What and Where is Big Sur?

Below text and images is from Circle of Enchantment by Emil White N.F.E.
© 1964

This article is dedicated to the Pfeiffer-Ewoldsen family without whose friendly help no history of Big Sur could be written. The following was greatly “inspired” by an excellent Term Paper in Sociology written by Christine Ewoldsen when she was sixteen.


Big Sur is world famous, yet nobody seems to know where it actually begins or where it ends. About 30 miles south of Monterey the motorist passes a sign which reads…

“Big Sur—Population 300. Elevation 230.”

Thirty miles later the same traveler may be wondering,

“Where was Big Sur?”

Rancho Grande with Point Sur Lighthouse, 1962

For all he has seen after that sign were a few motels, restaurants, a couple of Service Stations and the entrance to Pfeiffer State Park. If he was driving slowly and enjoying the breathtaking scenery, he may also have noticed an occasional home perched high above the highway or on the edge of a cliff below the highway. If he has read any of the articles on Big Sur in “LIFE”, “TIME” or other such mass media, he must be completely befuddled. For he hasn’t seen anything even remotely resembling a town or a village nor has he discovered anything that looked like an “art colony”. Well, what is Big Sur then? It is a rural community living on what many believe to be the most beautiful stretch of coastline in the world. The “community” consists of about 400 residents who are scattered over a terrain 40 miles long and in some places 5 miles wide. Some are at almost sea level and others at elevations of up to 3000 ft. The central valley where the signs are, and where most of the businesses as well as the post office are located is only 6 miles long. But it is this valley which is the “heart” of the Big Sur country, which gave it its name and to which most of the tourists converge. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park alone handles about a half a million visitors a year. The reason why this huge terrain has become known as Big Sur is due to the fact that all these widely scattered residents are served by this “Star Mail Route” and are all addressed “Big Sur, Calif.” Pronounced “sur” as in SURprise which means “south”. This name dates back to the Spanish of Monterey who used to refer to this area as “pais del sur” country to the south. Of the two main streams they called the larger one “El Rio Grande del Sur” and the smaller one “El Rio Chiquito del Sur”. When the first post office was established at the Post Homestead in 1895 (See picture)

Photo by R.E. Larson, approx. 1961

it was named “Post”. Because this name was often confused with the military post of Monterey, it was changed to Arbolado. Then this name was getting mixed up with the town of Alvorado in Alameda county and so the post office was finally named after the river by which the region gradually became known. This was before or around the turn of the century, and long before the highway. There were only a few families most of whom lived within a radius of 2 to 8 miles from each other.

Although there are evidences of native Indians, the Esalens, having lived along these shores, they were all gone by the time the first white settlers arrived on the scene. Reputedly the first was a man by the name of Davis who built a cabin near what is now the State Park. He later sold this cabin to an Indian family from Ventura whom the Padres converted and educated. This was Emanuel Innocenti, his wife and seven children. All of the children died young of tuberculosis. (Mt. Emanuel overlooking the State Park is named after Mr. Innocenti.) In 1869 came Mr. Michel Pfeiffer and his family. Their intention was to go further south where some good farm land was reputed to be. But the first winter storms caught them near what is now known as Pfeiffer Beach in Sycamore Canyon and so they decamped there. By the time Spring arrived they were too firmly established to move on and so they spread out in the immediate vicinity. The youngest son, John, began to homestead land east of his father’s establishment near the Big Sur River. Part of this land later formed the nucleus of the State Park.

The going was pretty rough then. For the pioneers had to endure harsh winter storms which would wreak havoc with buildings, trees and trails or wagon roads. They also had a constant battle with predatory animals such as grizzly bears, mountain lions, bobcats, skunks and many others.

In 1874 a Mr. Partington, whose steamer got wrecked on the rocks near the mouth of the Big Sur River, took one look at the tan bark and the redwoods and decided to stay. Between the time of his arrival and the year 1900 a great deal of tan bark and timber, mostly split redwood posts and pickets were taken out of the canyons and loaded on coastwise steamers. (See items about Lime Kiln Creek, Partington Cove, Bixby Creek and Notley’s Landing in the article on the Carmel-San Simeon Highway.)* Two years later, 1876, the Castros arrived and settled a few miles south of the Pfeiffers. Part of their 600 acre ranch is now the Big Sur Inn and another part is Rancho Grande with its many pools and water spouts which many motorists stop to admire from the road.

In 1877 Mr. William B. Post homesteaded near the top at the southern tip of the Big Sur Valley. These 1300 or so acres which are still in the family, center around the Post enterprise known as Rancho Sierra Mar. The original homestead, slightly modernized, still stands. It was here that the first local school and the first post office (Post) were established.

Other names among the early settlers were: Ricos, Grimes, Torres, McWays, Burns and Trotters. At the time we’re speaking of there was only a horse trail from Carmel Highland southward so each family had to be pretty well self-sufficient to be able to survive the rigors of the harsh terrain and the isolation from the outside world. A trip to Monterey then was something like an annual or semi-annual event which not many could afford. Around 1888 a narrow, winding wagon road was completed as far as Castro’s and remained the main link of communication until about 1920. With the improvement of the road and the advent of the automobile more and more people became acquainted with the beauty of the area and by 1937 when the present highway was completed, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park was well established and the country well known as a recreational area. (to be continued)

* in upcoming digests!

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