Uncle Al Clark, the Hermit of the Little Sur, once killed a grizzly bear with a single shot, fought in the Civil War, and discovered the fabled Silver King Mine of Pico Blanco. Growing up on the Monterey Peninsula, I read these all-too-brief accounts of his fascinating exploits – all of which seemed too fantastic to be true.
Al Clark, who died back in 1932, has passed into legend and is mostly forgotten today. However his remarkable story deserves its own chapter in the annals of Big Sur folklore.
* * *
Alfred King Clark was born in the county of Middlesex, England, on February 21, 1848, and baptized at the Parish of Old St. Pancras when he was thirteen months old. His father, George Robert Clark, was a 37-year-old stonemason from Tunstall, Staffordshire, England. The family lived on Albion Street in London’s elegant Tyburnia neighborhood, one block north of Hyde Park.
In April 1861, at the age of thirteen, Al Clark and his 50-year-old mother, Hannah Clark, boarded the Adelaide at the Liverpool dock, bound for New York City. On the passenger roster, Hannah’s occupation is listed as “laborer.”
Hannah Clark chose a fateful week in American history to arrive in the United States. On April 8, 1861 – the very day she and her teenage son, Al, debarked in New York harbor – President Lincoln sent a letter to South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens, stating that he would resupply Fort Sumter, peacefully or, if necessary, by force.
Four days later, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired.
By the end of 1862, most Americans were already tiring of the Civil War. It had already lasted longer than anyone had expected. At the same time, there was a pressing demand for new enlistees in the Union Army. Congress passed the Enrollment Act of 1863, the first genuine national conscription law, which required the enrollment of every male, citizen or immigrant.
In the winter of 1863, the Union Army enjoyed victories at the battle of Chattanooga and the siege of Knoxville. Three-weeks after Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, Al Clark, not yet a US citizen “volunteered” (likely conscripted, according to a state quota) for a three-year enlistment as a private in the Union Army, on December 11, 1863. He was just fifteen years old.
There were so many teenagers fighting in the American Civil War, one author wrote that it, “might have been called ‘The Boys’ War.’” Between 250,000 and 420,000 boys under the age of seventeen fought in both the Union and Confederate armies. Some sources state that one out of five of the soldiers in the Union Army were younger than eighteen; others say that nearly 100,000 Union troops were boys under fifteen.
We may presume Al and his mother were living in Philadelphia, because he enlisted in the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry. Reporting to a Major McCandly at Portsmouth, Virginia, Clark served with the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry, Company A, (65th Volunteers) in Virginia and North Carolina. His unit – the Cameron Dragoons – was discharged August 16, 1865, at Philadelphia. The muster roll indicates that he was a bugler, and by the end of 1865, he was owed $27.07 for clothing “since 1864,” as well $340, for “horse equipments [sic].”
Beginning in the summer of 1869, one could travel in a railroad car, one-way, coast-to-coast, in seven days and nights, including stops, for as little as $65. However, several months before the railroad opened, in April 1869, Al’s mother Hannah married a 54-year-old Englishman named John Bowery in the farming community of Pajaro, California, two miles east of Watsonville, California. So, she would have made the arduous journey by ship or stagecoach, very likely accompanied by her adult son Al.
Hannah Clark and John Bowery may have already known one another from England or Pennsylvania. By 1870, the couple was settled into their home in Pajaro. Hannah’s son Al, age 21, was living with them at this time and he was employed as a farmworker Also living in with them was John Clark, age 37, who was also farm worker, and likely Al Clark’s older brother or cousin.
On Tuesday, September 5, 1871, Al Clark became a naturalized American citizen and registered to vote in Castroville, California, where he was then working as a carpenter, about 12 miles away from his mother’s home. Castroville had recently been divided into 50 x 130-foot lots, and one hundred of these were given away in a lottery. In 1870, the Castroville Argusnewspaper announced:
“We will give alternate lots, on any part of the town site we still own… to any person who will build as practicable, a good comfortable dwelling house on his lot.”
By 1875, Castroville had almost 900 residents. There were two hotels, five stores, a stables, three saloons, a flour mill, two blacksmith shops, a newspaper, a post office, a telegraph office, a drug store, a tailor shop, a shoemaker, two churches, a schoolhouse, a tin shop, a brewery, and W.B. Post’s butcher shop.
On July 12, 1873, Al Clark married Sarah A. Curtis. She was the 23-year-old daughter of H.C. Curtis, another butcher in Castroville. Like Al Clark’s family, her parents had emigrated from England with their older children. Sarah and her baby brother, Chappo were born in the United States
In 1875, Al Clark was farming in San Luis Obispo County, south of the Santa Lucia Mountains. He may have moved there without his wife, as he and Sarah divorced in 1876. Apparently, Clark never remarried.
Reports place Clark in the Ventana wilderness as early as 1874, although he continued to make his living as a farmer and a carpenter in the communities of Castroville, Soledad, and Salinas. Occasionally, he was employed as a laborer on the road-building crew.
By 1896, he was listing his primary residence as the Little Sur. Clark was a master carpenter, and his work was solid. In 1898, he had a job at the mouth of Palo Colorado Canyon, working for Isaac Newton Swetnam, building the iconic three-story redwood-log family home, where Sam Trotter’s family would later live.
In a region rich in myth and legend, Clark was an enigma. The September 10, 1897, issue of the Salinas Daily Journal, printed a story about the nostalgic “Native Sons of the Golden West” celebration in Castroville. Describing the parade floats, they reported that the:
“Court Castroville, Foresters of America, were next in line with a float drawn by six white horses. This float was a representation of pioneer days, being a log hut with two early characters of Castroville accompanying, they being Al Clark, whom all the early settlers knew, with his fiddle, and ‘Buckskin Jee,’ with his famous goose destroying musket, ‘Big Betsey.’”
Regrettably, nothing else is known about the enigmatic Buckskin Jee.
In the late 1890s, Al Clark built a cabin on the hillside overlooking the South Fork of the Little Sur River, a spring-fed stream four miles north of the Big Sur River. He called the stream “my little river” and insisted it was the most beautiful stretch of water in the world.
The Little Sur River originates on the slopes of the Ventana Double Cone and divides into two independent streams that flow around Pico Blanco, north of Point Sur. Two miles before they reach the sea, the two rivers reconverge, before flowing into the ocean at the Little Sur River Beach. The California State Legislature added this river to the California Protected Waterways System in 1973, to safeguard the Little Sur’s “free-flowing and wild status.”
The Esselen consider Mount Pico Blanco to be the most sacred spot on the coast. This imposing mountain is the center of their origin story. As in so many origin stories, there is a Great Flood. Esselen Tribal Chairwoman Miranda Ramirez explained:
“Eagle and Hummingbird were up in Pico Blanco, and Coyote came up and said, ‘Go to the river and see if there are people after the Great Flood.’ So, Coyote went to the river and he found Woman. And they started the population of our people.”
In the 21st century, thirteen core “lineages” or “extended families” constitute the Esselen Nation. Members trace their ancestries primarily to the Carmel and Soledad missions and to the villages and districts that came under Spanish control there in 1770.
In 2019, the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County received a four and a half million dollar grant to purchase 1,200 acres of sacred ancestral tribal land (an area slightly larger than San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park) along a mile of the Little Sur River and close to Pico Blanco.
Pico Blanco is geographically unique in its isolation from the surrounding ridges. The poet Robinson Jeffers called it, “Noble Pico Blanco, steep sea-wave of marble.” (Not to get too technical, but it is, in fact, solid limestone.)
The Silver King Mine in the Little Sur, like the fabled lost Indian Gold Mine, has long been a part of local Big Sur folklore. According to the legend, before the Mexican Revolution, local Indians would collect naturally occurring wire silver from an undisclosed location somewhere on the south side of Pico Blanco and bring it to the padres at the Carmel Mission.
In 1863, while Al Clark was still a teenager, serving in the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry in Virginia, during the Civil War, there was a brief “silver rush” in the northern Santa Lucia Mountains. About 135 men established eighteen separate mining claims “supposed to contain gold and silver” in the Agua Caliente Mining District, out in the Carmel Valley, near Tassajara Hot Springs, just twenty miles away from Pico Blanco, as the crow flies.
Unfortunately, no newspapers were published in Monterey County at that time, because literally everyone left town for the Gold Rush. But the May 16, 1863, issue of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, published just across the bay, reported, “A new and very rich silver mine has been discovered in the Coast Range south of this city.”
Numerous versions of the legend, reported in the local newspapers, placed the Lost Indian Mine in the Little Sur River watershed. It’s likely that Al Clark read, or heard about these articles.
On November 3, 1889, the Santa Cruz Surf newspaper printed another story about the Lost Indian mine. It discussed Charles R. Hoff, the former Monterey County Assessor and a veteran miner. Apparently, Manuel Chappell told Hoff that he’d located the Lost Indian Mine. Hoff sent samples of the ore from the mine to San Francisco to be assayed and it was found to yield $145 in gold and $18 in silver, per ton. Chappell and Hoff set off in Chappell’s two-horse wagon south to Soledad and then west eight or nine miles, through the Arroyo Seco gorge, over the roughest of rough country, to the location of the mine.
They finally arrived at the base of a mountain, which was shaped “like a boot,” where a creek flowed. Chappell indicated the exact location and Hoff began digging with a pickaxe. “He took three or four blows when he knocked up a piece of rock which immediately saw, with an experienced miner’s eye, was paydirt of great riches.
The Californian newspaper published the following notice on August 10, 1893:
“A mining location notice was filed Wednesday in the county recorder’s office, the claimants being James S. Williams, James F. Moore, and Charles J. Jackson. The location is at the Little Sur River at the south east corner of section 36, Township 18 south, range 1 east. The vein is a silver bearing one and of such fabulous richness as to prompt the believe that is the long lost ‘Indian mine.’”
Three years later, the same James F. Moore partnered with Dr. John L. D. Roberts – the first physician to practice in Big Sur, who founded the city of Seaside, and spearheaded the building of a paved highway from Carmel to San Simeon.
The February 29, 1896, issue of the Santa Cruz Surf reported:
“That portion of Monterey County in the neighborhood of the Little Sur River is on the verge of a great mining boom, says the Monterey New Era:
“In earlier days the Indians worked on mine in the vicinity of Monterey, which was said to be fabulously rich, but no white man was ever permitted to know the secret of its location, and in time all the knowledge of mine was lost, though for many years prospectors have tried to find it.
“Since last December Dr. J. L. D. Roberts and J. F. Moore have been investigating the mining outlook in the Mescal range of the mountains on the north fork of the Little Sur River about 30 miles from Monterey, and they believe they have discovered the location of the lost Indian mine. Simon Little of Seaside, a mining expert, who for some years past, has been employed in the gold mines of Calaveras county, has examined the property, and pronounces it a great success. Messrs. Robert and Moore have spent considerable time and money in investigating this matter, and over 21 assays of ore from this property been made.
“The ore, of which there are vast quantities, assays about $8 to the ton. Messrs. Robert, Moore and others have organized the Little Sur Mining District under the law of the state, and all claims must be subject to the laws of the district.”
Apparently, the ore was worthless, for less than 60-days later, the April 18, 1896, issue of the Monterey Cypress reported that Doc Roberts had sold his, “lost Indian mine,” in the “Little Sur Mining District,” for $10.
Five years later, Roberts struck it rich at his gold mine in Sonora, California, 200 miles away.
* * *
Stories of this kind were prevalent in the local newspapers at that time – an evergreen staple for newspaper editors – and they certainly fueled Al Clark’s interest in prospecting.
According to folklore, Al Clark made friends with one of the last surviving Esselen Indans, who, on his deathbed, told Clark the location of secret mine on the Little Sur River, near Clark’s homestead. And so, began Clark’s epic search for the legendary Silver King Mine.
When Clark discovered traces of silver, he assumed that at long last, he’d located the legendary mine. Seeking venture capital, Clark convinced Dr. Clarence H. Pearce, a 30-year-old dentist in Watsonville, to become a full-fledged partner and financial backer.
The July 12, 1902, issue of the San Francisco Examiner ran the following article on page seven, under the headline, “Reputed Find of Old Silver Mine:”
“For many years, legends have been current of lost silver mines hidden in the vastness of the Santa Lucia range of hills, somewhere between Carmel and Little Sur Rivers. Tales related by Indian residents in Monterey, Carmel Valley, the Tassajara, and Sur countries about the product of these lost mines were looked upon not only by the first American pioneers in Monterey county, but by their descendants, as being so exaggerated that they look like a fairy romance.
“It is now said two of these old mines have been found, but as yet it is of course impossible to say whether there is any solid basis for the expectations of the locators. In Township 18 S. R. 1 and 2 east, M. D. M., in Carmel country, near the headquarters of the Little Sur, A. Clark owns a claim. In May 1899, Clark was cleaning away some brush near his cabin when he noticed certain marks and signs, which, following, lead him to a pile of rocks near a huge boulder. On this boulder, as the story runs, pointing south east was a large arrow. He searched and was astonished to find silver ore in profusion. He called to his aid the Rev. R. H. Sawyer and Dentist C. H. Pierce [sic], and with their aid discovered what they believe to be one of the lost mines. They say that there are hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of silver in sight, and, accordingly, have located and filed each his separate claim.
“While Clark was working quietly to locate his mine, A. Jay. Lewis, R. B. Lewis and R. H. Orr of this county had, while hunting, found some silver rock. Following a trail marked with rocks on which were arrow marks, in Township 19 S., R. 1 E., they discover the second mine equal in richness to the Clark mine. It is about thirty miles from Salinas and twenty miles from the Carmel Mission.
“Mr. Pierce [sic], one of the founders of the mine, states that the original shaft has been located by himself and party. They were searching when they came upon a trail which led to an old camping ground, with crude vessels and implements scattered around. At the end of the trail was an opening which extended downward about ten feet. In the opening was discovered the skeleton of an Indian with ancient mining tools. The rock bore marks of these tools.”
This story was reprinted in several other newspapers, with elaborate (and sometimes erroneous) embellishments. However, the most outlandish folklore often contains elements of fact.
For example, the July 28, 1902, issue of the Baltimore Sun newspaper carried a “based on a true story” version of the tale, stating that Al Clark was working the same claim abandoned years before by a miner named Jay Morton:
“Several years ago, a man named Jay Morton took up a government claim of 160 acres in Township 18, near the headwaters at the Little Sur River. He soon tired of this location, as well as of his search for the lost mines, and abandon his claim.”
In the summer of 1899, Al Clark began digging with a pick and shovel. He laboriously moved tons of rock and gravel – wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow – excavating a tunnel in the solid rock wall. In an effort to raise cash, in December 1902, Dr. Pearce sold the 32,000-acre Salsipuedes Rancho and adjoining lands, twelve miles east of Big Sur, for $4,000 (Today the Salsipuedes Rancho, with its historic 250-year-old adobe, is now owned by the Bottoms family.) However, after months of fruitless and backbreaking effort, without results, Dr. Pearce lost faith in the project and withdrew his financial support.
Undaunted, Clark continued prospecting alone. His mineshaft led fifteen-feet straight into the limestone mountain, then dropped twenty-feet underground, where separate tunnels branched in different directions.
Whenever Clark ran out of money, he hired out as a ranch hand, working for his neighbor Alvin Dani, the foreman of the nearby Cooper Ranch (Rancho El Sur). As soon as Clark had earned enough to restock his saddlebags, he unceremoniously quit the ranch, packed his supplies on the back of his constant companion, Toby (an old gray mule he’d caught and tamed) and returned to his search for the illusive Silver King Mine.
Just a few weeks after the great San Francisco earthquake and fire, Clark filed patents for six contiguous tracts of land (168 acres) with the Land Office in San Francisco, on June 20, 1906, under the authority of the 1862 Homestead Act. His claim, on the south fork of the Little Sur River, was situated beneath the southern slopes of Pico Blanco’s Dani Ridge.
Al Clark’s claim is surprisingly easily spotted on almost any 21st-century map, because it happens to be shaped like an upside-down pennant – right angle triangle just west of Pico Blanco, straddling the Little Sur River and pointing due west. You can’t miss it, even on Google maps.
In November 1906, a large wildfire burned over Pico Blanco and the ranches of Al Clark, and Alvin and Kate Dani, and many other homesteads in the Little Sur. On November 3, 1906, Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that the fire had started a month earlier on Palo Colorado Creek and that, “All culverts and bridges for thirty-six miles down the coast are destroyed. The latest report says the fire is below Posts, on a range nearly forty miles from its starting point.”
Through the years, Clark’s behavior and appearance grew increasingly eccentric. He had a scar over his right eye, another on the right side of his nose, piercing blue eyes, and a wild shock of white hair. According to John Cooper III, Al Clark quit working at the Cooper Ranch because there wasn’t enough Worcestershire sauce on the table!
Al Clark was a wanderer who only lived part-time in his one-room cabin in the Little Sur. He meandered from primitive campsite to primitive campsite, throughout the canyon. When I was a teenager, the decaying remains of his old camp stoves could still be found rusting under the stately redwoods, along the south fork of the Little Sur – they may still be there.
Clark tamed the blacktail deer, giving each one a name and calling them to him individually, and he protected them during hunting season. He preferred living with few possessions, subsisting on a vegetarian diet of fresh produce grown at the Cooper Ranch and a rich gruel made from wheat and wild honey.
Many of those who knew him thought he was bat-shit crazy. Some people were certain he was illiterate. Others believed that he was completely sane, and that the craziness was just an act he put on to keep people at a distance. After years of living alone, forever chasing poachers off his homestead, he may have simply developed a great mistrust of strangers.
* * *
“Uncle Al” Clark was a legend in his own time. After his death in February 1932, The Monterey Peninsula Herald published this remembrance of the eccentric Hermit of the Little Sur:
“One of the best shots Monterey county ever saw. That was Al Clark, The Hermit of the Little Sur, who died here a few days ago, according to two old friends, C. F. [Frank] Post of Oak Grove and Robert J. Richards of Daly City. Both knew Clark for more than half a century and tell many stories of his prowess with the rifle … they told how Clark, in 1874 dispatched a grizzly bear with a single shot. He was hunting deer in the Ventana, roughest part of the ‘coast country’ at the time.
“Coming on the big bear’s track in a field of wild oats, Clark set out and search the animal, armed with an old Henry rifle. It was not long until he found Mr. Grizzly parked on top of a rock hummock. Still some distance away, Clark raise the rifle to his shoulder and fired. The bear fell dead, the bullet having struck him in the tip of the nose killing him instantly. According to Richards and Post, it was extremely rare for grizzlies to be killed with a single shot as they had few vital spots and all were difficult to hit.”
In 1911, Joseph Smeaton Chase, a middle-aged Englishman set out on horseback from El Monte, California, dressed in riding breeches and leather puttees, a brown tweed coat and broad-brimmed Stetson hat. Chase travelled nearly two thousand miles from the Mexican border to the Oregon line. He published a book about his travels in 1913, California Coast Trails: A Horseback Ride from Mexico to Oregon. In Chapter Seven, Chase described his encounter with the then sixty-three-year-old Al Clark:
“All day the road wound along a rocky shore, beside a bright sea … at long intervals, stark-looking ranch houses appeared, but there was little travel on the road, and the human voice was still a rarity to the ear…
“In the course of a walk up the stream next morning, I came upon an original who for many years has lived a Robinson Crusoe life … high up on the cañon wall. His ramshackle dwelling was more shed than house, and I found the ancient himself seated beside it, in a rather alarming state of undress, under the shelter of an umbrella which he had hung obliquely from the roof to intercept the morning sun. With his bright blue eyes, skin originally ruddy but now tanned to Indian hue, and shock of long white hair, he made a most odd appearance.
“He was talking to himself as I approached, but hailed me hospitably to come in and sit down for a chat. The chatting was a passive affair on my side, for he himself did not cease talking for a moment, and after one or two vain attempts to stop him, I only sat and listened. His great topic was minerals, concerning which he had a theory, new to me, that every metal has a father and a mother. This great discovery had been revealed to him by an old Indian woman, once of these parts, who had bequeathed him a ‘map’ by which, he declared, he was able to make his theory effective. To discount the palpable discrepancy between his apparently poor circumstances and his potential wealth, he explained that he cared nothing for actual money, being content with knowing that he could at any time procure it: a philosophy which, as he appeared to hold it sincerely, was an admirable one, and worthy to be recommended to our captains of finance.”
Chase made no mention of the silver mine. One wonders whether Clark even discussed it – or if he did, whether Chase believed him.
In December 1914, when the poet Robinson Jeffers made his first trip down to Big Sur, he encountered sixty-six-year-old Uncle Al Clark, The Hermit of the Little Sur:
“In the cloud on top of Sur Hill a bearded old hermit met the stage to take delivery of a pilot biscuit [hardtack] he had sent for,” wrote Jeffers. “Pilot biscuit! He had not a tooth in his head.”
* * *
As Clark grew older, his reputation as an eccentric preceded him. In 1915, he grew his white hair and beard long, telling neighbors that he was going to portray Uncle Sam at the San Francisco International Exposition.
Clark’s February 11, 1932, obituary was printed on the front page of the Monterey Peninsula Herald. It said, “Clark was a famous traveler on mountain trails and the paces set and moving on foot over his beloved hills was too stiff for men many years his junior to maintain.”
At the end of December, 1915, the linguist and novelist Dr. Jaime d’Angulo, made his first trip to Big Sur, escorted by Rojelio “Roche” Castro. Dr. d’Angulo bought the old Partington homestead, Seaview Ranch, 120 acres on top of Partington Ridge, from Castro for $10 an acre.
In his book, The Lariat, Dr. deAngulo told the following story, which contains the only record of Al Clark’s manner of speaking:
“[Roche Castro] and I were riding to Monterey. [Roche] said: ‘You have been speaking about building a log house. Well, here’s the man who will build it for you. You see that man walking over the moor with that long stride? Must be Uncle Al – nobody else walks like that – the best carpenter on the Coast with a broad axe or adze – but he’s a lunatic of the first water – I’ll tell you about him later.” And a strange figure he was with his long white hair flowing in the wind, white mustache and imperial à la Buffalo Bill, a long walking-staff, and a haversack slung over his shoulder. “Sure I’ll build you a log-house, best kind of house, best kind of house, keep a going, keep a going, never stop, never stop, that’s my motto, yessir that’s my motto, keep a going, never stop, I’ll be down there next week, bring a crew, bring a crew, can’t build a log-house alone, you know, have to have a crew, need a cook, need a cook…’ “
The Californian printed the following article in the March 12, 1919 issue, under the headline, “Hermit of Coast Visits Monterey:”
“Al Clark, ‘the hermit of the coast,’ 82 years young, is in town today with his pet, ‘Toby, the Outlaw.’ Toby is a large mule, sixteen hands high so we are told, and the hermit rides him with ease, employing a step ladder to mount. Clark has a reputation as a long distance hiker, being able to outwalk almost anyone in the county.”
Reported discoveries of gold in Big Sur continued, feeding Clark’s prospecting fantasies. The Oakland Tribune printed this notice in their Sunday, June 25, 1916, issue:
“Mrs. Clemens L Koch has discovered gold on her property along the Sur river and she has called her mine the Pico Blanco gold mine. The owner is now making plans to operate the mine.”
* * *
One of Clark’s neighbors was Jules Otto Kahofer. Born in Vienna in 1884, Kahofer came to California at the age of 19, with dreams of becoming a forester.
In 1915, Kahofer was a chef at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco and one the sons of the Serrano family – of the historic Serrano Adobe in Monterey – worked in his kitchen. Kahofer learned that the Serrano’s were selling a piece of their homestead in the Little Sur, near Launtz Ridge, between the north and south forks. Kahofer quit his job, hired an Indian guide, located the parcel, and bought it. There, in 1916, he opened the Pico Blanco Hunting and Fishing Lodge; a cluster of rustic hand-hewn redwood cabins for sportsmen and fishermen.
Leading a string of eight horses, Kahofer packed guests in from Hoffman’s Resort in Palo Colorado Canyon, to the Idlewild Hotel, located near where the old County Road crosses the south fork of the Little Sur River, and Pfeiffer’s Ranch Resort (in present-day Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park). Al Clark – then about sixty-seven- years-old – and Toby, his faithful gray mule, packed for Kahofer on these excursions.
Kahofer was apparently an abusive husband – in 1915, his wife Sibina, divorced him for extreme cruelty. Six years later, his second wife, Wilhemina, divorced him, also for extreme cruelty.
Hot-rodding on the coast road has been a problem since automobiles first appeared in the early 1900s. One sunny day in the 1920s, Jules Kahofer was waiting for the mail delivery at Camp Idlewild and he dozed off by the side of the road. A Model A came speeding around the bend and ran over his instep, crushing his toes inside of his boot.
Furious and in great pain, Kahofer mounted his horse and made it as far as Al Clark’s cabin. Clark, ever handy, quickly fashioned a pair of crutches out of a few redwood grape stakes.
Herb Aughinbaugh was backpacking near the remains of Kahofer’s cabins and found one of the crutches Clark had made, half a century earlier.
“A three-legged chair looked like the driest piece of firewood in the place,” he recalled. “I opened one of the jars we had filled with sawdust and soaked thoroughly with kerosene for a fire lighter before departing, and soon we were drying out around a fire composed of many odds and ends of debris, including a handmade crutch presumed to be no longer needed…”
The other crutch was discovered in 1979, by Jeff Norman, the pre-eminent Big Sur historian of his generation, while he was visiting the site of the long defunct Pico Blanco Hunting and Fishing Lodge. Norman photographed the wooden crutch before hiding it for posterity, in one of the decaying cabins.
* * *
During the 1920s, Howard and Frida Sharpe owned the Rainbow Lodge at Mill Creek (present day Bixby Creek). Their daughter Rosalind Sharpe Wall, born in 1919. She remembered Al Clark from her childhood: as he rode down Serra Hill in his little spring wagon, his beard waving in the breeze, making his way to Monterey, pulled by Toby his loyal mule. In her memoir, A Wild Coast and Lonely, published in 1987, Wall wrote:
“There were other hermits living in the hills, but none like Al Clark … [he] talked about gold, the male and female elements of metal, and the marriages between them, and hearing symphonies in the air. Our radio, a superheterodyne, the first radio on the coast, infuriated him and he refused to listen to it.”
“You don’t need radios,” he said. “Why, I hear all the music I want to up in the Little Sur. There are symphonies in the air all the time.”
A musician himself, Al Clark played the five-string banjo and the fiddle at local dances. The Oakland Tribune printed this news item on the December 13, 1884:
“A farewell surprise party was tendered to Miss Teresa Hall and Miss Blanche Ferrier, of Oakland, at the residence of E.P. Gayety, on the Little Sur River, Monterey County, on Monday evening December 1. Singing and dancing with a program of the evening, and were indulging till midnight, when guests partook of a coalition. After supper, dancing was again indulged in until daybreak. The music was furnished from the old capital of Monterey which consists of Messrs. Johnson, Whitcomb and [Al] Clark. Those present announced it one of the most enjoyable parties of the season.”
Rosalind Sharpe Wall remembered an incident with Al Clark from her childhood:
“One day he promised to bring me some marbles. I was excited, visualizing rainbow-colored agates. To my great disappointment he arrived with a big bag of acorns. ‘See all the lovely marbles,’ he said … Clark ate peas with a knife, and my mother often asked him to stay for dinner, invariably serving peas so that I could watch this fantastic performance. It was a real art not to drop a single one.”
* * *
Doctor John L. D. Roberts died on November 22, 1949, at the age of 88. His obituary in the Monterey Peninsula Herald stated that he was born on January 16, 1861 and that he graduated from Columbia University fifth in his class of 500.
In 1946, Nearly blind and mostly deaf and near the end of his long life, 84-year-old Doc Roberts, the first doctor to work in Big Sur, insisted that Al Clark wasn’t crazy, but rather, “That was only an act he put on.”
“Al Clark was very psychic.” Roberts told Rosalind Sharpe Wall. “Every time I went down to the Little Sur, he used to meet me on the road. Sometimes he would be late and come rushing down the canyon. ‘I knew you were coming, Doc!’ he’d cry. Sometimes I’d hear him a half a mile away. ‘I’ll be right there!’”
Roberts claimed that Al Clark was a fellow student of his at Columbia University. Roberts said that Clark was a graduate of a Harvard University and that Clark received his “masters of the arts” from the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, and that he attended Columbia University for his doctorate.
Roberts said that Al Clark had told him that he was through with civilization. ‘I reject everything,’ Clark had said, ‘I shall go and get gold in California.’
According to Roberts, Al Clark made Roberts promise to keep secret the fact that Clark was an educated man. Roberts said that Clark wound up in Monterey where, instead mining, he hit the saloons until he was broke. Then Clark headed for the Little Sur. After a time, Clark disappeared completely and was gone for almost a year. The old-timers thought he must have died in the back hills. Roberts insisted that Al Clark knew where the Indian gold was, but would never talk about it, or spend it:
“He returned in the guise of a madman, claiming that he had found the secret to the gold but that it was wrong to use gold the way people use it. Gold was what was wrong with civilization. Since he had found the secret, Clark told Doc Roberts, he did not need to use it. If he used it, he lost it. In other words, the true value of the gold was in the concept or essence, what might be termed its spiritual value.”
Doc Roberts’ story is very compelling and dramatically satisfying. Unfortunately, most of it is fiction.
Al Clark was born in England, in 1848, and was a generation older than Doc Roberts. Roberts was born thirteen years later, in 1861. Al Clark was already a 26-year-old married man living in Castroville, California in 1874, when Doc Roberts was still a 13-year-old boy in short pants, attending eighth grade, in Osceola, New York.
So, Doc Roberts’ assertion that he and Al Clark were classmate at Columbia University is unsupportable. Additionally, Harvard and Columbia University have no record of Clark ever having been a student there. Al Clark and his mother left England in the 1850s, while he was still a child and never returned, so it is highly unlikely that Clark received his MA from a university in Scotland.
The errors in Roberts testimony indicate sufficient confusion (or lack of credibility) on his part to make one doubt the veracity of some of his other assertions. That said, almost every legend contains some elements of historical fact.
Al Clark would, in fact, disappear for months on end, working on his mine shaft, or visiting his forest campsites and his friends, the wild deer. Al Clark did babble on like a madman about precious metals and their “marriages” and “powers.” And old Doc Roberts was not the only one to observe this peculiar conduct.
* * *
Alvin Dani and Kate Pfeiffer, who lived on Dani Ridge in the Little Sur, were neighbors of Al Clark. Alvin and Kate’s daughter, Alvina was born in the Little Sur, in 1899. In 1920, she married a nineteen-year-old boy named Albert Roy Geer, a cattleman from Enumclaw, Washington. Al Roy Geer worked as the foreman at the Saddle Rock Ranch at McWay Canyon (present-day Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park). He was the son of a Kansas shoemaker, and he became one of Big Sur’s resident deputy sheriffs. Al Roy and Alvina had four daughters, June, Betty, Ruby, and Elsie.
In the late 1920s, when Al Clark was approaching the age of 80, he was befriended by Al Roy and Alvina Geer. When the Geers left McWay Canyon, they moved into Clark’s cabin, some twenty miles up the coast, and cared for the old hermit until the end of his life.
Al Roy Geer loved everything about airplanes. He started flying small planes in May of 1930. On September 12, 1931, a week after he qualified for his private pilot’s license, he made the newspapers by executing what the Oakland Tribune called, “…probably the first airplane landing ever made in the Big Sur district…” Geer was piloting a one-seater, Curtiss-Wright CW-1 Junior sports aircraft, owned by his flight instructor, Major H.L. Watson of Carmel.
Geer landed the small aircraft on a ridge about a quarter of a mile from the old Pfeiffer residence in Sycamore Canyon (near present-day Pfeiffer Beach). “Geer, who is thoroughly familiar with the terrain of the district, visited the landing site several days ago and marked off the smoothest portion.”
Shortly thereafter, just a few months before Al Clark died, Al Roy Geer took eighty-two-year-old Al Clark for his first (and only) airplane ride. The old hermit gazed in wide-eyed amazement from the cockpit, as the aircraft flew through Bixby Canyon – over the now iconic Bridge, which was then under construction – the longest concrete arch span in the California State Highway System – and the hermits’ modest homestead in the Little Sur.
* * *
Much of the of rock around Al Clark’s homestead in the Little Sur is limestone. Limestone formations often contain underground rivers that create subterranean caverns and carvings. Pico Blanco is the largest single mass of the pure calcium-rich limestone in the state of California.
Shortly before he died, Al Clark told Al Roy Geer his secret – a secret he had kept to himself for decades:
While digging out the face of the wall in his mineshaft, Clark had broken through the rock into an underground cavern in the limestone mountain – a cavern that had icicle-like stalactites hanging from the ceiling and stalagmites protruding from the floor. Clark described what appeared to be stone blossoms on the walls – selenite “gypsum flowers” that extrude from the walls in many underground limestone caverns.
Not far from the pond beneath the waterfall, the South Fork of the Little Sur River disappears underground near the of location of Clark’s mineshaft and reappears a short distance downstream. While in this dark cavern, Clark saw an underground stream containing albino fish – likely troglobites, blind fish that have lost their pigment in adaptation to life in darkness.
Further on, Clark found a cavern with a packed earth floor and well-used Indian mortars. The walls were decorated with pre-historic paintings of, elephants with shaggy hair and long tusks, and cats with long sharp teeth.”
To ensure that no vandals would disturb the cavern’s contents, Clark said that he’d deliberately sealed the hole to the chamber by setting off a stick of dynamite, blocking the entrance with boulders and debris.
Al Roy Geer probably dismissed Uncle Al’s tall tale as the ramblings of a sick and demented old man. The story seemed too incredible to be true.
But after Al Clark’s death, Geer spent several years working Clark’s claim, searching for the entrance to the legendary mine. When he finally found it, in 1936, the tunnel was so badly caved in and the entrance blocked by so much fallen rock, that the mineshaft was never reopened. Al Roy Geer and his wife Alvina both died young, a few years later, in 1944 and 1943, respectively.
* * *
Al Clark’s tall tale of the cavern of pre-historic cave paintings at Pico Blanco has become firmly entrenched in local folklore. Like most good folklore, the story has appeared in print a number of times in a number of versions and variants, an amalgamation of fact, fiction, and speculation.
Al Clark died in February 1932, eight years before the September 1940 discovery of the now-famous cave paintings of pre-historic mammals at Lascaux Cave in southwestern France. But no one knew of their existence during Al Clark’s lifetime.
However, the pre-historic paintings on the walls of Caves of Altamira in Spain were discovered in 1879, when Al Clark was thirty-one years old – so there is a possibility that he was aware of their existence.
The Chauvet Cave, discovered in 1994 – six decades after Clark’s death – contains some of the earliest known pre-historic paintings, from at least 32,000 years ago. Werner Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was filmed in the Chauvet Cave in southern France.
“No one who studies the caves seems able to resist a yearning for communion with the artists,” wrote Judith Thurman in her 2008 article for New Yorker magazine, “First Impressions,” about Cave of Forgotten Dreams. “When you consider that their legacy may have been found by chance, but surely wasn’t left by chance, it, too, suggests a yearning for communion—with us, their descendants.”
Chris Lorenc is writer who lives in Big Sur. “Al Clark’s story came back to me vividly two nights ago when I saw Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” he wrote. “I’m still spellbound by the film. Something more important went on – and is still going on – than can be explained by saying that the film takes you down into the landscape where these animal-spirits were painted onto limestone walls by greased lightning in torchlight over 30,000 years ago.”
In 2019, a 45,000-year-old cave painting of the rotund form of a native pig, complete with a bristly back and face warts, was discovered in a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The fourteen-and-a-half-foot-wide illustration, painted in dark-red pigment, depicts eight tiny bipedal figures, holding spears and ropes, hunting wild pigs and buffalo. Archaeologist Maxine Aubert called it, “to our knowledge, currently the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world.”
* * *
Al Clark died of pneumonia, on Thursday, February 11, 1932, ten days before his eighty-fourth birthday.
Though few people remember him today, Uncle Al Clark was a veritable local celebrity in his lifetime. His obituary (containing a few factual errors) ran on the front page of the Monterey Peninsula Herald on the day he died:
“Al Clark, the Hermit of Little Sur, who cheated death many times during his eventful life succumbed today at Pacific Grove hospital following a brief illness which was complicated by the infirmities of old age. Clark’s exact age was not known, but it is believed that he was at least 97.
“He came to Monterey County from England in 1864 landing from a sailing schooner at Moss landing. After working in this section for some time his health broke and he went down the coast and filed on homestead. A Medical man gave him but a few months to live at that time, but the simple mountain life agreed with Clark and he made the coast country is home for more than 60 years.
“News of his death will be received with sadness by hundreds of Peninsula folk who knew him and as equally famous Mule, ‘Toby.’
“Just a few months ago Clark fought his way back to health after his life had been spared of. He was injured in a fall and a lung infection developed.
“For many days Clark was critically ill at the Franklin Street home of Mrs. Nellie Cooper, an old friend. Clark surprised Dr. W. L. Tealy, the attending physician and everyone who knew of his critical condition by rallying and he was enjoying good health until stricken with the fatal illness. It is thought possible that the aged man may have exerted himself to soon after his first illness.”
Nellie Cooper (nee Elena Margarita Roach) and her husband, Abelardo E. Cooper – the grandson of the Captain John Rogers Cooper of Rancho El Sur – were Clark’s neighbors in the Little Sur, prior to Mr. Cooper’s death, in 1925.
In death, it was revealed that Al Clark was surprisingly well connected, for a career hermit. His last will and testament was filed for probate by Silas W. Mack of Monterey, a veteran attorney, a U.S. commissioner, and respected customs judge. Clark’s doctor, Walter L. Teaby, MD, was the mayor of Monterey and the most prominent physician in the county, and also the executor of Clark’s will.
The Monterey Peninsula Herald stated that Clark left his entire estate to Al Roy and Alvina Geer, consisting of, “180 acres of land in the Sur region, said to be valued at about $50 per acre … Relatives of the deceased, [traveled up from Los Angeles and were] present when the will was read, indicated their satisfaction with its provisions.”
* * *
Clark’s former homestead, as well as the top of mount Pico Blanco, is now owned by Granite Rock, a natural resource extraction company with headquarters in Watsonville, California, that was founded in 1900.
In the late 1970s, Herb Aughinbaugh and Jimmy Gillespie trespassed on Granite Rock’s private property to spend a few days looking for Al Clark’s forsaken homestead on the south fork of the Little Sur River, beneath Pico Blanco. Aughinbaugh’s account of the backpacking trip was published in the April/May 1979 issue of the Big Sur Gazette:
“Jimmy had retired to the dampness of the tent. I sat finishing the last of the coffee, watching the dying embers of the fire. When I heard it first, I thought it was just a mixture of wind and rushing water, but it grew louder and more distinct. It sounded like a chant, in a language unfamiliar to me, coming from somewhere above me. My first thought was to block it out. It had to be nothing more than the natural night sounds around me or perhaps too much “luxury” in the coffee. I seemed compelled to listen, to concentrate on its source somewhere in the blackness behind me. I turned and faced the peak and it grew more intense. I could make out two distinct voices, one male, one female. Although I hadn’t the faintest idea of the meaning of the chanting words, they rhythmically had a soothing effect, not at all frightening, it stopped abruptly as it started. I waited but the sounds did not return. I could hear only the wind in the trees and the rushing water. I extinguish the last of the fire and retired, my mind filled with a thousand unanswered questions….
“We were seated in silence around the after-dinner fire [the following evening] when they started again. The slow, rhythmic chanting. I remained silent as their volume increased and the tempo quickened … Again, as last evening, the chanting stopped. We sat around the fire for more than an hour waiting for a reoccurrence, but the evening was silent, except for the night sounds. We extinguished the fire and retired, praying for a day of sunshine…
“We followed the river downstream looking for the landmarks on our map that would guide us to the right location. At one point, according to the map, we should find an old fence line that led to a long-abandoned cabin. The cabin overlooked an area that had “sunken” into the ground. A few hundred yards beyond this fault we should be able to locate the fork of the river than enters the mountain.
“I scanned the hillsides looking for anything unnatural, straight lines of any kind that could reveal an old trail or fence line. A short distance ahead I spotted the “line” running down from the ridge above us. The fence posts had rotted away, and the rusting barbwire had entwined itself in the overgrowth of sage brush. We followed the fence line down to a redwood filled valley. The one-room cabin, just as marked on our map, lay below us. Windowless and weathered, it’s roof sagging, exposing the hand-hewn redwood support beams, it stood like a silent sentry. Beyond the cabin, again as marked on the map, was a large mushroom-like ring approximately 100 feet in diameter. The land within the ring has sunken over six feet into the valley floor. Was this the ceiling of the large limestone cavern of legend? With our hearts beating rapidly in anticipation of what [lay] ahead, we followed the fork of the river that ran above the ring upstream. The river did indeed flow into the mountainside!
“Our jubilation was short-lived. The volume of water rushing into the mountain side was so great that it acted like a giant moving liquid stopper completely sealing off and preventing any entrance.
“The sky darkened as we searched the mountain side looking for another possible entrance. The rain began again, further dampening our spirits as we searched in vain for an opening in the limestone. The tempo of the rain increased in the ever-present wind drove the cold, dime sized droplets into us, penetrating our heavy clothing and leaving us cold, wet and discouraged. We headed back to base camp…
“We ceremoniously buried a container filled with our maps, names and addresses, and the date of our arrival to the peak. We started to cross to the side where the road down could be located. One side of the mountain had given way to a gigantic landslide that according to legend, covered the entrance to the ‘lost mine.’”
* * *
In the desolate wilderness of the Santa Lucia Mountains, twenty miles away from the Little Sur (as the crow flies) near Church Creek, there are several rock shelters, some of which were once inhabited by the Esselen.
One of these sites, the Caves Rock Shelter has been used by the Esselen for at least 3,400 years. Its walls are covered with nearly 250 images of human hands. Most of the images are stylized paintings of hands, but a few were made by the artist placing their hand in white paint and then pressing it against the surface of the sandstone. The white hands contrast against the dark rock walls, blackened by a thousand torches and campfires.
Robinson Jeffers wrote this poem after visiting the Caves Rock Shelter:
Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
The vault of rock is painted with hands,
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men’s palms, no
No other picture. There’s no one to say
Whether the brown shy quiet people who are dead intended
Religion or magic, or made their tracings
In the idleness of art; but over the division of years these careful
Signs-manual are now like a sealed message
Saying: ‘Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws.
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and
And be supplanted; for you also are human.
In the January 6, 2020, issue of New Yorker Magazine, Adam Gopnick’s article, Storytelling Across the Ages, explained how a study sponsored by the National Geographic Society in 2013 suggests the three-quarters of the hand stencils found on the walls of dozens of European caves were made by women, and that the paintings alongside them likely were as well. Gopnick wrote:
“Early man may have thrown the spears, but early woman made the pictures telling us how … Our oldest stories are like our newest; we look for explanation and hope for a happy ending. People, then and now, tell tales about brave things they are about to do, or just did, or thinking of doing, or thought they might do if they were not the people they are but had the superpowers we all wish we had.”
* * *
On Sunday, January 29, 1933 – less than a year after Clark’s death – a fourteen-year-old high school student named Bruno Selva was walking across a field of alfalfa field on his father’s ranch, on the east side of the Santa Lucia Mountains, in the agricultural community of Gonzales, California. Bruno noticed a stump sticking out of the ground where it shouldn’t have. Being a teenage boy, he kicked it and it soon came loose. Pulling it out of the dirt, he discovered it was part of an enormous leg bone.
Digging in the soil, he found several other bones including pieces of a tusk and a tooth ten and a half inches long, nine inches high, and four inches wide. The next day, he brought some of the bones to school and showed them to his high school science teacher, Mr. Hill, who phoned the paleontology department of the University of California at Berkeley.
The front page of the Monterey County Post proclaimed, “Fossils Reveal Mastadons Once Roamed Valley”. Three weeks later, Dr. Charles L. Camp, chief paleontologist at U.C. Berkeley drove down to Gonzales and examined the fossils. It was a Columbian mammoth. The Salinas Morning Post reported:
“Dr. Camp and his associates state that the finding of these fossils has been of great importance as it is the first record we have of these great elephants in this section of the country, although they were known to have existed near Los Angeles.”
The Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), which was once widespread in what is now the state of California, has been extinct for more than 10,000 years. Columbian mammoths stood fourteen feet tall and weighed as much as ten tons.
The mammoth fossils were discovered on Joseph Selva’s ranch in Gonzales, just 40 miles away from Pico Blanco and Al Clark’s fabled cavern of pre-historic cave paintings.