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American Period

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.

 

Grizzly bears 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 unknown.

Cargo had 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.

For insight 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 fascinating narratives.

The late 1800's to the 1930's saw a steady improvement in conveniences and access to 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 views!

Still, 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.

Jack Kerouac 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.

They suffer 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..."

Dedicated 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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