A few years
after the American occupation, unappropriated public lands became
available to settlers in parcels of 160 acres. Many of the place
names seen by the modern visitor to Big Sur are the historic family
names of people who became landowners in this fashion, by what
was called preemption. Cooper, Post, Innocenti, Pfieffer--all
these hardy people were among the first to struggle with the extremely
difficult conditions encountered by early settlers.
and mountain lions were ever ready to snack on their livestock,
the cycle of summer droughts and winter rains was poorly understood
at first and many crops were lost, and outside supplies were almost
to be floated ashore from ships as there was no natural harbor.
The wagon road, hacked out of the terrain by the settlers themselves,
only extended from Carmel to the Post Ranch and was only passable
in the dry season. All other supplies were brought in on pack
mules and horseback.
into the lives of the early settlers, an excellent resource is
A Wild Coast and Lonely--Big Sur Pioneers by Rosalinde Sharpe
Wall. Her family lived in Bixby Canyon and operated the lodge
there. She was an eyewitness to history at a time of crucial changes
on the South Coast. See the "Books of Interest" section
of the Links and Resources page for details of this and other
The late 1800's
to the 1930's saw a steady improvement in conveniences and access
the Big Sur. The timber, gold, tanbark and lime industries had
come and gone, with only a few remnants left behind for the curious
to wonder at, such as the kilns at Limekiln Creek and the tunnel
at Partington Cove. Other once-thriving hubs like Notley's Landing,
once a notorious den of debauchery and vice, have left nary a
stick standing to remark their passing.
In the 1940's
and '50's, the author Henry Miller was the nexus of a gathering
of Bohemian artists and writers that called the Big Sur home.
Some of these individualists had been participants in the heyday
of Carmel to the north. When the fashionable, monied people transformed
Carmel from rustic artists' colony to toney resort, they retreated
south into the isolation of the Sur.
Soon wild tales began
to be circulated by the newspapers of the goings-on in Big Sur.
Miller tells of a man who showed up on his doorstep one day to
announce that he was there to 'join the cult of sex and anarchy'.
Of course there never was such a cult. Most writers retired to
the Sur simply to get some work done. Unfortunately most found
that just living there entailed so much work in itself that frequently
the art suffered. Not to mention the distraction afforded by the
over the years, writers, artists and photographers such as Robert
Louis Stevenson (who set Treasure Island on a place remarkably
similar to Point Lobos), Mary Austin, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis,
John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers (whose epic poems of life in
the Sur drew the first literary tourists), Lillian Ross, Jack
Kerouac, Henry Miller (resident for twenty years), Edward Weston
and Ansel Adams, among many many others have either lived or spent
time along the magnificent coastline.
may be the only writer on this list to have arrived in a taxi.
He was on his way from San Francisco to stay in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's
cabin at Bixby Canyon to "dry out", but predictably
he made some pit stops in the North Beach bars on the way. When
the taxi let him out where the road stopped at Bixby Creek Canyon,
it was pitch black. He wandered around, lost, then finally passed
out in the meadow. Jack's experience in Big Sur is chronicled
in his book of the same name. For this Eastern boy, evidently,
the looming mountains and breakneck paths to the sea were simply
too much. He claimed that he heard the surf incessantly telling
him to leave, go home, write a book!
The opening of Highway
One in 1937 linked Big Sur to the rest of the world for good or
bad. Conditions gradually attained to a state commonly called
'civilization', with electricity finally arriving in the fifties.
The people who live
here still travel to Carmel or Monterey for supplies, and are
still frequently cut-off by storms and road closures in the winter.
Electrical power and telephone service can be unreliable, cell
phones have a limited utility, and television reception is sparse.
these and other inconveniences simply because living here in these
glorious surroundings is an exalted experience.
Henry Miller raised
two children in his cramped home on Partington Ridge and had these
words to say about watching them grow up here: "...They had
skies of pure azure and walls of fog moving in and out of the
canyons with invisible feet, hills in winter of emerald green
and in summer mountain upon mountain of pure gold. They had even
more, for there was ever the unfathomable silence of the forest,
the blazing immensity of the Pacific, days drenched with sun and
nights spangled with stars..."
residents continue to work diligently to preserve the beauty of
Big Sur. It's an ongoing battle, but one infinitely worthwhile,
as this slice of paradise serves as an intoxicating reminder of
the beauty and power of a world where nature, rather than man,
remains the dominant architect.
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