Big Sur: The Making of a Prized California Landscape

Big Sur: The Making of a Prized California Landscape

by Shelley Alden Brooks

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Big Sur: The Making of a Prized California Landscape by Shelley Alden Brooks

Big Sur embodies much of what has defined California since the mid-twentieth century. A remote, inaccessible, and undeveloped pastoral landscape until 1937, Big Sur quickly became a cultural symbol of California and the West, as well as a home to the ultrawealthy. This transformation was due in part to writers and artists such as Robinson Jeffers and Ansel Adams, who created an enduring mystique for this coastline. But Big Sur’s prized coastline is also the product of the pioneering efforts of residents and Monterey County officials who forged a collaborative public/private preservation model for Big Sur that foreshadowed the shape of California coastal preservation in the twenty-first century. Big Sur’s well-preserved vistas and high-end real estate situate this coastline between American ideals of development and the wild. It is a space that challenges the way most Americans think of nature, of people’s relationship to nature, and of what in fact makes a place “wild.” This book highlights today’s intricate and ambiguous intersections of class, the environment, and economic development through the lens of an iconic California landscape.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520967540
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/24/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Shelley Alden Brooks teaches twentieth-century U.S., California, and environmental history at the University of California, Davis. She also works for the California History-Social Science Project and serves on the statewide Environmental Literacy Steering Committee.

Read an Excerpt


Jeffers's Country

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.
ROBINSON JEFFERS, "The Coast-Road" (1937)

AS A CHRISTMAS GIFT to each other in 1914, a husband and wife paid six dollars for a return-trip mail-coach ride down the rugged Coast Road from their Carmel home. As they traversed the stormy, somber day, their driver regaled them with Big Sur lore. The couple learned of the man who killed his father with rat poison and married his stepmother; the man who had taken a trip to San Francisco, where he was shanghaied, eventually managing to escape and return home to Big Sur only to die shortly thereafter; the hermit who ordered pilot biscuit through the mail but had no teeth with which to chew; and the old man who lay alone dying and could not care for the forty beehives outside his house. As they navigated the narrow lane carved into the hillside, the driver pointed out the precipice from which a wagonload of bodies from a shipwreck had toppled down the mountainside, never to be fully recovered. In all, the couple passed but a handful of homes during their thirty-mile trek into Sur country. These stories were set against a dramatic backdrop that made a deep impression on the visitors, who noted that the coast had displayed "all its winter magic for us: drifts of silver rain through great gorges, clouds dragging on the summits, storm on the rock shore, sacred calm under the redwoods."

It was this meeting — of an artist and a powerful landscape — that set in motion a relationship destined to shape the way the outside world perceived the Big Sur country. This was the introduction to Big Sur for the poet Robinson Jeffers, whose name would soon become synonymous with this coastal region. His narrative and epic poetry, set within this awe-inspiring landscape, won great popularity throughout the country and abroad beginning in the 1920s, bringing a familiarity with "Jeffers Country" to a population that had never traveled to this rugged coast. In the following decade, Jeffers's work earned him distinction as one of the few poets ever featured on the cover of TIME Magazine. By the close of the century, nearly forty years after his death, Jeffers was still considered California's greatest poet.

Significantly, Jeffers's verse began with the assumption that people belonged in this place. He portrayed Big Sur inhabitants not as interlopers but as individuals whose lives were etched out of the formidable landscape. Jeffers's characters ranged from incestuous to noble and their stories unfolded in relationship to scenery that had commanded Jeffers's attention during his visits. As he later remarked: "Each of my stories has grown up like a plant from some particular canyon or promontory, some particular relationship of rock and water, wood, grass and mountain." In these poems the land did not suffer at the hand of its people but remained a constant, powerful force that dictated the options available to its inhabitants. Jeffers extracted what he considered the essence of the coast to craft his poetry and in so doing unintentionally helped transform the landscape he loved. Countless readers felt compelled to visit this storied landscape. But Jeffers did more than call attention to a remarkable region; his work helped define a distinctive conservation ethic for the Big Sur country.


When Jeffers made his first venture into Big Sur in 1914 he encountered what would have passed as a western scene from a bygone era. Residents relied on animal-powered transportation and lived without electricity, telephones, or indoor plumbing. The area still retained its ranching character, with a smattering of active and abandoned lumber, limestone, and gold-mining operations tucked into the mountainsides and canyons. But a closer look at the landscape revealed several perceptible changes that situated the Big Sur country in the modern era. In 1906 the Monterey Forest Reserve introduced a new level of bureaucracy into this backcountry, where locals had had to instigate the postal service and build their own schoolhouses. In tandem with the designation of the forest, this region gained favor with tourists as well as those who could relocate their work and home to an appealing location. The 1910 census revealed that for the first time a full quarter of the coast's residents were professionals and artists. As its popularity grew, Big Sur's connection to agriculture and industry would diminish. A Monterey newspaper reported as early as 1906 that extractive industries were giving way to tourist priorities along the Big Sur coast. National Forest records later revealed that beginning in 1915 the agency issued a steadily declining number of grazing permits and a steady increase in residential use permits. No longer solely an agrarian outpost by the early twentieth century, Big Sur was becoming increasingly prominent in Monterey County and beyond.

Like many other transplants to California in the early twentieth century, Jeffers felt drawn to the West's young culture and dramatic scenery. Though born in Pennsylvania, Jeffers had spent a portion of his childhood in European schools and attended college in Southern California before moving to the central coast. He established himself in the artist's community of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where he and his wife, Una, built Tor House and raised their twin sons. From here, Jeffers could entertain the many visitors who sought contact with the bard, but his introverted nature compelled him to plant a small forest around his home, into which he could retreat from admirers and focus on his work. Situated in the southern part of the Monterey Peninsula, Jeffers's Carmel home was an ideal launching point for his work and recreational trips into the Big Sur country. He found his poetic inspiration most readily on the days of winter rain and summer fog, when Big Sur's natural elements appeared even more imposing. Jeffers's powerful verse left the impression of a landscape of unrivaled grandeur, of natural forces that dwarfed human activity.

Unlike his many contemporaries who extolled progress in the early twentieth century, Jeffers recoiled at the advance of modernity and set up a dichotomy between what he saw as free and noble within Big Sur and the morally bankrupt society that he perceived at its periphery. As an area without potential for successful farms or urban development (in a state where large-scale agriculture dominated the inland valleys and cities expanded along the coast), Big Sur could be seen as either hostile to success or blessedly removed. Jeffers's view on this point was clear: he felt horror at the approach of the outside world and upheld the good life to be lived far from modern society. Three-quarters of Big Sur's inhabitants, however, derived an income from their property or some nearby natural resource and harbored a much more accommodating attitude toward engagement with the larger economy. When Jeffers first encountered the coast, he observed the second generation of homesteaders and laborers seeking to make Big Sur productive and profitable. Like all rational homesteaders, they looked for ways to capitalize on nature and establish connections to outside markets. They had little hope of competing with the more efficient inland ranches and farms, however, and had learned by the early twentieth century that their most valuable resource might very well be the abundant scenery. Big Sur's economic and social transition coincided with Jeffers's arrival. His acclaimed poems idealized the pastoral tradition, and though it was far from his intention, his work also secured attention from the outside world that helped to transform the region from a working landscape into a revered scenic destination.


Well before Jeffers settled in nearby Carmel and began his treks into Big Sur, a few locals tried their hands at the business of catering to visitors. They took a gamble that was no more risky than investing in the local extractive industries. Tapping into the image of the West as good for the health, Thomas Slate established the earliest tourist destination along the coast, Slate's Hot Springs, in the 1880s. Situated forty-five miles from Monterey, Slate's featured spring-fed baths perched just above the bracing Pacific waters. Slate believed that the sulfur springs had eased his arthritis and wanted to offer this experience to others — for a price. Though Slate himself did not operate the resort for long, the springs have remained a tourist destination ever since and in 1962 were encompassed within the grounds of the spiritual retreat the Esalen Institute. A turn-of-the-century resort, the rustic Idlewild, advertised itself as a family resort and campground, catering to hunters, traveling artists, writers, botanists, and photographers. W. T. Mitchell, Idlewild's proprietor, banked on the area's beauty, claiming that the trip to Idlewild from Monterey was a stagecoach drive "that for beauty and varied interest cannot be excelled in this state of famous drives." By the time of Prohibition, Idlewild also attracted travelers and locals alike for its ready supply of bootleg alcohol. As Jeffers noted, a tiny harbor in Partington's Cove, tucked into the foot of a particularly steep coastal mountain and once used to ship timber, became a "favorite working ground" for rumrunners during the 1920s, while hollow, dying redwoods served as covert liquor stills.

Some women of the coast appreciated the opportunity to commodify their labor by providing hospitality from their own homes. Florence Pfeiffer opened the Pfeiffer Ranch Resort in 1908 on the land she and her husband owned. She handled all related accounts and used the income to make improvements such as running water and flush toilets, and even a lumber mill that provided the building material for her resort. Robinson Jeffers enjoyed his visit to the resort, noting that Florence was "agreeable and active" and supplied her guests with home-churned butter and real cream that was "the freshest tasted in a long while." The Pfeiffers' property sat along the dirt Coast Road, which brought visitors from Monterey. Jeffers was one such visitor, though he was dismayed to encounter the "multitudes" of other tourists traveling along the road just south of the inn. In one half-hour he observed "at least six horsemen, and a woman driving a buggy." Florence Pfeiffer welcomed and helped contribute to the traffic, whereas Jeffers considered it simply "too crowded." It was due to Pfeiffer's business acumen, and the beautiful setting, that the Pfeiffer Ranch eventually became Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park — one of the crown jewels in the California State Park system. Indeed, Pfeiffer and her inn can be credited with helping develop tourism in Big Sur.

These early resorts, and other economic pursuits along this coast, were severely limited by the impermanence of the dirt Coast Road during the winter and spring rains. In anticipation of the 1916 summer tourist season, Pfeiffer wrote to the owner of El Sur Ranch, Andrew Molera, to discuss the status of the road:

I am so troubled over those river crossing at your place; because an Auto can't cross them. ... And I have been told the men at the ranch refuse to let people go through the yard (and I can't blame you for that either). But what am I to do? Here I have a nice business started that I am interested in. About 25 people have engaged room and board for the first of May alone. And I am afraid they can't get here. I am so anxious to make good this season. ... I write you this requesting that you allow the fence set in again and until such a time as may be needful; or the county can get a better road where you most desire it to be builded [sic].

Pfeiffer explained to Molera that she and her husband had recently borrowed money in order to run their sawmill and expand the resort as well as to purchase a neighboring property. After publishing notice of her resort in five cities, Florence expected a good tourist season — if the road could hold the traffic. Her correspondence points to the tensions that developed in the Big Sur country during the first decades of the twentieth century. Ranching still dominated much of this coastline, but some residents increasingly staked their future on the potential economic rewards of tourism. The Monterey newspaper reported that "the coast section is becoming more popular yearly with summer visitors" and that in response "many of the ranchers are building additions to their houses to accommodate summer visitors." These ranchers banked on the area's reputation "as one of the most famous cattle ranging areas of the state where the old time care-free cowboy life of the West exists." But in order to continue drawing curious tourists, the Big Sur country would have to retain its premodern look while still accommodating tourists' modern tastes for comfort. This would require considerable innovation in local and county planning, and would become a hallmark feature of Big Sur throughout the twentieth century.


Residents and tourists alike saw the benefit of improving the road along this coast, for rains could make steep grades unpassable. Residents regularly rebuilt washed-out road but found two particular stretches of 16- and 20-percent grade too difficult to maintain on their own. Monterey County Surveyor Lou Hare reported these conditions to the Board of Supervisors in 1896, and in 1902 Big Sur residents petitioned the county for improvements to reduce these two grades. The Coast Road was the only north-south thoroughfare in Big Sur, and it actually ceased to be a road in roughly thirteen different locations where a river or stream ran toward the ocean. In some areas a wooden bridge provided easier crossing, but powerful storms and heavy loads weakened these impermanent structures. Jeffers recalled that the driver of the mail stage in 1914 was "solemnly" warned about a perilous bridge crossing that had been compromised by the driving of a large number of dairy cattle across its wooden timbers. At the turn of the century most roads in the United States were dirt, including the thirty miles of county road that connected Big Sur to Monterey. The first national census of roads determined in 1904 that fewer than 110,000 of the 2,151,570 miles of road were improved by pavement or gravel. Residents of Big Sur knew they would have to be proactive about keeping intact their connection to town and market. Ranchers trying to haul feed to their cattle or their cattle to market, innkeepers, who anticipated visitors, and, really, anyone oriented toward development or the market appreciated the great economic potential of expanded and improved transportation.

It would require the involvement of a well-connected businessman to develop the idea that a permanent road through Big Sur was both necessary and possible. Dr. John Roberts, a young physician of Monterey County, was called to duty when a passenger vessel shipwrecked off the Big Sur coast in 1894. Concerned by the coast's inaccessibility (it had taken him several hours to travel from the peninsula to reach the victims), Roberts made an early pitch for a permanent road. In 1897 he walked from Carmel to San Simeon surveying the topography for the highway, estimating that such a road would cost fifty thousand dollars. As the founder of the city of Seaside, just north of Monterey, Roberts also had a personal stake in the future growth of Monterey County. Moreover, by 1915 he had helped to determine where to commit county funds as a member of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. A permanent road promised further development, which would augment the tax base and create the potential for considerable tourism that could thrive year-round, not just in the dry months. Acknowledging this potential, Monterey business owners offered to provide aid to the state in order to create the new highway along the county's southern coastline.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations, ix,
Acknowledgments, xi,
Introduction, 1,
1 Jeffers's Country, 15,
2 Nature's Highway, 37,
3 Big Sur: Utopia, U.S.A.?, 56,
4 Open Space at Continent's End, 74,
5 The Influence of the Counterculture, Community, and State, 105,
6 The Battle for Big Sur; or, Debating the National Environmental Ethic, 131,
7 Defining the Value of California's Coastline, 154,
Epilogue. Millionaires and Beaches: The Sociopolitical Economics of California Coastal Preservation in the Twenty-First Century, 179,
Abbreviations, 197,
Notes, 199,
Bibliography, 243,
Index, 257,

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