Like Selling Your Mother – Big Sur After the Paved Highway

Lizzie Post (right) and her son Bill, circa 1920

For years, Frank Post’s younger brother, Joe, was foreman at the Molera Ranch. On Christmas day, in 1888, he married one of his neighbors, John Gilkey’s oldest daughter, Rebecca Elizabeth. Everybody called her Lizzy.

Joe W. Post bought up all the homesteading claims from both the Gilkey and Post families, including the Post Ranch Inn, amassing a total of more than 1,500 acres. Lizzie and Joe’s only  son, Joe. W. Post, Jr. – whom everyone called Bill – was born in 1896, in the house that Joe and his brother Frank built with their father, W. B. Post.

Joe and Lizzy were two of a kind – outdoor adventurers who loved taking fisherman and hunters on pack trips in the Big Sur wilderness.

Lizzy Post was one of the most skillful and accomplished horsewomen on the coast. In the early 1920s, she bought a high-spirited stallion.

One day, she rode him over to the Rainbow Lodge, in Bixby Canyon and remarked offhandedly to the postmaster, Frida Sharpe:

“That horse is going to kill me one day.”

When the first survey crews started work on the new paved Coast Highway, in 1919, the remote location necessitated that they be packed in on the backs of mules. Joe and Lizzy Post, and their son Bill, were hired as guides to help the survey crews navigate the rugged and unfamiliar trail.

On August 22, 1925, Lizzy Post was leading a pack trip in Terrace Creek, when a mountain lion attacked her pack horse and knocked it over the cliff. The pack horse’s reins were tied to her saddle horn and Lizzy Post and her stallion went over the precipice. Her horse fell on top of her and broke Mrs. Post’s neck. She was 58 years old. She’s buried in the Monterey City Cemetery.

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Daisy pulls Doc Roberts in his two-wheel cart

Doc Roberts – John L.D. Roberts M.D. – was the first physician to practice in Big Sur. Born in Osceola, New York, in 1862, he studied medicine at Columbia University and interned at New York Hospital and the insane asylum in Utica, New York.

Roberts had two uncles already living in Monterey, California. Uncle Walter Dodge ran a blacksmith shop and uncle D. J. Houghton had a paper hanging and painting business. They encouraged Doc Roberts to come to California.

Roberts arrived in Monterey with his wife, Edith, in January 1887. He soon discovered that the only doctor in town – a quack named J. P. Heinz, who practiced without a license – had already tied up all the medical business in the city. Heinz also doubled as the local barber, undertaker, and embalmer.

Josh Billings

According to Doc Roberts, when the American humorist and author, Josh Billings died at Monterey’s Del Monte Hotel, on October 14, 1885, Heinz charged $1,500 to embalm him. Then Heinz disposed of Billings’ entrails and internal organs by tossing them into the gulch behind his house (where they were eaten by a pack of stray dogs) as he usually did with his medical waste, before packing the torso with sawdust. John Steinbeck mentions this in chapter twelve of Cannery Row, published in 1945.

In an effort to develop a clientele, with his little black bag in hand, Doc Roberts traveled down the coast in a two-wheel cart pulled by his horse, Daisy.

In time, Daisy became so familiar with the crooked dirt road that Roberts claimed he could sleep in the cart until they arrived at their destination. They accomplished the one-way journey from Monterey to Big Sur in a brisk three and a half hours. Roberts practiced medicine in the Big Sur area for twelve years. In 1895, he built a small cabin that he called Cyclone, at the confluence of the north and south forks at the Little Sur River.

Doc Roberts’ accomplishments are many. In 1901, he tried gold mining in Sonora, California, and actually stuck it rich. Returning to Monterey, he purchased a 160-acre parcel from his uncle, D. J. Houghton, north of town, for $5,000, where, in 1890, he established the city of Seaside – today a thriving suburb of Monterey.

The wreck of the steamer Los Angeles at Point Sur, in 1894, made a lasting impression on Doc Roberts. Major disasters not only traumatize the victims, but sometimes they also the first responders who attend to the wounded. For the rest of his life, Roberts lived with the regret that he hadn’t been able to get to the site of the wreck any faster.

Doc Roberts became obsessed with the idea of a paved highway from Carmel to San Simeon. He spent years lobbying the State of California for money for a highway. The First World War finally convinced legislators that the need for the road was genuine. Funds were first approved to begin construction on a paved highway through Big Sur in 1919, when voters in the state passed a $1.5 million bond issue.

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Marion Steam Shovel Model 32 working on Big Sur Road

It was dangerous and difficult, getting building materials to the site of the proposed highway. There was no way to transport large loads overland on the rutted dirt road and narrow trails.

One of the contractors devised a method of landing equipment by boat at the old Seaview Landing at Partington Cove and then used a steam power donkey engine to winch the building material up to the roadbed.

Quite a few neighbors opposed the new highway, not only because it went right through their back yards, but also because they felt the damage to the environment caused by bulldozers and blasting was too great a price to pay for progress.

Soil loosened during construction cascaded far down the steep slopes, where it entered the tide pools and shallow waters. They say that after the road was built, abalone became scarce because their breeding grounds were buried in silt.

Old timers tell of finding pearls in the few abalone that were left – the large mollusks having coated minute bits of irritating rock, dislodged by the road construction, with smooth mother-of-pearl.

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Anderson Creek Labor Camp Big Sur, April 3, 1931

By the early 1920s, the coast highway was extended as far south as Anderson Creek (forty miles south of Carmel). Ironically, the new roadbed went right through Posts Ranch and they had to dismantle the old barn to make way for the highway.

Then work on the highway stopped and did not begin again until 1929. Of the 200 men who worked on its construction, two thirds of them were convicts. The first labor camp, where incarcerated workers lived in tent cabins, was established in 1929, on Salmon Creek in the Little Sur. Later it was moved to Anderson Canyon and there was also a labor camp at Kirk Creek. After the highway was finished, the workers were returned to the prison.

Thirty-two new bridges were built to span canyons and streams. As the old wooden bridges were dismantled and replaced with those made of steel and concrete, the colossal timbers were recycled to build homes and barns on the coast.

High winds blew down the north half of the wooden plank framework during construction of the Bixby Creek Bridge. Note the high water level in the creek below the bridge.


An enormous reinforced concrete open-spandrel arch bridge was being erected over Bixby Creek – one of the steepest canyons on the south coast. Before the construction of the bridge, the unpaved old Coast Road turned inland, making a ten-mile detour around some of the most impassable terrain on the Big Sur coast.

The iconic Rainbow Bridge (later the Bixby Creek Bridge) opening in September 1938

A falsework of thousands of extra-long wooden planks was built to facilitate the pouring of the enormous concrete structure. But one fateful night, the entire north half of the wooden framework was blown down by freakishly high winds. This delayed the opening of the bridge for many months.

With its 714-foot long roadbed, suspended more than 250-feet above the creek, the Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the largest single-span concrete arches in the world.

The Bixby Creek Bridge blends so well with the surrounding landscape because it was poured of concrete made out of sand quarried from green stone rocks of the Franciscan geological formation, hauled from nearby Limekiln Beach. There were so many delays in this monumental feat of engineering that the bridge itself didn’t open until September 1938, more than a year after the rest of the highway has been completed.

More than eight million dollars was spent to build the Roosevelt Highway (later the Cabrillo Highway).

On June 27, 1937, old Doc Roberts cut the ribbon, officially opening the new paved two-lane highway that extended from Carmel all the way to San Luis Obispo – and everything changed.

That winter, snow fell almost to sea level and tire chains were necessary to drive on the new paved highway.

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Lulu May Harlan, pear harvest in Lucia, California, 1961

There were women living on the south coast, like Miss Lulu May Harlan, of Lucia, who’d never been to town in their lives. Lulu May, the daughter of Lucia pioneers Wilbur Harlan and Ada Dani, never married and lived her entire life in the tiny community of Lucia, where she was born at her parent’ homestead, in 1892.

When the new highway was drafted as far as Harlan Point in Lucia, one wonders how George Harlan felt when he learned that the roadbed was going to go right though his front yard, separating his homestead from his barn. It took him years, but he finally managed to persuade the California Division of Highways to construct a tunnel beneath the roadbed so his cattle could access the pastures upland, and down by the shore, on the other side of the highway.

Lucia Lodge, circa 1950

One of the road workers, on the highway crew was a young construction engineer from Moab, Utah, named Forrest DeLamater. He decided to open a resort in the area. He signed a long lease with old Wilbur Harlan and built a restaurant out of on a wide terrace overlooking the ocean, with a gas station and a handful of wooden cabins along the bluff on the west side of the highway, overlooking the rocky shoreline.

When the road opened, in 1937, the restaurant did very well. The enormous hand-hewn redwood beams and curly maple paneling in the dining room were stunning. The Second World War shut the place down from 1942-47. In the early 1960s, Lulu May Harlan and her younger brother, Fred, took over management of the Lucia Lodge. Lulu May’s homemade desserts were served in the restaurant and regulars coveted her lemon meringue pie, made with homegrown lemons from her orchard, and reserved their slice for dessert, prior to opening their menus.

Lulu May Harlan

Lulu May Harlan homesteaded a parcel of her own, obtaining a patent in 1919. She was postmaster at the Lucia post office from 1915 to 1932. She was a registered to vote as a member of the Prohibition Party.

Miss Harlan lived in an old wooden house surrounded by orchards, on the top of the mountain. She drove her jeep up and down the extremely steep unpaved driveway, at highway speeds, much to the alarm of her passengers.

She once got up at 3:00 am on a cold frosty morning to kill a raccoon because it was after her chickens. Instead of a watch dog, she kept a rather intimidating Billy goat tethered to a post near her front door. Even in her eighties, she continued to tend the family orchard. She was a prolific gardener who laboriously canned the fruits and vegetables from her garden.

Lulu May Harlan loved the modern improvements that replaced the outhouse, the woodstove, and the kerosene lamp. She only made one solitary trip in her whole life and that was to Los Angeles. When asked about her solitary visit to Southern California, she confessed:

“The hot pavement made my feet hurt. So, I took off my shoes and let out for home.”

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Each year, more people drive through Big Sur than visit Yosemite National Park.

The paved highway, which follows the coast, brings multitudes of tourists into Big Sur each year, affording spectacular views from vantage points that had been inaccessible, prior to its construction. But modern travelers are unable to see Big Sur as the early residents saw it as they traveled the old wagon road, serpentine and narrow, as it wandered in and out of almost every canyon and crossed almost every stream, on the all-day trip from Carmel to Big Sur. Every canyon was unique in its topography and plant life.

Once the paved highway opened, in 1937, the old dirt Coast Road was quickly forgotten. The new highway made it much easier to visit neighbors or drive to town.

But traditions change slowly. One old timer admitted, “The jeep will never quite replace the horse.” In her memoir, A Wild Coast and Lonely, Rosalind Sharpe Wall remembered:

“The Greggs [Charlie and Alta] were the only people living on the Coast who used the horse as their only means of transportation after the highway went through. Gradually everyone purchased motorcars. But the Greggs had no road to the ranch and besides, as Charlie said, ‘I wouldn’t take one of those newfangled contraptions as a free gift.’ ”

Seventy-nine-year-old Charlie Gregg’s outhouse stood several hundred feet from the house and commanded a sweeping view of the coast a thousand feet below. The outhouse was built upon an old oak tree. Charlie happened to be inside the outhouse when it blew down the big storm of 1942. Fortunately, Charlie was uninjured, but it was an unsettling experience. The storm also felled the old oak, so the outhouse couldn’t be rebuilt in the same spot.

The truth was that Charlie Gregg was too old to change. He and his wife Alta were getting old. Shortly thereafter, they packed it up and moved to town.

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The old Coast Road in Big Sur

A short ten and a half-mile section of the old unsurfaced dirt road still exists from Bixby Creek south to Big Sur River, but few tourists take this detour, as most people are unaware of its existence. Some of the old, fading signs “Slow, Blow Horn” and “Go Down in Second Gear,  placed there by conscientious neighbors in the early 1900s, back in the days when automobiles were new, were still there when I last drove through, in the 1980s.

Just as the old unpaved Coast Road was regularly closed by landslides and floods during the winter, the paved highway is subject to similar extreme weather events in the 21st-century.

On April 20, 1983, a three-million cubic foot landslide wiped out a one-thousand-foot section of the highway, just north of McWay Canyon in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The road was closed for nearly a year and cost more than eight million dollars to repair – the original cost of building the entire paved highway, half a century before.

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“In most places the very topography of the country prohibits what we know as development,” explained one neighbor, “because you can’t put too many houses on a hill that is sloped like that. They try ­– but as more people come in, the very thing that people come for is being destroyed. They come for freedom, privacy, beautiful country, nature in its pristine beauty…”

In the 21st-century, most of their homes in Big Sur are so well camouflaged by the surrounding woodlands, one drives right by them on the highway without seeing them. Thus, the place feels almost uninhabited. There aren’t any billboards, fast food restaurants, souvenir shops. liquor stores, or banks. Most of the restaurants don’t stay open late.

I can remember, in the 1980s, when you could stay in a spartan room at the Big Sur Lodge at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park for $45 a night; today its more than four times as much. In our time, the cheapest room at the Post Ranch Inn starts at over $1,000 a night. Big Sur is a challenging destination for the traveler on a budget.

The names of the early Big Sur homesteaders are memorialized as place names on the map: Dani Ridge, Pfeiffer Beach, Cooper Point, Post Summit, Harlan Creek, Soberanes Point, Bixby Canyon, Molera State Park, Grimes Point, Pheneger Creek, McWay Falls, Partington Ridge, and Lucia.

Each of these families left the surrounding woodlands and coastline, mostly undeveloped and largely unchanged. They indoctrinated their children and grandchildren into this philosophy of preservation, sharing their appreciation of the natural beauty and independent lifestyle.

Consequently, their grandchildren could not bear to see those beloved family homesteads and surrounding landscapes leveled to build resorts, hot dog stands, and parking lots.

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From the Carmel Highlands to the San Luis Obispo County line, one finds themselves in a land that doesn’t really resemble Monterey County. Big Sur is environmentally, culturally, and socially a world apart from that found on the densely populated Monterey Peninsula to the north. However, it is still, geographically and legally part of Monterey County.

In the late 1970s, the population of greater Big Sur had grown to some 1,700 residents. At that time, a handful of Monterey businessmen and self-described environmentalists – people that Big Sur residents refer to as “outsiders” – circulated a private memorandum stating:

“There appears to be virtually unanimous agreement among concerned Peninsulans that there exists an urgent necessity to act now to save the remaining undeveloped areas of the Big Sur, and to protect and preserve the remarkable character and beauty of this very special part of the California coast.”

They believed it was imperative for the legislature to impose national park status on the entire Big Sur area, to prevent further development and the ultimate destruction of the natural environment. To that end, they began secretly meeting with county, state, and federal officials.

However, the organizers of this environmental movement neglected to meet with any of the residents of Big Sur – the folks who would be most affected by such legislation. Many homeowners on the coast descended from families who valued their independence and autonomy, and were, in fact, conservators who’d preserved the natural wonders of the land where they lived.

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The highway from Carmel to  San Simeon was completed during the Great Depression. Real estate developers were offering astronomical amounts of money for the choicest locations on the coast. Thus began the era of state parks and preserves in Big Sur.

In 1933, the children of Alexander MacMillan Allan, the president of the Monterey Bank, sold 1,300 acres on Carmel Bay to the Point Lobos State Reserve, which is now considered, “the crown jewel of the California park system.”

In 1968, Andrew Molera descendants sold 2,200 acres of the original Rancho El Sur land grant to the Nature Conservancy, creating Andrew Molera State Park.

Ten years later, the 3,548-acre Gamboa Ranch was added to the University of California Natural Reserve System, creating the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve.

In 2002, the US Forest Service bought the 1,200-acre Brazil Ranch overlooking the Bixby Canyon Bridge.

Returning formerly private ranches and homesteads to the public domain has become a tradition in Big Sur. These state parks and reserves have become world-class tourist destinations that attract millions of visitors who, in turn, support local shops, restaurants, and resorts.

The state parks in Big Sur also provide meeting places for local community groups of every denomination, including the Coast Property Owners Association – whose members oppose public land acquisitions.

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The view from a window at the Camaldoli Hermitage that stands on the site of Gabriel Dani’s original homestead in Lucia, California

Not much had changed in Lucia, California, since the 1870s, when Harlan’s great-grandparents, Gabriel and Elizabeth Dani, homesteaded on the ridge across the canyon to the south. Although a monastery now stands on the site of the original Dani homestead, the ancient redwoods in the canyon have only gotten taller.

John Harlan told a reporter, in 1980:

“When I was a kid you could look straight across the canyon. Now you can’t. It’s incredible how those old trees just keep on growing,”

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Most of the residents were united in the opinion that turning Big Sur into a National Park was a resoundingly bad idea.

“I resent not being grouped in the category of environmentalists” said John Harlan. “The people who lived here – we are the environmentalists by birth and training. We were environmentalist before anybody found it in vogue to be one,” he said, glancing across the canyon at the majestic stand of old growth redwoods backlit by the afternoon sun.

“We’ve done a pretty good job keeping the place for more than a hundred years, wouldn’t you say? I don’t see why it should go to hell in a handbasket just because the federal government doesn’t own it.”

The beautiful groves of first and second growth redwood trees stand today in testament to the preservationist tendencies of the residents of Big Sur. They left the forests mostly unmolested by using the naturally fallen trees for timber.

John Harlan’s Uncle George, was born on his parents’ Lucia, California homestead, in 1893. He told a reporter on October 21, 1980:

“I’ll be eighty-seven tomorrow, and all my life I’ve never cut down a living tree.”

John Harlan’s son Keith was once asked if he wanted to do anything with the family homestead, like sell or subdivide some of it. He was incredulous:

“That’s like selling your mother.”

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Categories: California History.