge a limb or topple a dead tree top to crash down upon a man’s soft unprotected body. Such plummeting objects are called ‘widow-makers’ in woods parlance … and with good reason.”

Like his father Martin, Sam Trotter was an oversized man. He learned to fell the giant redwood and knew how to use every bit of the tree, making beams, planks, posts, pickets, and shakes.

Michael Pfeiffer’s grandson, Oscar, called Sam Trotter “a timber-beast.”

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Boulder Creek, circa 1900

Though he was a rough man, Sam had a literary penchant. When the spirit moved him, he would write in his journal, a pastime he would enjoy for the rest of his life. In 1892, his first year in the muddy Santa Cruz Mountains, Sam wrote:

“Saturday nights and up to midnight Sunday she was a real live town. One could see a fight most anytime. There were some pretty hard eggs in Boulder Creek on weekends, but I like them. They were a fine bunch of hard workers, hard drinkers, hard fighters, honest and loyal to their friends.

“I spent my money as soon as I got it, so I never had to stop work to spend it. I found plenty of time evenings and weekends to spend what money I could make. Monday mornings always found me broker and pretty much spent, but I was having a wonderful time.”

Horse team hauling logs over skid road in Clatskanie, Oregon, 1905

The term “skid-road,” describing a muddy path or log-surfaced road over which timber-beasts dragged or skidded freshly‑cut logs, was already being used in print, in the Buffalo (New York) Commercial Advertiser in 1838. The term is said to date to the 17th-century.

The first commerical timber towns were in Maine. Once those forests were sufficiently logged, commercial timber operations (and the timber-beasts who worked for them) moved west to the Great Lakes region in the 1840s, and a decade later, into the Pacific Northwest. Every timber town had a muddy skid-road, which was frequently lined with saloons, cheap boarding houses, and cookhouses that catered to the timber-beast trade.

Soon, “decent people” avoided this unsavory part of town, and the expression evolved into the now familiar term “skid row” – meaning an impoverished urban street, peopled by the unfortunate citizens who are “on the skids.”

The timber-beasts were a coarse and often violent class of men. They spent their money in the local saloon and at the company store, both of which were usually owned by their employer. Many would ultimately quit in disgust, vowing to find a new livelihood, only to return to the logging camp the following spring.

The Hobo’s Hornbook – A Repertory For A Gutter Jongleur by George Milburn (1930) is a long out-of-print collection of American hobo lore, poetry, and song, collected prior to the stock market crash of 1929 (which diluted the pool of genuine, career hobos, with Depression Era wanna-bes). In the chapter called “Wobbly [Industrial Workers of the World] Songs,” Milburn included a ballad called The Timber-Beast’s Lament (an apparent parody of Rudyard Kipling’s “Tommy Atkins:”)

I’m on the boat to the lumber camp with a sick and aching head;
I’ve blowed another winter’s stake, and got the jims instead.
It seems I’ll never learn the truth that’s written plain as day,
It’s the only time they welcome you is when you make it pay.

It’s “blanket-stiff” and “jungle-hound,” and “pitch him out the door,”
But it’s “Howdy, Jack, old-timer,” when you’ve got the price for more.

Oh, tonight the boat is rocky, and I ain’t got a bunk,
Not a rare of cheering likker, just a turkey full of junk.
And I can call my life’s possessions, is what I carry ’round,
For I’ve blowed the rest on skid-roads of a hundred gyppo towns.

And it’s “lumberjack” and “timber-beast,” and “give these bums a ride,”
But it’s “Have one on the house, old boy,” if you’re stepping with the tide.

And the chokers will be heavy, just as heavy, just as cold,
When the hooker gives the high-ball, and we start to dig for gold.
And I’ll cuss the siren skid-road, with its blatant, drunken tune,
But then, of course, I’ll up and make another trip next June.

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In 1889, loggers hauled nearly 50,000 cords of tanbark out of the Little Sur River and Big Sur River watersheds in the Santa Lucia Mountains, south of Monterey.

The bark of the tanoak tree has commercial value, but the wood of the tree itself does not. The bigger tanoaks were felled and then simply stripped of their bark. High in tannic acid, the bark was used as a preservative for fish nets, and in the process of curing leather, then a growing industry in Santa Cruz.

The February 10, 1870, issue of the Monterey Republican newspaper reported:

“The Pacific Tannery in Stockton employs 30 men all the year round, and manufactured 200,000 sides of leather last year, consuming more than 800 cords of tan-bark.”

In January of 1890, G.C. Notley Co. began buying up tanbark timber holdings in Big Sur. George Notley told Sam stories about the expansive forests and vertical landscapes in the Santa Lucia Mountains, south of Monterey, one-hundred miles down the coast.

In the autumn of 1893, Sam Trotter wrote in his journal:

“Mr. Wm. Notley told me he had a letter from Mr. I. N. Swetnam, that there was some good timberland in the north fork of little [Sur] river … and there was some very good claims belonging to the government not yet taken up. He [Notley] wanted to know if I wanted to go down with him, look it over and if it was good timber we could each take up a claim.”

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Alvarado Street, Monterey, California, looking northeast towards the two-story Rodriguez Adobe with an overhanging balcony (left of frame). Photo by C.W.J. Johnson, 1877

Sam recorded his first impressions of Monterey in his journal, noting that quite a few of the original adobe buildings were then already in ruin:

“There was only one street [Alvarado Street] with any business on it. There were two or three stores, half a dozen saloons, three restaurants, two hotels, the Pacific Ocean house – and the Central Hotel, and one Bank, the Monterey Bank.”

Hatton’s dairy, Carmel Valley, circa 1900

Making several stops in the Carmel Highlands along the way, it took the travelers the entire day to get from William Hatton’s dairy at the mouth of the Carmel Valley to Garrapata Canyon, where they stayed overnight with Isaac Newton Swetnam and his wife, Ellen.

The next day they made it as far as the Little Sur, via Palo Colorado Canyon, where they lodged at the home of Robert Murray, Sr. The following evening, they stayed at the home of Edmund C. Sterritt, of Nova Scotia, Canada, who had erected a water-powered mill for grinding grain, up Garrapata Creek.

A few days were spent camping out in the Little Sur, assessing the timber stands and the mountainous terrain:

“It was a pretty sight looking down into Little [Sur] River which formed a basin in back of Pico Blanco, Ventana Mts. and Big and Little Pines of the best and biggest bunch of redwood timber that ever grew in Monterey county.”

When they returned to Boulder Creek, Sam filed a claim on the north fork of the Little Sur River. A few weeks later, he returned to the Little Sur, with the Notley Brothers. Working together, they began splitting boards from a fallen redwood and erected what became Jack Robertson’s cabin. While living in the new cabin, they laid the foundations for three more buildings.

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William”Bill” Franklin Notley (right) and his wife, Carrie (left) and son Austin, 1890

Sam went back to work in Boulder Creek, but he was back in the Little Sur in September of 1894. He wrote in his journal, “I left Boulder Creek all of a sudden,” heading back to the Little Sur to build a cabin on his claim.

On the trip down the coast, Sam was accompanied by his partner Louie York, who was then quite sick with malaria:

“As Louie helped me most the time, I was watching him and his chills and he hadn’t had a chill for several days. I asked him when he had his last chill and he had to think and he had forgotten when it was the fever had left him. Fresh air, sweet water from the redwood gulch and lime formation, fresh beef, trout, quail – and chills and fever had no chance where one takes plenty of exercise.”

Sam enjoyed fishing and did his best hunting game. His son Frank was fond of saying that his dad would only fire, “if something came close enough to shoot out of a knothole.”

Bill Notley had his eye on the timber on Partington Ridge and he and Sam went to inspect the forest. From Torre Canyon, they had a good view of the expansive redwood stands. Sam wrote in his journal:

“There were three forks and each one showed plenty of redwood timber and plenty of tanbark. It grew high up on the mountain with open grass spots, the long grass ridge running up from the field to the top of the mountain is the most even grade of any ridge on the coast.”

Sam marveled at “what a country it was,” admitting that it was, “the Partington Ranch I fell in love with and never got over it.” But the Notley Brothers decided that the timber further north, at Palo Colorado Canyon, was much more accessible, and that is where they decided to set up shop.

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Before the turn of the century, most entertainment was homemade. Dances on the Big Sur coast began in the early evening and carried on until sunrise. The dances occurred five or six times a year and if the weather was good, as many as one-hundred people would show up.

Guests frequently stayed for barbecue served the next day. The music stopped long enough to serve a midnight supper to fortify the participants, but other than a few breaks for the musicians, the festivities went on all night. Although Sam could play the fiddle, he preferred dancing to playing music for dancers.

Sam Trotter, age 33, Catterlin’s photography studio, Santa Cruz, California, 1905

Sam Trotter was a larger-than-life character – a behemoth of a man with sizable appetites. He was well over two-hundred and fifty pounds, tall, stout, and muscular, with a big mustache on his face. The Peninsula Daily Herald referred to his “gigantic proportions and booming voice.” He enjoyed the dances and would go out of his way to attend. For such a big bloke, he is said to have been quite light on his feet and a surprisingly graceful dancer.

In his journal, Sam wrote about attending his first Saturday night dance near the mouth of the Big Sur River, at the Cooper Ranch dance hall, in 1895:

“They told me that they were all going to the dance in a wagon and would start early to get there before dark and I could go with them in the wagon and get your horse tomorrow when we get back. I was ready to accept their invitation when I remembered that I had told Miss [Alta] Bixby I would try to get to the dance and remembering about Molly and Susie I did not want any complications in trouble.

“There were three Castro girls, sisters of Roche [Rojelio Joseph] Castro, whose mother was cousin to the famous bandit Tiburcio Vazquez. They have been singing songs accompanied by a guitar.”

Only half a century before, the Mexican ranchos were still thriving in California. Sam describes an old Spanish custom that had come to Big Sur from Mexico, that was still part of the local culture:

“They told me that the dance was going to be a cascarone dance. A cascarone is an empty eggshell stuffed with confetti. A gentleman breaks the cascarone over a lady’s head. The confetti falls down the lady’s shoulders, which I understand explains to others who see it that she is his favorite and choice for the evening. And she will do the same thing; the first man she breaks a shell over is her favored partner for the evening. It may be the man that broke a cascarone over her head or maybe someone else.

Alta Bixby

“George Bixby [Charles Bixby’s son] and I walked over to the barbecue pit… [the coals] were burning down, getting it ready to cook a barbecued beef. I saw a large beef they were cutting up to have for supper. The crowd had all arrived by dark except a few horseback riders came in later. I was surprised to see so many gathered together in one place, where one would think so few people live, but they are, I am certain it was more than 100 people. The music had arrived, an accordion player, guitar and banjo. Immediately after dark the lamps were lighted and the music began and a few couples start dancing. Most of the crowd was waiting for the barbecued meat. I was undecided which girls to ask for a dance first, Miss [Alta] Bixby [Charles Bixby’s daughter] or Miss Lorena Castro, until it was settled for me by chance when someone came by and taken the Castro girl and started dancing, then I asked Alta for a dance just as another man came after her but I spoke first which was my start in the Big Sur country. From then on until the next morning we had a few dances, then we were told the barbecue beef was ready for the first call.

“Mrs. [Antonia Amada] Castro [David Castro’s wife] had asked me to eat with them as they had extra food such as pie, cake, tomatoes, fried chicken… The beef was barbecued by experts and was wonderful with plenty of sauce and French bread. Baked beans, also Spanish boiled beans, with plenty of chili peppers but not too much for most people, plenty of good strong coffee … I managed to strain my stomach almost to the breaking point.”

The varsoviana originated in Warsaw, Poland, in the 1850s, and the dance became popular in 19th-century America. After the untimely death of their father, John and Edward Burns, Jr., were orphaned. Bill and Anselma Post, who lived just south of the Pfeiffers, took them in. One of the Burns boys taught W.B. Post’s grandson, Bill Post to play the accordion. Waltzing to well-loved melody became a tradition in Big Sur and Bill continued to play the tune on the accordion, well into the 1970s.

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John Cooper II

Captain John Rogers Cooper’s son, John Cooper II, built the dance hall for his vaqueros at Rancho El Sur, after the Civil War. He did his best to carry on the old traditions of his mother and father – the spring round ups, dances, and rodeos. The rodeos were elaborate affairs that lasted for three days – women slept in the house, and the men slept in the barn and the haystacks. His son, John Cooper III, born in 1874, remembered:

“We had a dance hall by the river and people danced country dances – the quadrille, the varsoviana…

“There were whole beeves hanging under the trees and we had milk pans full of cooked meat. Women brought cakes and pies. They used honey instead of sugar. For music, we had the accordion and guitar. There was plenty of water and lemonade at dances. The lemonade came as a yellow powder in a paper can made by the Smith Company, already prepared. We also had coffee and tea.”

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On November 2, 1895, the Monterey Cypress printed a story about the October harvest moon parties in Big Sur:

“Surprise parties seem to be the fashion just now in this part of the country. One night, last week, the whole neighborhood turned out and surprised Mr. Pfeiffer and family, and everybody had a jolly good time. Dancing was kept up all night. The next party was at the home of David Castro [present-day site of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn], where the same programme was carried out. On the evening of October 26, a large party took possession of the house of W. B. Post [present-day site of the Ventana resort] by storm, and a larger party has never been assembled anywhere in this neighborhood … Dancing commenced at an early hour and was kept up until midnight, when supper was announced. Anything that the heart could wish for was spread on the table and everybody enjoyed it. After supper Mr. Wm. Green entertained the company by giving them an insight to sleight of hand performances. After that there was music on the organ and guitar, and singing, and more dancing, which was kept up until daylight, with all dispersed to their homes all agree that they had a grand time.”

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W. B. “Bill” Post

Sam used his journal to keep track of his hours of work, recorded significant events, and to note the weather and the winds. But in the last decades of his life, he wrote memoirs about the early days in Carrol County, Missouri. He died before he finished his autobiographical journaling.

His journal is a remarkable historical document, full of fascinating details. For example, Sam mentions that, in the late 1890s, he purchased 800 pounds of hay from Bill Post and paid a penny a pound.

Sam wrote about going to a “snake fight” between a king snake and a rattlesnake, staged by Esther Pfeiffer at the Pfeiffer Ranch. Spectators bet on the snake that they thought would be the winner. But there was no winner that day, possibly due to the cold temperatures, and each snake curled up in a corner of the arena and went to sleep.

There are passages in his journal where Sam waxes philosophical, describing a day so beautiful and clear that, “everything looked as if it had room to breathe.”

After attending the graduation of his children Roy and Henry, he wondered whether, “any of those kids would make some sort of mark on the world.”

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Sam was nearly killed in Santa Cruz, on June 21, 1895, during a rehearsal for the upcoming Fourth of July parade. The hose companies from several local fire departments were making a practice run when Sam tripped and fell, and the heavy wheels of the cart passed over his groin. He was confined to his bed, in a lot of pain, and remained in serious condition for several weeks.

Southern Pacific Depot and Passenger Train, Salinas, California, 1897

While Sam was recovering from his injuries, the July 14, 1895, Salinas Californian reported:

“Notley Bros. of Boulder Creek, who have quite a number of men employed and peeling tan bark in the neighborhood of Garrapatas [sic] creek, down the coast, are trying the double experiment of hauling the bark to Monterey by [mule] team and then ship the same per railroad to its place of destination. One load amounting to about one and a half cords was brought in the other day and is now at the S. P. R. R. Co.’s [Southern Pacific Railroad] depot. We hope the Notley Bros will make a success, but we doubt very much if hauling over the coast road will pay.”

Just fourteen months later, on September 26, 1896, the Monterey Cypress newspaper noted that:

“The schooner Bessie K, Captain Anderson, arrived at Alviso [a small town at south end of San Francisco Bay, north of San Jose] Sunday evening with a cargo of 118 tons of tan bark and twelve hogs from Notley Brothers’ landing [thirteen miles south of Carmel] consigned to Notley Bros., San Jose. The trip was made in thirty-six hours.”

Soon, the G.C. Notley Co. was thriving. The January 8, 1898, issue of Monterey Cypress newspaper announced that:

“Notley Bros. of Santa Cruz county have secured the contract to cut 200,000 ties for the [San Joaquin Valley Railroad Company]. [Godfrey] C. Notley passed through Monterey the first of the week on his way down the coast to commence operations for the winter in the forest several miles inland.”

The G. C. Notley Co. also manufactured 16 foot long,  3″ x 3″ redwood oyster poles. These were used to stake out oyster beds in saltwater. In this application, redwood lasts longer than other woods and many of the old oyster beds from San Simeon to San Francisco that were built of Notley oyster poles, were still standing in the 1940s.

*          *          *

California redwood logging, circa 1900

In the temperate California coastal range, the redwood logging camps opened up shortly after the Christmas holidays, unless torrential rains delayed the season. In his May, 1952, Stanford University dissertation, One Hundred Years of the Redwood Lumber Industry, 1850-1950, Howard B. Melendy, described the different positions on a 19th-century redwood logging crew:

“A crew of about twelve was sent to each camp. The crew consisted of a cook, several choppers, a few sawyers, and peelers, who peeled the logs and ringed the trunks for the sawyers. The choppers went in pairs, the two both working on the same tree. One of these, the head chopper, took the lead in directing how the tree would be felled.

“[T]he head chopper had to be a man of experience in judgment, as well as a good axe man … On the steep hillsides, it was usually felled uphill, but if the country were rugged, as much of it was, broken by sharp divides and abrupt gullies, the choppers had to take great care in choosing a bed for the tree. The tree’s immense weight and its propensity to split lengthwise rendered it particularly liable to injury and falling. However, the chopper had to look beyond the falling of this one tree to the fact that there were many other trees in the same area which were to be felled long before any of the timber was removed from the scene, and had to be kept in mind that these other trees too had to have a place to fall.”

*          *          *

Martin Trotter (left) and his wife Phoebe, 1912

In the late 1890s, Sam’s father Martin, and his stepmother Phebe, and Sam’s siblings Paul, Charles, and Maggie departed Carrollton County, Missouri, en masse, and took the train west to California. They settled near their relatives, fifty-five miles northwest of Los Angeles, in Fillmore, on the Santa Clara River, in Ventura County, Martin, who was then 59 years old, made his living in California working as a carpenter.

The Notley Brothers were overextended, trying to manage their company, and their families paid the price. Bill Notley had a wife and eight children living in Santa Cruz. George Notley had a wife and two children living in San Jose.

Godfrey C. Notley, the general manager of G.C. Notley Co., lived in Monterey with his wife Carrie, their five-year-old son Alvie, and the brothers’ father, the 68-year-old William Luffman Notley.

Notley’s Landing, itself, was constructed of heavy logs secured with iron drift bolts embedded in the boulders and sulfured in place. Today, some of the original bolts are still there, rusting out of the bedrock. Thirty-one-year-old Godfrey Notley was a hands-on kind of executive. On October 13, 1900, the Monterey Cypress newspaper noted that:

“G. C. Notley, of the well-known firm of Notley Bros., who have been doing a large business in lumber and tan bark down the coast, met with a severe accident on Saturday last. He was engaged in attaching a ring to a rock at Bixby’s landing to use in mooring vessels, when a huge wave came rolling in and threw him violently forward upon the rocks, cutting a painful gas up on his head. While the shock was great and he’s suffering greatly from loss of blood, no serious results will follow the injury.”

The October 16, 1900, issue of the Salinas Californian reported:

“At Sargent’s ranch [the San Francisquito rancho in Carmel Valley] were in camp five six-horse and mule teams and drivers, who are hauling tanbark from San Jose Creek [in present-day Point Lobos State Reserve] for the Notley Bros. They get $3.50 per cord for hauling and five cords are loaded up on each wagon.”

There’s a section at the top of Palo Colorado Road they still call “the hoist,” because of the very steep grade. It was too steep for wagonloads of tanbark and lumber, so they were literally hoisted by a block and tackle that was hitched to a team of oxen. You can still see the old block and tackle on a wooden beam, mounted between the dusty residential mailboxes by the side of the road.

*          *          *

Tanbark harvesting in Big Sur, circa 1900

In the twelve months of calendar year 1902, working for the G. C. Notley Co., Sam Trotter and his crew of forty timber-beasts removed 10,000 cords of tanbark out of Partington Canyon, one of Sam’s favorite places.

Using a pole axe, he’d “jayhawk” the smaller trees by cutting rings in the bark in three places, at a height of eight feet, four feet, and ground level. Then he’d run the axe blade from one ring to the next, shoving it under the bark and peeling it off the tree. As the bark dried, it curled into a roll, like a cinnamon stick. The rolled bark was stacked at the foot of the tree, to be collected by the packers, after it was allowed to dry out.

The tanbark was hauled down the steep canyons in “go-devils” – a half sled and half wagon conveyance that was pulled by a mule. The front end had wheels for steering and the rear had sled runners. Some of the tanoak wood was used for firewood, but most of the trees were left standing. Tanoak is a fast-growing tree, especially on the northern slope of the canyon.

Tunnel at Partington Landing

Sam’s cousin, “Uncle Dave” Standly, had taught Sam to always take good care of his animals. In the October 1979, Big Sur Gazette, Mary Harrington wrote that although Sam was thrown off horses, mules and steers many times, he remembered, “but if I started to break a horse or a mule to ride I stayed with it until it was gentle enough for anyone to ride. I know I can get along better with mules than many other men whether I understand them better or whether understand me, or possibly I am more like a mule than others.”

More than three dozen mules were used to transport the tanbark out of Partington Canyon, via a tunnel through the mountain to a landing, which John Partington had built with his partner, Burt Stevens. But the two-hundred-foot-long tunnel was too narrow, until Sam widened it to a width of about six feet and a height and of about nine feet – enough to accommodate a two-horse team.

According to the June 27, 1937, issue of the Monterey Peninsula Herald:

“Bootleggers landed ‘hootch’ regularly at Notley’s Landing, sometimes several truckloads a night, according to stories told by those who know the region. And there were several exciting night raids by ‘revanooers.'”

Local folklore maintains that, in the 1920s during Prohibition, Partington Landing at the end of the tunnel, was used to export boatloads of moonshine that was manufactured at local distilleries. A few decades later, Sam’s youngest sons, Frank and Walter (immense men, like their father, and known locally as “The Trotter Brothers”) rebuilt the launch there to lower their boat into the cove to go fishing. The big tripod they erected may still be standing.

*          *          *

The employment in the woods, though seasonal, was steady. But what varied from lumber camp to lumber camp was the food.

Matt Valentine Huhta (T-Bone Slim)

During the First World War, the Finnish American anarchist newspaper columnist, songwriter and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Matt Valentine Huhta (AKA T-Bone Slim), wrote a lyric called The Lumberjack’s Prayer, sung to the melody of a well-known hymn, The Doxology:

I pray dear Lord for Jesus’ sake, give us this day a T-bone steak,
Hallowed be thy holy name, but don’t forget to send the same.

Oh, hear my humble cry, oh Lord, and send us down some decent board,
Brown gravy and some German fried, with sliced tomatoes on the side.

Observe me on my bended legs, I’m asking you for ham and eggs,
And if thou hav’est custard pies, I like, dear Lord, the largest size.

Oh, hear my cry, all mighty host, I quite forgot the quail on toast, —
Let your kindly heart be stirred, and stuff some oysters in that bird.

Dear Lord, we know your holy wish, on Friday we must have a fish,
Our flesh is weak and spirit stale – you better make that fish a whale.

*          *          *

On April 13, 1903, the Salinas Californian announced:

“Fifty Men Wanted. Common laborers and men on road work 35 and $40 per month and bored. Woodmen and bark peelers. $45 and $50 per month and board at Notley’s Landing, Sur, Monterey County.”

Three weeks later, the May 6, 1903, issue of the Salinas Californian reported that more than 100 neighbors attended a Friday night dance and barbecue at the newly constructed barn at Notley’s Landing:

“G. C. Notley entertained the coast people by giving a picnic, barbecue and dance on May 1st. Over one hundred people were present and all feasted on the best of barbecued meat and the choicest viands [foods] money could produce. During the day the merry makers indulged in dancing in Mr. Notley’s new barn, which was beautifully decorated with redwood boughs. Music was furnished by Whitcomb and Estudillo. Dancing began in the evening about 8 o’clock and at twelve a delicious supper was served in the cook house. Afterward dancing continued ’till dawn of the day. Everyone had an excellent time and heartily thank Mr. Noltey for his kindness and generosity…”

A story survives from the early 1900s, of a night when so many neighbors attended a dance at Notley’s Landing, that their collective weight collapsed the floor of the dance hall.

Sam’s daughter-in-law, Mary Harrington, remembered a story about how, at one of the dances, Sam “reacted in mock horror once at having to take a lady home at 2:00 am. [saying] ‘Whoever heard of leaving a dance this early?’ ”

*          *          *

Elfrieda Swetnam

The Swetnam’s youngest daughter, Elfrieda remembered, “When the Notleys were actively running the landing, [with] schooners loading and unloading, it became a sort of social center, as well as a business center for the whole community.”

In June of 1903, G. C. Notley Co. opened a grocery store at Notley’s Landing. The following month they opened a shingle mill and a two-story bunkhouse and wagon shed under construction. In May 1904, they purchased the gasoline powered schooner Confianza, which departed San Francisco’s Mission Dock #1 every Thursday at 5:00 pm, arriving at Notley’s Landing the following morning.

Their company was growing quickly. Consequently, the Notley Brothers, were under a lot of pressure – perhaps more than even they realized.

On March 30, 1905, the Salinas Californian reported:

“A physical wreck as a result of overwork and worry over his lumber business, without sleep for several days as a result of his nervous condition, Godfrey C. Notley on Wednesday afternoon shot and killed himself in the saloon of  Thomas Armstrong [in Monterey] without a word.

“H. F. Wright, the barkeeper, says that at about a quarter to four Notley walked directly back into the rear sitting room without even a nod of recognition and the next minute he heard the report of a revolver. Running in the other room he found Notley stretched on the floor unconscious with a bullet wound directly over the right ear. Dr. Morgan was quickly summoned but nothing could be done for him. He was taken to his wife’s mother’s home at Lincoln and Center streets [in Salinas], where he and his wife and son were staying until they should leave as they intended on April 1. He lived for about an hour but never regained consciousness.

“Mr. Notley [age 35] had been a victim of overwork for the past few months and had but lately returned from the French Hospital in San Francisco where he was treated for inflammation of the bowels. He left there a few weeks ago, convalescing, but as usual with strong healthy man after a severe illness, this process was very slow and he had been on the verge of a nervous prostration for the last three days. It is believed he lost control of his nervous system at last and while in a fit of extreme despair determined to put an end to his life.

“[Godfrey Notley] was a partner in and general manager of the G.C. Notley Co., and on valuable timberlands in the Sur district, 18 miles below Monterey. The sawmill at Notley’s Landing and two schooners, besides a large lumber yard at Monterey, are the property of the company, in which Messrs. H. F. Kron [a Santa Cruz city councilman] and Eberhardt of San Jose are also interested. The dead man was figuring on going to the Landing on Saturday with his wife and only son, age 10, who expected to stay there with him until September. He was always a very hard worker and had his business affairs constantly on his mind and it was this state of mind which was undoubtedly the cause of his rash act…

“Tom Armstrong’s [saloon] has been a headquarters for the Notley family for years, John Jay Notley having been in partnership with Armstrong until recently. Mr. Armstrong said Wednesday night that Godfrey Notley was never a drinking man, whatever, and that his trouble was due solely to his passion for work and his incessant mental and physical activity while engaged in his business.”

*          *          *

Bill and George Notley were blindsided by the suicide of their little brother. Godfrey Notley had been the driving force behind G. C. Notley Co. since its founding. After his death, they hastily drew up papers making Godfrey’s widow, Carrie, the owner of his shares in the company.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

One wonders if any of the Notleys had read the then popular poem “Richard Cory,” which the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson published in 1897:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

*          *          *

At Palo Colorado Canyon, business was booming. By the summer of 1906, the G. C. Notley Co. had expanded to fill some twenty buildings and a construction crew was busy erecting a new sawmill at Notley’s Landing.

It had been a very busy summer – but an extremely dry one. During the month of October, a wildfire burned through Palo Colorado Canyon. In October of 1906, George Notley told a reporter from the Salinas Californian newspaper, that his lumberjacks had removed the tanbark trees from all the ranches in the neighborhood and estimate that they wouldn’t be able to harvest the bark again, for a decade or more.

The November 3, 1906, issue of the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel carried this notice:

“It is reported that the fire was started a month ago on the Palo Colorado creek is still burning fiercely. Since Monday it has burned over the Pico Blanco and the ranches of A. Dani, A. E. Cooper, Mrs. Cooper Vasquez, J. Miller, Joe Schmidt, Sam Lang and A. Clark.

“The Idlewild Hotel [in the Little Sur] was saved only by persistent efforts. All culverts and bridges for thirty-six miles down the coast are destroyed. The latest report says the fires is below Posts [present-day Ventana resort], on a range nearly forty miles from its starting point.”

*          *          *

Notley’s Landing 5¢ trading coin, circa 1900

The tanbark industry continued to boom for several more years. On September 30, 1909, a reporter from the Monterey Daily Cypress interviewed Sam Trotter:

“Mr. Trotter has probably handled more tanbark than any other man in the state … Just at present Mr. Trotter, who is connected with the Notley company, is engaged in filling a contract for 700 cords of tanbark for a Santa Cruz tanning concern. His company is now stripping tanbark from a tract of 4,800 acres of land down the coast.

“‘There is always a demand for tanbark,” said Mr Trotter yesterday, ‘and so far there has never been a substitute found for it for tanning purposes. The tanbark forests are being depleted. At the present time the bark sells from $20 to $22 a cord, which is 2,400 pounds. In cutting the bark in the forests two cords of Oakwood are secured to each cord of bark. The oak wood is worth about $8 accord, which added to what is realized for the tanbark makes the industry a very valuable one.’

“‘The planting of tan oaks for their bark would make a fortune for anyone. The trees can be grown from the acorns. In twenty-five years you would have a forest that would produce you a princely sum. As the trees are cut down shoot spring up all around the stump, and in seven years these shoots will reach 8 or 9 inches in diameter. If I was going to plant trees it would be the tan oak, and in years to come whoever inherited it would have a perfect gold mine.'”

*          *          *

The Trails Club cabin built by Sam Trotter with paintings by Erin Lee Gafill, fifth generation Monterey Peninsula fine artist

For many years, Sam Trotter lived and worked in Mule Canyon, a mile south of Posts. There, in 1925, he built a redwood log cabin as for the Trails Club.

The cabin was used by Trails Club members, who were camping and horseback riding enthusiasts, and would ride up from southern California to spend a few nights at the cabin, before beginning the trip home. Many were on their way to vacation at Pfeiffer’s Ranch Resort, where, as Bill Fassett put it, “You got three meals and slept in a brass bed (that came around the Horn) for $2.00 a day – and all the horses you wanted to ride.”

Nobody lived in the Trails Club cabin during the winter. After several members of the Trails Club built houses at Coastlands, just north of Mule Canyon, and up on Partington Ridge, the Trails Club cabin was unoccupied.

Nicholas Roosevelt, a cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, was a lifelong Republican, a conservationist, and a lover of the outdoors. He and his wife vacationed at the Trails Club cabin when they visited Big Sur, in April 1939. After the Second World War, the couple retired to Partington Ridge where they and made their home and grew roses.

In the early 1940s, Orson Welles’ manager purchased the Trail’s Club cabin for Rita Hayworth, who, at the time, was Welles’ wife. Hayworth supposedly measured the windows for curtains and the kitchen for a new stove, but the famous couple divorced in 1947, and never returned.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, nightly blackouts along the coast were mandatory, as a precaution against Japanese attack. Business in Big Sur came to a standstill. During the Second World War, the novelist Lynda Sargent lived in the Trails Club cabin. Emil White, whose home became the Henry Miller Library, remembered that she was moving out of the cabin the day he arrived in Big Sur, in May of 1944.

Bill and Lolly Fassett and their children in from of the Trails Club cabin that was built by Sam Trotter

Bill Fassett recalled:

“Somebody wrote Lynda that they had a friend, and could he come and stay there for a while. His name was Henry Miller. She’d never heard of him, so she ran out and got a book. You couldn’t buy them at the bookstore, you know.”

The Trails Club cabin stood empty for three years until, in 1947, Bill and Lolly Fassett bought it, and twelve surrounding acres, for $12,000. Lolly Fassett’s uncle, Albert Gallitan Powers, a renowned restauranteur, opened Gallatin’s Restaurant at the historic Stokes Adobe, on Hartnell Street in downtown Monterey, in the 1950s.

Just below the Trail’s Club cabin, in 1949, the Fassetts opened the Nepenthe restaurant. Rowan Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the building, with its vaulted ceilings, massive redwood beams, and enormous cantilevered windows. The Fassetts planted conifers around the property and today the tall trees shade the hillside.

Perched 800-feet above the beach, the old redwood Trails Club cabin still stands. It’s now a private residence whose south-facing windows overlook the bleacher seats and outdoor patio of the Nepenthe restaurant, and the sweeping view of the southern coastline beyond. So temperate is the climate, that in midwinter, the lemon trees in the Nepenthe garden are heavy with fruit.

*          *          *

Big Sur cabin built by Sam Trotter


Sam Trotter built quite a few roads and houses in Big Sur, some of which are still standing today. An orthodox timber-beast, working with a few crewmen, he packed in most of the wood and supplies, and cut most of the lumber himself.

One of Sam’s cabins was constructed out of the timber from a single redwood tree found at the site. The huge redwood beams and trusses had to be hewn by hand, and each of the houses he built was, in itself unique. Homeowners found their dwellings to be rustic, functional, and suited to both their specific needs and location.

Sam built the Torre Canyon house for Charles and Melodile Hathaway. For the stone fireplace, Sam used two Indian mortar stones – one on each side of the chimney. The Hathaways kept the matches for lighting the fire in one of the mortars. In his journal, Sam Trotter mentions that he and Charles Hathaway went to the Pfeiffer Ranch to purchase these mortars for the fireplace, from Oscar Pfeiffer, in 1927.

He built Beth Livermore’s place on Livermore Ledge. In Mule Canyon, Sam Trotter built Earl Files’ house. He also built several vacation homes for a group of academics and artists in the nearby subdivision called Coastlands, just north of Mule Canyon: Walker Paul’s house, Russell Fields’ house, Sam Blackman’s house, the Emil Zeitfuchs house, the Bruce Porter house, the Carl Voss house, and the Frank Bell log house.

In the October 1979 issue if the Big Sur Gazette, Mary Harrington wrote of her timber-beast of a father-in-law:

“Sam hewed doors out of solid redwood slabs – doors that were 3 feet wide and 6 ft. 8 inches tall. Sam made his doors slightly thicker in the middle to prevent warping. The finish door is weighed between 600 and 700 pounds and took [two strong men] to load them on Sam’s back so he could haul them up the trail.”

*          *          *

James and Abigail Gregg left their native state of Virginia for the Ohio frontier, in the 1820s. Their seventh child, Isaac Newton Gregg, was born in Union, Ohio, in 1827. He grew up in Warsaw, Illinois, and came west for the Gold Rush while still in his teens.

In Sacramento, Isaac married an Australian woman named Martha Ann West. He started his career as a “printer’s devil” – the printer’s apprentice and gofer – at the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper, in 1859. Isaac may well have known the Notleys from their days in Santa Cruz. In the 1890s, he bought timberlands in Big Sur.

On March 26, 1901, Sam Trotter married twenty-one-year-old Abigail M. Gregg, the sixth of Isaac and Martha Ann’s fourteen children. The April 4, 1901, issue of the Salinas Californian reported that the newlyweds “intend to spend the summer at Sea View,” John and Laurie Partington’s former homestead on the ridge in Big Sur that now bears their name.

Frida Sharpe was the postmaster at Bixby Creek. Her daughter Rosalind Sharpe Wall wrote in her memoir, A Wild Coast and Lonely:

Sam Trotter and his wife Abigail Gregg on their wedding day, March 26, 1901

“But Abby, this lovely young woman with whom he was deeply in love, was fatally ill of tuberculosis and died … He told my mother he continue to love Abby all his life. Every day he carried her in his arms to watch the sunset.”

She died fourteen months after their wedding – three days after her twenty-third birthday – on May 24, 1902. George Notley was one of the pallbearers at her funeral. She is buried at Santa Cruz Memorial Park.

*          *          *

In time, Sam Trotter started showing up the local dances again. On Saturday night, October 15, 1904, he attended a dance at the Palo Colorado schoolhouse near Notley’s Landing. As was the local custom, a huge dinner was served at midnight and the dance continued until dawn. All the neighbors were there, including Julia Pfeiffer, and her youngest sister, 25-year-old Adelaide “Lida” Barbara Pfeiffer.

Lida was the youngest daughter of Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer, two of the earliest and most tenacious homesteaders on the Big Sur coast, and thirteen years younger than her sister Mary Ellen, who had committed suicide a four year earlier.

Throwing caution to the wind, after a brief courtship, Lida and Sam were married on Wednesday, June 7, 1905, in the living room of Rev. M.R. Wolfe, on San Luis Street in Salinas.

At that time, Sam was working as the foreman of the G. C. Notley Company. The company had just purchased the Swetnam Ranch in Palo Colorado Canyon. Sam and Lida moved into Isaac and Ma Swetnam’s the three-story ranch house, in December 1905. It was one of the nicest houses on the coast, and one which they had both visited many times. There, Sam and Lida raised four sons and a daughter.

*          *          *

Sam Trotter had a natural gift for engineering and spatial geometry, which served him in his construction and road building endeavors. When equipment or building materials had to be moved to an inaccessible location, folks invariably turned to Sam. When they wanted to build a sawmill in Mill Creek, Sam figured out how to get it hauled up there safely.

Boat towing log raft, 1910

On December 4, 1910, the Monterey Daily Cypress reported:

“Sam Trotter is building a [60 x 100’] raft at the mouth of the Big Sur [River] of some 8,000 posts that he has there and will have the raft towed to Monterey. This is a new venture in lumbering in Monterey county … Heretofore Trotter and other lumberman down the coast have been hauling their posts out of there by boat, but this is been rather slow. When the raft is completed a launch will be sent down to the mouth of the Sur and the raft of posts will be hauled up here. The raft will then be knocked to pieces and the posts hauled up to the lumber yard.”

However, this concept only worked on paper – the raft broke apart before they reached Monterey. It was a disaster. Thereafter, Sam returned to shipping posts as cargo aboard a ship.

Sam built rock jetties on the Big Sur River to protect the Molera ranch from flooding. He built the road into Coastlands, starting with a pick and shovel, then working with one horse and a plow, then two horses with a plow and a scraper, and he finished the job with a small tractor. He also built the Partington Trail to the top of the ridge and the Coastlands Trail. He charged 15¢ a foot, unless blasting was required, then the rate was 25¢ a foot.

*          *          *

The March 4, 1921, issue if the Salinas Californian reported on Sam’s latest business scheme:

“President Harry G. Bill, reporting for the auto express committee, said that S. M. Trotter of Pacific Grove is in San Francisco conferring with the state railroad commission on his (Trotter’s) application for permission to establish an express line between San Francisco and Pacific Grove. The chief purpose of the line will be the delivery of San Francisco morning papers to points south of San Jose.”

Through the summer of 1921, Sam made numerous business trips to San Francisco, pursuing his plan to expedite delivery of newspapers to the Monterey Peninsula. If the truth be told, Sam was not a great businessman and his get rich schemes rarely succeeded. Mary Harrington, Sam’s daughter-in-law remembered:

“Sam once decided to go into the mushroom business. He sent back to New York for some white king mushroom spawn. It cost $10 and came in a compact form like a presto log. With some good horse manure from Posts, the mushrooms practically spring up overnight. Unable to sell them at all, Sam and [his sons] Frank and Walter managed to consume close to 10 pounds. They don’t eat mushrooms much anymore.”

Lida Pfeiffer grew up on her parents’ homestead in Sycamore Canyon. She knew more about ranching and farming than her timber-beast of a husband. When Sam gave Lida money for clothing or curtains, much to his consternation, she would invariably spend it on something sensible, like livestock or fencing. After all, she was on site, managing the ranch and the homestead, while he was away on construction projects.

On Friday morning, November 11, 1921, Sam left the house for work. But he didn’t come home that night. Or the next. He had inexplicably vanished.

*          *          *

The Wednesday, November 16, 1921, issue of the Monterey Daily Cypress and Monterey American reported:

“Sam Trotter left this city last Friday night for home, some 40 miles down the coast, where a wife and five children awaited him. It was a foggy night and, although Mr. Trotter was known as a careful and experienced driver, it is evident that a sharp curve at Granite Canyon, fourteen miles south of here, where the road runs within ten feet of the bluff, and then suddenly turns sharply away, the fog momentarily confused him and in that fatal moment the car shot over the cliff and plunged one hundred feet down a declivity too steep from man on foot to descend safely without the use of ropes…

“When Mr. Trotter did not appear in this city Saturday, where he was to have made application before the railroad commission for a franchise to run an auto freight service between this city and San Francisco, his friends could not surmise what had become of him, but yesterday morning the driver of the Big Sur stage, coming to this city, noticed an auto seat at the point mentioned and informed Paul Trotter [Sam’s half-brother] of the fact upon his arrival here.

“Mr. [Paul] Trotter immediately drove down to Granite Canyon with a party of friends and descended the cliffs, finding doors, and broken wheel and, more conclusive than either, the private letters and bank book of the missing man strewn around the water’s edge.

“Oil rising from the swirling water gave mute testimony of the presence of the wrecked machine in the absence of any trace of the body led to the conclusion that it was either pinned under the car or had floated away with the tide.

“The brother returned to this city late last night and immediately began preparations for an attempt to grapple for the car and raise it to the surface in order to determine that it was not there.

“Many volunteers offered to go down to the scene of the accident and render assistance in the heavy task, and probably 20 men will start at daybreak armed with ropes and grappling hooks.”

The rocky shore at Granite Canyon in Big Sur

The following day, the Monterey Daily Cypress and Monterey American added:

“The scene of the accident is one of the roughest spots on the coast, and the currents are so swift and the bottom is so rocky that the idea of employing a diver to go down and look for the body is said to be utterly impractical.”

This wasn’t the first time someone had been killed at that dangerous bend in the old dirt road. In the early 1890s, Charles Keslar, a teamster and dairyman who lived near Bixby Creek, was awarded the first contract to carry the U. S. mail between Big Sur and Monterey. On Friday, June 3,1892, he was driving up the old Coast Road when, at the sharp curve at Granite Canyon, his wagon went over the embankment, and he and his team were killed in the fall. One of the horses was swept into a sea cave and its carcass was never found.

*          *          *

A century ago, before radio and television, the daily newspaper was the primary source of news and currents events. Each day Sam’s wife, Lida (and everyone else in Monterey County) read the newspaper. One can only imagine how she felt, seeing the details of her personal life emblazoned across the front page. Word of Sam’s death spread through the county. Friends and neighbors up and down the coast were shocked and saddened by the tragic news.

Deputy Sheriff William Oyer

The Friday, November 18, 1921, issue of the Monterey Daily Cypress and Monterey American published further developments in the story:

“Deputy sheriff William Oyer announced today that on account of rumors of possible foul play connected with the death of Sam Trotter, who is supposed to have lost his life in an automobile accident at Granite Canyon early last Saturday morning, he would go to the scene of the accident tomorrow and make a personal investigation of the matter. It is stated that Trotter was thought to have had considerable money on his person when he left Monterey for his home down the coast, and there are persistent rumors that the point where the accident occurred is ideal for a holdup or murder, the evidence of any such crime being easily removed by shoving the car over the bluff into the ocean.”

The Saturday, November 19, 1921, issue of the Monterey Daily Cypress and Monterey American reported on the forensic evidence from the scene of the tragedy:

“First, there were tracks so long about the center of the road to a point around the first curve leading into Granite Gulch. Then the car stopped and backed up the slight incline of this curve into the steep bank of the road, which is away from the shore. This was shown both by the tracks of the car and the marks where the running board had scraped the bank.

“After this the car had rolled straight forward from the latter position, which pointed almost straight at the brink of the ocean cliff. It was rolled, not driven (the tracks showing plainly that no power had been applied and the car was also found out of gear when it was found) to the precipice.

“All the evidence found bore out the theory that the car had been deliberately rolled to the bank, after having been backed up the road to give it a straightaway position pointing toward the cliff. From the marks of the descent it was also plain that it had not gone over the bank at any great speed, but had been carefully and deliberately pushed over…

“It will be seen from the foregoing description of the manner in which it is evident the auto went over the bluff that there is more or less ground for suspicion that Sam Trotter may have met with a tragedy rather than an accident…

“It is stated that the sheriff is on the track of a man who is said to have had an altercation in this city with Trotter the night before he left on his fatal drive down the coast.”

Eleven days later, the December 1, 1921, issue of the Monterey Daily Cypress and Monterey American broke the following news:

“For a man who was supposed to have met his death in the waters of the Pacific when his auto went over a cliff at Granite Canyon some two weeks ago, Sam Trotter was reported as having been seen in more different places than the average live man.

“As a matter of fact none of those rumors have been substantiated by any known witnesses, although yesterday it was reported that a lady friend of the Trotter family had met and talked with Trotter in San Francisco and that he had expressed desire to return to this city if certain alleged financial troubles could be straightened out, so that he would not be bothered if he did return.”

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In his article, The Poet as Ethnographer: Robinson Jeffers in Big Sur, in California History magazine, John Walton wrote, “The saga of the Trotter family reads like a Robinson Jeffers story.”

Five months later, Sam and Lida’s teenage sons, Roy and Henry, were walking the trail to the schoolhouse one foggy spring morning, when they passed the cabin of a local timber-beast named James Osborne.

The April 8, 1922, edition of the Salinas Index printed the following news:

“Brooding over former matrimonial troubles and despondency that he ‘knew something’ about the mysterious death of S. M. Trotter was the cause of suicide very recently of James Osborne, according to the long statement penned by the dead man before he swallowed a fatal dose of rat poison.

“The dead man, a recluse in a little cabin on the lonely southern Monterey County coast section, made his get away from earthly cares in dramatic fashion, it was stated by witnesses at an inquest held in Monterey.

“Hailing Roy Trotter and Henry Trotter, boys who were passing his cabin on their way to school, Osborne exhibited a granite cup containing what had been squirrel poison. He explained carefully that he had soaked the poison off the wheat and drank the solution.

” ‘But it’s not strong enough,’ commented Osborne, ‘so I’m going to try something else.’

“Osborne then, after directing the boys to report to a distant neighbor that he was dead, deliberately emptied the contents of a can of rat poison into a receptacle containing water, shook it thoroughly and swallowed the liquid contents.

“Acting as directed the boys hurried for help, and when a party of neighbors arrived a short time afterward, they found Osborne lying in convulsions. He died soon after.

“The inquest was conducted by deputy coroner H. W. Collins at Freeman’s undertaking parlor, [in] Monterey, this morning. Evidence showed that Osborne has been living on the coast section about a year.  He earned his living as a logger for a tanbark company and in doing odd jobs, and being a handyman with tools.

“He was a native of Montana, age 35. In his farewell he protested he knew absolutely nothing about the disappearance of Trotter, whose wrecked auto truck was found in the ocean surf at the foot of a bluff several months ago.”

*          *          *

Mark Twain wrote, “Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

The Thursday, July 13, 1922, issue of the Peninsula Daily Herald ran the banner headline:

“Sam Trotter Alive, is Found”

The following day, Monterey Daily Cypress and Monterey American reported:

“[Sam’s half-brother Paul]  had just had an interview with some people who were summering here, from the neighborhood of Stockton. They had told … about a man coming to their place last November whose description appeared to fit that of the missing man. They told how this man had received a paper under the name of Sam Marshall …

The Pit No. 1 Powerhouse on the Pit River at Fall River Mills, where Sam Trotter worked in 1922, generated power used in the San Francisco Bay area.

“A few days ago Paul Trotter learned definitely that the man who had been at Stockton was his brother and is now apparently located at one of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s power projects on the Pit River [at Fall River Mills, 70 miles northeast of Redding] in Northern California.

“According to this account the running of [Sam’s] machine over the cliff was an accident and not by design as some people thought at the time. Trotter was driving down the coast to his home at Palo Colorado at night time. Sam met a machine at one of the sharp turns crossing the ravine near Garapatos [sic] and was forced to back up to let it pass and then going forward again went to near the cliff. One front [wheel] went over and he could not force the machine back again. To save his life he had to jump and let the machine go.

“Trotter had been rather the worse for wear due to close a contact with the tough brand of jackass [bootleg whiskey] then in vogue and he got to his feet rather befuddled but did remember that he had to appear before the railroad commission the next day at Monterey for a hearing for a truck line permit.

“Accordingly he started to walk back to Monterey and got there before daylight. In the meantime he got to brooding over his financial troubles which were rather bad and finally concluded to go away for a couple of days….

“While at San Jose he learned through the papers about the finding of his machine and the belief that he had been killed. Trotter is a big bluff mountain of a man and like many of his kind is not over fond of getting into the limelight and is very much afraid of appearing ridiculous to his friends and acquaintances. He has no Tom Sawyer desire to coming back as the man arisen from the dead.

“What he read in the papers made him want to get away from this section more than ever. He took the usual recourse of men of his type seeking forgetfulness in more liquor…

“He remained at the place until sometime in May, when he went to Sacramento and afterward to the point on the Pit River above mentioned. While he apparently kept his whereabout carefully concealed from everybody here, it seems that he must have written his wife, for it is reported that he sent her money from his earnings while away.

“Trotter apparently had no other reasons for leaving than those above mentioned. There’s nothing criminal in his disappearance and no intent to desert his family. As said before he has a great [deal] of the typical mountain man’s shyness in his makeup. He was discouraged over his financial troubles which in his mind were greatly magnified and when he learned of the big publicity story of which he had become the center, he apparently did not have the nerve to come back to face his friends and acquaintances.”

*          *          *

Sam and Lida Trotter’s home in Palo Colorado Canyon, built by I. N. Swetnam and Al Clark, in 1898

Sam had been receiving the Monterey newspaper since he left town. When he read the article and realized that his cover had been blown, he decided to do the right thing. He quit his job with PG&E and reluctantly prepared to leave Fall River Mills and travel back to Palo Colorado Canyon to face Lida and his five children.

The ordeal had put quite a strain on Lida’s physical and mental health – as one reporter wrote, it had “dethroned her reason.” Shortly thereafter, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Her neighbors committed her to Agnew State Hospital – “The Great Asylum for the Insane,” 100 miles to the north, in Santa Clara California

Although the newspapers reported that Sam got back to the family home in Palo Colorado Canyon, after Lida had been transported to the state asylum, some say that Lida suffered her breakdown when Sam had showed up, unannounced at her front door, after an eight-month absence.

*          *          *

Lida Pfeiffer

The Saturday, August 12, 1922, issue of the Salinas Californian reported:

“Her mind said to have been shattered by continual worry over the mysterious disappearance of her husband in November last, Mrs. S. M. [Lida] Trotter … was brought here this morning to answer an insanity charge. the unfortunate woman is said to have recently developed a suicidal tendency. Friends caused her arrest as a precaution against the possible carrying out of threats said to have been made by her.

“Mrs. Trotter’s husband was a prominent Monterey peninsula man … However, the man’s fate is still as deep a mystery as ever, as Trotter has never reappeared in these parts and none of the rumors have ever been officially verified [but] there are several local officers, who investigated the circumstances of his disappearance, who cling to the belief the wreck was an accident and that Trotter drowned.

“In any event, the disappearance has weighed heavily on Mrs. Trotter’s mind until it has apparently given way. Whether her condition is likely to be permanent, or whether it is only temporary, caused by despondency, is a matter that will be determined by a lunacy commission next Wednesday.

Two days later, the Peninsula Daily Herald noted that Lida was recovering at Agnew State Hospital and, “doing better under the careful attention she is receiving there…. Mrs. John Pfeiffer, [Lida’s sister-in-law, Florence Swetnam Pfeiffer] is caring for her three younger children.”

On Wednesday, August 16, Lida was “adjudged insane” by the lunacy commission. Two weeks later, on August 30, 1922 – the day after her 43rd birthday – she died at Agnew State Hospital.

*          *          *

Phoebe Meagher

Sam’s father, 75-year-old Martin Trotter had passed away at his home, six years earlier, in the autumn of 1916, with his beloved wife Phoebe holding his big hand. Their house, at 704 Fremont Street, was across the street from the Monterey City Cemetery, where he was buried.

Ironically, Sam was now in the exact same situation in which his father, Martin, had found himself, back in 1878, when Sam was five years old, and Sam’s mother Sally died. That is to say: alone in the world with five motherless children and two wives in heaven. As Sam had been abandoned when his mother Sally died, so his own children were abandoned when Lida died.

Lida’s mother, 80-year-old Barbara Pfeiffer, was too elderly to care for her five grandchildren – Frank was only four years old and little Walter had just turned two.

Paul Trotter asked his fifty-five-year-old half-sister Maggie to take the children. Her husband had recently died, and she had no kids on her own. She became their legal guardian, and the five Trotter kids went to live with her and attend school in the city of Seaside, a suburb of Monterey.

On Saturday afternoon, September 2, 1922, family and friends attended Lida’s funeral at the Freeman Undertaking Parlors at Franklin and Pierce streets in Monterey. She is buried in the Monterey City Cemetery, not far from the grave of her father, Michael Pfeiffer.

*          *          *

In the October 1979, issue of the Big Sur Gazette, Mary Harrington wrote:

“History tends to make its characters either heroes or villains. It makes for more interesting reading that way. A lot of people like do the same with Sam Trotter, but in spite of his place in local lore, he was a simple man.”

Many of Sam’s relatives and neighbors held him accountable for Lida’s death. Some people never forgave him for what they considered a premeditated act of family abandonment. Others felt his faked automobile fatality was selfish and cruel.

But there were others who understood that sometimes a good man makes a bad decision under pressure. They accepted that Sam paid a terrible price for his mistake, and that he was doing his best to take the bull by the horns and face the situation. In the end, life is a series of choices and each of us lives with the consequences (and the regrets) of our actions. Blaise Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

For many years, Sam lived a timber-beast’s existence, alone in a spartan canvas tent, pitched up in Mule Canyon. He remained active in the building trade, literally until the end of his life. On December 8, 1938, Sam was repairing a chimney in Big Sur’s Coastline community. His teenage son, Walter had just hauled some stones and mortar up to the roof and Sam bent down to pick one up, when he keeled over and died. He was 67 years old.

He’s buried in the Monterey City Cemetery, near the graves of his wife Lida, and his father Martin, and his stepmother, Phoebe.

While here on earth, Sam seemed larger-than-life. In death, stories about him blossomed into tall tales.

*          *          *

Sam Trotter, circa 1935

Two weeks before his died, the November 24, 1938, issue of the Salinas Morning Post reported:

“One of the interesting events of the season will be the Thanksgiving day gathering at the country home of Sam Trotter in the Big Sur district.”

Mary Harrington remembered:

“He loved to eat and he loved to entertain. His last two Thanksgivings he had more than 80 [guests] for the feast. The tables groaned with the food and the floor is shook with dancing. He was an open, expensive, happy-go-lucky man. He loved to laugh, and he loved to roar.”

Lillian Bos Ross, Sam’s neighbor, who lived up on Partington Ridge, authored two novels set in Big Sur, Blaze Allen and The Stanger.

In her obituary for Sam Trotter, she wrote:

“Sam – with a heart as big as a house that could always hold and feed one more.”

*          *          *

Frida Sharpe was the postmaster at Bixby Creek. Her daughter, Rosalind Sharpe Wall, wrote a memoir called, A Wild Coast and Lonely. She remembered:

“Sam never married again and it was Lillian, the only girl in the family, who did the housework and took care of her brothers in the years of her growing up. ‘She worked like a slave,’ my mother said.”

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Categories: California History.