No One Would Ever Live in That Country – Big Sur Before the Highway

Partington Cove, 1903

In the days when my work involved a lot of travel, I once visited a remote community of a few hundred souls who lived on an island in Alaska that was only accessible by aircraft, or by a ferry that came twice a month. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by a local schoolteacher who shook my hand and said, “You’re not from here – ’cause if you were, I would recognize your face.”

One might have been met by such a greeting in 19th-century Big Sur, and it would still be appropriate on many parts of the coast today. The residents of the southern Monterey County share in common a predisposition for self-sufficiency, an appreciation of the natural environment, and a genuine ambivalence toward outsiders.

At first, there were very few neighbors. The 1879 the voter registration roll for the Sur precinct listed just twenty-six men. All were identified as farmers except for two livestock ranchers, one lumberman, and one miner.

Donkeys loaded with tanbark, photo by C. B. Clark, circa 1900

Seventeen years later, in 1896, the voter registration roll had expanded to sixty-two voters – all men until women got the vote in 1920 ­– and all farmers except the lighthouse keeper and an engineer.

In 1880, eighty-three percent of the American work force was engaged in agriculture. But curiously, the 1880 U.S. Census of Agriculture Production for Monterey County, lists only a handful of farmers on the coast. This is probably because most families living south of Carmel were mostly subsistence farmers, with little or no measurable portion of their crop sold commercially.

The 1900 U.S. Census recorded 331 persons living in 95 households in the section of the “Monterey Township” from the Carmel River to the San Luis Obispo County line.

Some neighbors manufactured dairy products. Some kept bees for honey production. Others raised livestock. In the final decades of the 19th-century, there were gold, coal, copper, and silver miners, loggers, and limestone miners, but these professions eventually proved unprofitable in so steep and isolated a region.

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Charles Bixby

Charles Bixby came to Big Sur in 1868. He quickly perceived the business opportunities unique to the locality and purchased large tracts of land on the coast. He became a successful timber-man, operating a profitable 1,110-acre ranch on the creek which now bears his name.

Bixby was born in Haldiman, Canada, in 1836. His father William was a properous manufacturer in Constantia, in western New York State. Charles’ mother, Lovinna Adams Bixby, was a cousin of President John Quincy Adams. In the late 1840s, when Charles was still a child, the family moved west to Lansing, Michigan, during the great logging boom.

In 1852, when Charles Bixby was  fifteen years-old, he and his parents set out in a spring wagon, on an overland cross-continental journey, bound for Placerville, California, in the Sierra foothills.

In 1860, Charles married Harriet Duryee in El Dorado County, California. Twelve years later, they divorced. In 1875, Charles Bixby married 36-year-old Martha Sammons of Alisal, California. Born in Illinois 1839, Martha had crossed the plains with her parents, Ira and Alvira, in 1864.

Bixby Landing

An enterprising businessman like his dad, Bixby erected a sawmill and later a landing on the rocky shore, to load his lumber onto waiting ships. And he financed the first wagon road north from Mill Creek to Monterey.

In 1889, the Monterey Cypress reported:

“In Bixby’s canyon, trains of mules loaded with tan-bark pass over trails that many would consider impassible and bring out to the broader trail, intended for wagons where tan-bark and live oak wood is hauled a distance of several miles to a schute, there it is let down into a vessel and taken to San Francisco.”

Bixby Landing was only operated during the summer months when the seas were calmer, but even so, each ship had to be secured by mooring to iron rings anchored in bed rock ashore before it was stable enough to be loaded.

Limestone was used in the manufacturing of slaked lime, which is the primary component of cement. To purify the product, firewood and limestone were heated in kilns for several days over slow burning fires. Once cooled, the finished product was packed in wooden barrels and transported to Bixby Landing, via a high-wire tram, like a ski lift. Powered by a donkey engine, the cables were suspended from derricks, erected along Long Ridge, high above the creek bed, and down to the shore.

Chinese Laborers on the cable tram which transported the lime from the kilns to Bixby Landing, where it was loaded onto freighters.

A story survives from the 1880s – the heyday of the limekiln period. A limekiln worker and his young bride were married at Milk Hill. As a wedding gift, the newlyweds were offered a ride in the high wire tram car. When the car was suspended hundreds of feet above Bixby Canyon, the donkey engine was shut down and the bride and groom were left to sway in the breeze, alone and undisturbed, until the following morning.

Charles Bixby’s father William died in 1900. William and his wife Lovinna are buried in unmarked graves in the now-forgotten Bixby Canyon Cemetery, a quiet place in a grove of redwoods, in sight of the mountains. They’re still lying there. One wonders if the current owners of the property are even aware of their presence?

In 1905, at the age of sixty-eight, Charles Bixby sold out to the Monterey Lime Company and retired to Monterey. The wagon road to the kilns on Milk Hill made more than twenty crossings on Bixby Creek. During the winter of 1910-11, excessive flooding washed out the wagon road and put the Monterey Lime Company out of business.

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 Frank Post, a longtime resident of Big Sur, was born in 1859. He remembered:

“The wagon road went as far as Mill Creek [later called Bixby Creek] when we moved down to Big Sur [in 1877]. [Thomas A.] Fussell owned Mill Creek and Little Sur. We ordered supplies from San Francisco. We only bought smaller items in Monterey. One or two neighbors would go up and do the buying in San Francisco. The stuff came down by steamer and the boat landed at the mouth of the Big Sur River. Then the settlers packed it up the rest of the way. We ordered 100-pounds of flour, etc., at a time – stuff for the winter.”

Florence Pfeiffer, the U.S. Postmaster in Big Sur for three decades, wrote in her unpublished memoir:

“At that time the wagon road came through what is now known as Point Lobos State Park and there ended at Wildcat Creek. The canyon is deep with very steep banks, and a bridge at that time seemed out of the question. If folks neglected to get their supplies in before the rains there was always greater danger of being caught, with the trip tied up by the Carmel River, treacherous sand and high water. For many years, during the Winter, a boat was kept on each side of the river at the crossing.”

The supply ship arrived once a year. After a stop in Big Sur, it proceeded south to Big Creek, where Lucia homesteaders and their neighbors for miles around, heard the ship’s whistle and hurried to the landing to help unload the schooner.

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“Posts” – the Post Ranch, built in 1877. Photo circa 1920

Those who could not abide the isolation, loneliness, and hardships of life on the Big Sur coast, soon sold their claims and moved to more accessible landscapes.

In a community of so few citizens, there were lots of inter-marriages between families – Danis, Harlans, Pfeiffers, Grimes, Trotters, Castros, Posts, and Swetnams. Consequently, many of the residents of this region are now related through marriage, resulting in a community decidedly tribal in orientation.

But there was still a social division between the Big Sur folks and their neighbors who lived further down the coast. The high ridges and deep ravines only exacerbated the problem – the distances were too great for casual visiting, even with a horse. Only when there were dances, rodeos, barbecues, or round ups, would people travel the great distance from Big Creek or Lucia.

Weather permitting, there was more time for visiting during the winter. The entire community gathered for certain special occasions, like the annual round up at the Cooper Ranch or the apple harvesting bee at the Posts. After all the apples were harvested and stored in barrels, neighbors and their children had a chance to catch up on gossip, share stories, and make new friends.

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W. B. “Bill” Post

There was no wagon road beyond Mill Creek (now Bixby Creek). The trip south from there was via a narrow trail that couldn’t accommodate a wagon and was frequently impassable in winter.

Frank Post explained:

“People on the coast were stuck all winter on account of high water and slides. Dad [W. B. Post] wanted a road to his place. J. B. H. Cooper [John Cooper II], W. A. Pool of San Miguel Canyon, and, if I’m not mistaken, Monroe of Blanco – old timers – nearly fell over backwards. They were on the county board of supervisors at the time.

“‘We haven’t got any money. You are a fool. You’re crazy.’

“That’s the recption Dad got before the Salinas Board of Supervisors. Dad was determined and we built the road to Dad’s place out of our own pockets.”

In the end, the Board of Supervisors, declared: “No one would ever live in that country.”

Joseph Gschwend, born in Switzerland in 1833, called his ranch in the Little Sur “Little Switzerland.” He was a farmer who surveyed the extension of the old Coast Road. Photo circa 1900

Begrudgingly, they granted $200 to build the road. However, the actual cost of the road construction was infinitely more expensive.

“Many tons of dirt were lifted by pick and shovel,” Frank Post recalled. “The settlers built that road out of their own pockets. Then the county took over and we had to pay taxes on it.”

Frank Post and his brother, Joe, spent half a year working on the construction of that wagon road. A farmer named Joseph Gschwend, a Swiss immigrant who lived in the lower Little Sur on a ranch he called “Little Switzerland,” graded the road with a homemade level. When the county extended the old coast road farther south toward the forks of the Little Sur River, Gschwend, a skilled surveyor, surveyed the serpentine route, “attempting to inscribe his own signature upon the land.”

Florence Pfeiffer wrote in her memoir:

“A wagon road was being built down the coast. It was steep and very dangerous in many places, and oh, so narrow! All the work was done by hand, pick and shovel and much of it ‘gratis’ by the neighbors along the road. Sometimes they would get some money from the county fund. If so, any man who would work was paid $1.25 a day, which at the time was thought to be good wages, but they had to feed and bed themselves out of that. When the road was first made up the Big Sur canyon they crossed the river thirteen times, but the people thought they had really accomplished a great deal to be able to come in a wagon as far as Posts Rancho. Even in 1920, it took a man with two good horses and a light spring wagon eleven hours to make the trip from Big Sur P.O. to Monterey, and thirteen hours with four horses and a lumber wagon.”

When the wagon road was completed in 1881, Big Sur residents could travel all the way to town in a spring wagon. They no longer had to order their supplies from San Francisco. The new wagon road, narrow and serpentine, wound in and out of every canyon between Carmel and Posts, where the road ended.

Neighbors usually made the three-day wagon trip to town once a year. They’d stay overnight at Notley’s Landing on their way up the coast and spend the night at Ma Swetnam’s at the mouth Palo Colorado Canyon, on the way back home.

Until the late 1870s, there were no commercial accommodations for travelers on the coast between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. Guests stayed in private homes and ranchos, and, in the tradition of the Spanish, and it was considered gauche to charge visitors for hospitality. This tradition continued until the industrial boom in the 1880s and 1890s, when the first boarding houses opened in Big Sur.

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Map of central coast, 1898

Weather can be a random factor in Big Sur. The coast road was – and is – often impassable or closed during the months of winter. As the century came to a close the subject of road improvements was a hot topic on the coast.

On November 30, 1887, Pry Daly, the mail carrier, reported that the Little Sur River was swollen to such an extent that “the water traveled with such force that large bowlders [sic] and trees were torn from the embankment.”

The Monterey Cypress, in their June 15, 1889, issue, discussed the roads in Big Sur:

“The value of the roads built in that country by the few hard working and industrious pioneers will exceed $15,000. These roads were built a little at a time, as necessity demanded, but they were built and stand as monuments erected to the memory of those good people living there.”

Three months later, the September 14, 1889, issue if the Salinas Democrat reported:

“Frank Launtz came up yesterday from the coast below Monterey. He’s been circulating a petition for the establishment of a postal route from Monterey to … W.B. Post’s place. The position and map of the desired route will be forwarded to Washington today. The interests of the people of that locality demand the establishment of a post office department of a route such as is petitioned for and we hope the prayer of the petitioners will be granted.”

Frank Post (left) and his brother-in-law, Peter Nelson, circa 1940

On February 9, 1890, the Californian newspaper published two letters written by Frank Post. The first was dated January 31, 1890:

“Owing to heavy storms, river swimming and bad roads, we have not had any communication with the outside world for three weeks. The Little Sur River is now very dangerous to cross, and has been so for the last two months. There are two county bridges on the Little Sur that have been half finished for the past two years or more. Our roadmaster was ordered to finish them five months ago but so far has not done so. In going to and coming from Monterey persons have to swim their horses and they cross on the footbridge. If not attended to, someone will lose his life or horse there yet. The Big Sur River was never known to be so high. Mr. Cooper’s dance hall hangs over the river twenty feet. We have had 80 inches of rain for the season and more coming same as’ 62 and’ 63. In ‘64 it was a dry year. No grass at all. This is too much rain for one year. Look out for next. Prepare for it, or it will be dry.”

The second letter from Frank Post was dated February 3, 1890, three days later:

“Chas. Peterson just came in from Monterey. He had to cross the Carmel River in a boat and swim his horse. The coast road from Post’s to Monterey is in awful condition. Some places, no road at all. One place on [Serra] Hill a big slide came down in the road bringing with it three big red wood trees and they are standing right in the road. The bridges are all down. It will cost from $1,000 up to put the road in repair so that one can get to Monterey. From Post’s down the coast to Slates Springs the county trail is in very bad condition. The people who live south of Post’s have from year to year kept the trail in repair without any aid from the county, but now they need some aid. I see in your paper that bridges are all the talk. We would like to have a bridge on the Carmel River. If we can get the bridge and at the same time get our roads all in good repair, I say let us have them, but if it is a bridge or road, I say road. Give us good roads. Monterey cannot get along without us, as they have found out during the past months. They have been out of coast beef, coast butter, coast poultry, coast eggs, coast honey, coast fruit and coast patronage.”

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Hoffman’s Camp, Palo Colorado Canyon, circa 1910

 

A new industry emerged at the end of the 19th-century, when recreational campers, hunters, fishermen and fisherwomen began arriving by stagecoach to visit the new resorts. They came to Pfeiffer’s Ranch Resort in Big Sur, Hotel Idlewild in the Little Sur, and Hoffman’s Resort in Palo Colorado Canyon (later the location of the lower Dome House on Palo Colorado Canyon Road).

Soon, a few wealthy urbanites and movie stars purchased cattle ranches in Big Sur, for recreation rather than livelihood. Slowly, over the course of the next few decades, Big Sur evolved from a community of subsistence farmers, cattle ranchers, and loggers, into a world-class vacation destination.

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The first tourist-oriented business on the Big Sur coast was probably Slate’s Hot Springs (present-day Esalen Institute). Situated just north of Lime Creek, on a natural level terrace with splendid views of the coastline. It became a popular recreational destination in the 1880s.

A technical report indicated that the complex of ten thermal springs has a combined flow of some fifty gallons per minute, with a range in temperature from 100-121° Fahrenheit. The artist Maynard Dixon, who visited the springs in 1897 called it, “a great-natural-hot-sulfur-springs health resort where nobody comes who does not have to.”

John Turner Slate was born in Alabama in 1813. He came to Missouri in the 1830s. In August 1840, he married Frances Holland, who had come to Missouri from her native Tennessee, with her father, Dr. Jacob Holland, in 1833. Their first child, Thomas Benton, was born in 1842. John and Francis came to Oregon in a covered wagon in 1850, with their four children, settling in Linn (and later Benton) county, where they had four more kids.

Thomas Benton Slate and his wife, Belle, on their wedding day, August 26, 1880

Thomas Benton Slate arrived in Santa Cruz, California, in 1857. Even as a young man, Slate suffered from a severe and crippling form of arthritis. Legend has it that Slate was originally told of the hot springs in Big Sur, by local Indians. He first came to the springs, for his health, around 1870 ­– so ill, he had to be carried on a stretcher part of the way from Monterey. But after two months of soaking in the medicinal waters and resting, he recovered and was able to hike out, unassisted. Emboldened by his improved health, Slate decided to homestead there and make a claim.

But Slate suffered another attack of arthritis in 1872. Upon returning to the hot springs, he discovered a squatter trying to steal his claim. In the end, Slate bought the man out and built house where he lived with his wife, Bersabé “Belle” Remegia Soberanes, the daughter of Esequiél Soberanes, Sr.  In the 1880 U.S. census, the year they were married, Thomas Slate identifies his occupation as “hunter”.

A few years later, he sold the hot springs to Milton Little, Jr., and Milton sold it to his brother, John A. Little, who had a homesteading claim in upper Hot Springs Canyon. The place was renamed Little’s Springs.

In 1894, Slate and his wife Belle moved to Monterey where he opened a real state office in the Cypress Building. On September 8, 1894, Slate announced his candidacy for city tax collector. Two weeks later, he died suddenly; leaving his young wife with four small sons – the infant, Henry, was just four months old.

In those days, horses and mules were usually used to haul building materials down the coast from Monterey. But the heavy cast iron bathtubs were simply too hefty for pack animals. So, they were delivered by fishing boat and landed on the beach, and a windlass was used to haul them up to the Little’s Springs bathing area.

Walter Trotter (left) and his brother Frank Trotter (right) at the hot springs in 1940, when there were only two bathtubs

In 1911, J. Smeaton Chase visited the springs in 1911. In his travelogue, California Coast Trails: A Horseback Ride from Mexico to Oregon, he described soaking in the hot bath on the flat marine terrace overlooking the sea, “…it was an enjoyable experience to bathe thus, as it were, in mid-air, with gulls screaming all around and breakers roaring fifty-feet below.”

At this time in history, there was widespread popular belief regarding the curative powers of hot mineral waters, and resort areas and spas were built around the hot springs. In 1914, Dr. Henry C. Murphy of Salinas purchased the hot springs. Dr. Murphy’s claim to fame was that he’s the obstetrician who delivered Olive Steinbeck’s baby – the one she named John.

When I was a teenager, locals were still welcome to come and enjoy the hot springs after midnight – and we did. Today, its private property managed by the Esalen Institute Retreat Center.

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Point Sur photo by Wynn Bullock

Jake Howland left Scotland in 1851 and came west for the California Gold Rush.

He mined for gold and, after “seeing the elephant,” married Clara Caroline “Carrie”  Winn Walker, in Two Rock, Sonoma County, California, in 1859.

They had two daughters, Ada and Ella, and a son, Charles William Howland, who was born in 1864. Around 1870, Jake and Carrie divorced, and he left Sonoma County for Salinas, where he worked as a blacksmith and rancher. Soon he had a homestead at Point Sur in the Little Sur.

Jake’s son Charley Howland had worked as a vaudeville entertainer and hypnotist. For several years, he drove the stagecoach down the old coast road from Monterey to Big Sur. He was also one of the assistant lighthouse keepers at the Point Sur Light Station. Charley homesteaded in the Little Sur. He married Hattie Nevada “Vada” Atchinson, the daughter of a farmer from Alisal, and they had three children.

Around the turn of the century, Charley Howland opened the Hotel Idlewild on the Little Sur River, five miles from Posts and half a mile from his nearest neighbor, John Gschwend of “Little Switzerland.” One could stay at the Hotel Idlewild for $1.50 per night.

Howland also operated Camp Idlewild, a camping and fishing resort that featured four large furnished tents set on wooden platforms, each able to accommodate four adults, and furnished with, “a stove, cooking utensils, and mattresses.” The tent rented for $3.00 per week, Howland advertised his business in the local newspapers as being, “the only place south of Monterey on the coast that camping is allowed.”

Charles Howland (left) and his daughter, Sybil, circa 1915

The reason camping was not permitted at anywhere else on the Big Sur coast was because, at that time, there was an ongoing problem with hunters and campers leaving garbage and human waste all over the forest. Sadly, this problem remains unsolved in the 21st century.

Charley Howland’s office was in Monterey at the Climax Cigar Store. Tobacconist Frank Hellam founded the store in 1891 at a store front on Alvarado Street, next to the Bohemia Saloon (present day Plume’s Cafe at 400 Alvarado). Hellam’s Tobacco Shop is still in business, a century later, at a different store front, a block further down Alvarado Street.

On Saturday night, November 23, 1901, Charley Howland’s father Jake, age seventy-seven, and his close friend and neighbor, a fisherman named Sam Ratcliffe, age sixty-nine – two of the oldest homesteaders on the coast – accidently killed themselves by drinking wood alcohol in a cabin on Howland’s ranch near Point Sur.

The two men were seen the previous evening, in Monterey, and both were very drunk. It was there they purchased the methyl alcohol, saying they wanted to use it for shellac. Methanol (wood alcohol) is toxic when ingested, inhaled, or even absorbed in the skin.

Several days later, Charley Howland discovered the dead men and a half empty bottle of wood alcohol nearby.

It was apparent that they had died in agony, their limbs being drawn to their bodies, their fists clenched, and their faces distorted.

Jake is buried in the same grave as his ex-wife, Carrie, in the tiny, mostly forgotten cemetery at Point Sur, next to the grave of his old friend Sam Ratcliffe.

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The April 1, 1909, issue of the Monterey Cypress newspaper reported that Ma Swetnam was running a boarding house at the mouth of Palo Colorado Canyon – which, “provides accommodations and meals for travelers.”  The Swetnams, now in their late sixties, found the job of inn-keeping was less strenuous than ranching, and often more profitable.

In May 1909, Charley Howland applied for a liquor license. A decade later, during prohibition, the Idlewild Hotel, situated on the County Road, by the south fork of the Little Sur River, was notorious for being the place where one could obtain bootleg liquor on the coast.

Postcard of tourists arriving at the Idlewild Hotel, 1909

 

The Idlewild Hotel, circa 1900

One wonders if Howland or his associate, W. T. Mitchell, at that time the U.S. mail contractor, were, in fact the rightful owner of the land on which the Idlewild Hotel operated.

Martha M. Cooper, the widow of John Cooper II, and the owner of the Cooper Ranch, began running a display advertisement in practically every issue of the Monterey Cypress newspaper, during the summer months, for several years, stating:

“Notice is hereby given that the summer resort on the Little Sur river, known as “Idlewild,” is permanently closed to the public and that no camping privileges will be granted, or camping allowed on any portion of the premises.

– Martha M. Cooper, owner”

Curiously – and perhaps conveniently, the Hotel Idlewild burned down a few years later.

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Wooden bridge over Rocky Creek, 1912

Big Sur is subject to extreme weather conditions. They say that one winter, the wind blew so hard that it broke windows in every home in Palo Colorado Canyon.

On February 5, 1911, the Monterey Daily Cypress printed the following news:

“The lighthouse bridge went down on the afternoon of February 1, with 13 of Mrs. Martha Cooper’s dairy cows, killing eight of them. The dairy man was just getting in the cows from the pasture for milking time and the bridge, which was condemned about three years ago as unsafe by the lighthouse service, collapsed as the cows were on the structure.

“Mrs. Frank Post [Annie Pate] has been seriously ill with pneumonia for the past week.

Rock slide on the old Coast Road, circa 1930

“Mail contractor W.  T. Mitchell has been making the trip to Arbolado from Alvin Dani’s on horseback with the mail since last Friday.

“Ed Burns was down this week on business with the Point Sur lighthouse station, for which he and his brother, John, and Grimes, have a contract grading a new road from Cooper’s dairy to take the place of the bridge which just broke down, so badly decayed was it.

“We have had over 30 inches of rain in the last three weeks…”

But the rains didn’t stop.

Five weeks later, the March 13, 1911, issue of the Californian ran the flowing article under the headline, “W. T. Mitchell Tells Fearful Destruction Caused by Storm – Roads, Bridges and Ranches Washed Away:”

“The first authentic news of the havoc played by the late storm down the coast was brought to Monterey Saturday by W. T. Mitchell, who has the contract for carrying the mail down the coast on his stage. He had a terrible experience getting home, having been caught at the other end during the heavy downpour of the past week. To reach Monterey, he was compelled to make the trip almost all the way on foot, and then it was only by taking the trails through the mountains that only the people of the country know, that he was able to get to Monterey.

One-horse carriage on the old Coast Road, circa 1900

“Mitchell lost his barn, hay, two large stages and one horse at the Sur post office, and could not replace his loss at $1,000. Hoge’s barn and hay were washed away. Hoge’s dwelling at the post office were saved by trees lodging in front of them and diverting the water in another direction. Hoge’s loss will be over $1,000.

“Every bridge in the canyon is gone and the road has been washed away for at least 100 yards in many places.

“The lime kilns have been badly damaged, and the loss will reach at least $1,000 and perhaps twice this amount.

“Joseph Gschwend’s little farm was almost wiped out. He lost the barn at the bridge and thirty stands of bees. His loss will be $1,500 or more.

“The neighbors at the Little Sur assisted Mitchell in making a cable foot bridge at this place, or else he would be there yet, unable to proceed on his way to the city. The bridges are all out on the road, as is also the culverts, with the exception of the one at Rock Creek, which is badly undermined, and the concrete pier made tumble down letting the bridge drop…

“J. Molera Lost 50 or more hogs by a ravine washing into the barn. The river cut the banks up to his gate Tuesday morning…

“It is feared that Al Clark, who lives at the South Fork of the Little Sur, has lost his life. His place was reported to have slid into the river and no news has been heard of him since Thursday. Just before Mitchell left there, Joe Smith had gone out to find Clark if possible.

“Martin Dirkswerger, who is better known as Ole, had come down from Pico Blanco to the Sur. He reports that Serrano’s barn, house and fences were laid low by Monday’s storm, and that he was compelled to lay out of doors under the trees in the storm.

“Mr. Mitchell announces the mail service will be suspended down the coast until the roads can be opened.”

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Steel bridge over Garrapata Creek, circa 1920

The tourist season in Big Sur is really short. Locals still joke that there are two seasons: “Winter and August.” In the 1920s, tourists only came down the old Coast Road during the summer vacation and after Labor Day, they just disappeared.

The old Coast Road, unpaved and unimproved, received exponentially more wear and tear from automobile and truck traffic than it ever had from horses and wagons. As more and more automobiles visited the Big Sur area, the condition of the road worsened to the point of impassability.

Motoring along the old Coast Road (left to right) County Supervisor Dr. John L.D. Roberts, County Supervisor Lou G. Hare, (Lou’s son) Evart Hare, and Andrew Molera. Photo by Dorothy Hare, circa 1914

The Monterey American newspaper printed the following news, on September 10, 1913:

“It is a wonder that [no lives] were lost this year, and that about 100 automobiles were stuck at various times during the year … How much money has already been wasted in monkeying with surveys of Serra hill, and no nearer to a solution. Sometime a road will be built, and it will not be up Serra hill. The immense amount of auto traffic this year has demonstrated the need for a good level road, even if they have cut up the Sur road so that it is now nothing but ruts and broken ridges.

“There are at least nine-tenths of the bridges with broken planks with only a loose rail or something thrown over it by a passerby to warn drivers of the danger to their horses. It certainly needs an inspector of some kind down here just to see the road … There were about three times as many people down the Sur this year on their outing as ever before. The largest number came down by auto, and also a large number by their own teams. Some claim that a thousand autos came down in the course of the season, but probably about half that number would cover it. They were from seven to fifteen down on several different days. A great many only came as far as Serra hill and either camp there or turn back.”

The July 7, 1914, issue of the Californian, reported:

“Every day someone is stuck with his auto and the stage drivers get considerable revenue hauling gasoline for them. It is fortunate no one has been injured in an accident so far this year. Several close calls, though. One party was only saved by a Redwood stump stopping his machine from backing over the grade.”

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Howard G. Sharpe

In 1919, Howard Sharpe, a shell-shocked veteran who had been an engineer and surveyor during the First World War, bought the old ranch house in Mill Creek (now Bixby Creek) that John Gilkey had built in 1875. Sharpe opened a resort called the Rainbow Lodge, with a country store and a gas pump for the tourists who came in the summer. There was a barn, corral, dance hall, stable, and the number of wooden cabins.

The Stone House that stood at the north end of the Bixby Bridge.

In 1932, Howard Sharp built a stone house on the bluff overlooking the sea, at the north end of the Bixby Canyon Bridge (then called Rainbow Bridge), which, at that time, was as far south as the paved road extended until the highway opened, in 1937. In the living quarters, he installed a bathtub and a flush toilet – said to be the first home on the coast to feature these modern conveniences. Incredulous neighbors would make a special trip on horseback to witness a demonstration of indoor plumbing-in-action. It would be another decade and a half before those in Big Sur without generators, finally got electricity.

Hans Ewoldson had been living in the Santa Lucias for about a year when a local stage driver told him that they were hiring at Pfeiffer’s Ranch. Hans went down and applied for the job. John Pfeiffer took a liking to the young man and hired him.

In 1931, Hans married John and Florence Pfeiffer’s daughter Esther, who was born and bred in Big Sur. The Esther and Hans made their home on Lathrop Brown’s Saddle Rock Ranch, which they ran for a dozen years. Hans, an inveterate tinkerer, installed the first electrical generator on the coast – a hand-built paddle wheel that, when turned by the stream, generated enough electricity to run a few lightbulbs for reading.

In his youth, John Pfeiffer had homesteaded on a 160-acre parcel on the east side of present-day Highway One, north of Pheneger Creek (named for an earlier homesteader, Jay Pheneger). In the 1920s and 30s, Florence Pfeiffer’s daughter from her first marriage, Ellen Brown, lived there.

The River Inn, formerly the Apple Pie Inn, after the business moved from the east side of the highway, to the west side, in 1943

Sometime in the late 1920s or early 30s ­– nobody seems to remember exactly when – Ellen Brown, began inviting tourists and travelers into her living room and dining room, where she served slices of her homemade apple pie made with the famous 20-ounce pippins from the orchards over at Posts.

When Ellen Brown left Big Sur in 1937, her mom, Florence Pfeiffer took over the management of what was now called the Apple Pie Inn. To accommodate the construction of the new paved highway, the inn was moved across the street to the west side of the road, close to the Big Sur River, and a few guest cabins were erected. Although Florence changed the name of the place to “Redwood Camp,” the ridge to the east is still called Apple Pie Ridge.

Hans Ewoldson, photo by Paula Walling

In 1943, Florence and John Pfeiffer’s daughter Esther, and her husband Hans Ewoldson leased Redwood Camp. Hans installed a gasoline pump for the tourists.

Esther remembered, “The place was renamed ‘The River Inn’ in hopes of keeping the river out … because in those days the river often rose up during the winter storms to the level of the dining room door.”

Hans spent one entire day keeping a tally of the cars that passed by the River Inn. He did the math and figured out that one out of every seven cars that drove down the highway stopped at his place to fill their gas tank.

Hans saw the writing on the wall. When he’d saved enough money, he built a general store and more hotel rooms.

*          *          *

Developers, county officials, and quite a few residents, viewed the construction of a paved highway – and the tourist industry that it would enable – as a better way to make a living than subsistence farming and raising livestock.

Other neighbors took pride in the inaccessibility of their region and clung to the old ways. The unpaved County Road, meandering, slow, and foreboding, was an effective deterrent to most would-be travelers. These neighbors opposed any development that would bring more outsiders to Big Sur.

Soon the local community was divided. “The ensuing tension among the social groups,” wrote John Walton, became “a permanent characteristic of the region.”

Robinson Jeffers photo by Edward Weston, 1933

Robinson Jeffers, discussed this dynamic in his poem, “The Coast-Road,” written in September of 1939, two years after the paved highway was completed:

A horseman high alone as an eagle on the spur of the mountain

over Mirmas Canyon draws rein, looks down

At the bridge-builders, men, trucks, the power-shovels, the teeming

end of the new coast-road at the mountain’s base.

He sees the loops of the road go northward, headland beyond

headland, into gray mist over Eraser’s Point,

He shakes his fist and makes the gesture of wringing a chicken’s

neck, scowls and rides higher.

 

I too

Believe that the life of men who ride horses, herders of cattle on

the mountain pasture, plowers of remote

Rock-narrowed farms in poverty and freedom, is a good life. At

the far end of those loops of road

Is what will come and destroy it, a rich and vulgar and bewildered

civilization dying at the core,

A world that is feverishly preparing new wars, peculiarly vicious

ones, and heavier tyrannies, a strangely

Missionary world, road-builder, wind-rider, educator, printer and

picture-maker and broadcaster,

So eager, like an old drunken whore, pathetically eager to impose

the seduction of her fled charms

On all that through ignorance or isolation might have escaped

them. I hope the weathered horseman up yonder

Will die before he knows what this eager world will do to his

children. More tough-minded men

Can repulse an old whore, or cynically accept her drunken kindnesses

for what they are worth,

But the innocent and credulous are soon corrupted.

 

Where is our

consolation? Beautiful beyond belief

The heights glimmer in the sliding cloud, the great bronze gorge-cut

sides of the mountain tower up invincibly,

Not the least hurt by this ribbon of road carved on their sea-foot.

*          *          *

Mary Elizabeth Post Fleenor

A number of old timers went into the tourist trade, opening bars, campgrounds, gas stations, and restaurants along the paved Roosevelt Highway (later the Cabrillo Highway). West Smith opened a saloon called Westmere. Frank and Annie Post’s daughter Alice and her husband, Steve Jaeger, opened the Loma Vista Inn.

Mary Elizabeth Post – the great-granddaughter of Big Sur pioneer W. B. Post – was born in 1922. She and her parents, Irene and Joe (W. Post, Jr.) opened the Rancho Sierra Mar Cafe. It had a with a saloon and a campground, and stood near the old ranch house W. B. Post built in 1877 – the present-day site of the Ventana Resort.

You could sit at the bar, enjoying one of Mary ’s famous hamburgers, served in a basket with one large curled carrot sliver, and watch the broadcast of a San Luis Obispo television station on the tiny black and white tube – one of the first TV sets in Big Sur.

 

Salinas California newspaper, March 27, 1946

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Categories: California History.