Layers of the Northern California Past
“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgandy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.” -- Jack Kerouac, On the Road (via Goodreads)
Kerouac’s description is a fragment of my imagined California, a place filled with inspiration and adventure—or, as the state’s recent tourism marketing says, a place where you can dream big.
However, if you only focus on the romance, it’s easy to miss out on the layered history that makes up the California story. This past summer I spent ten days in Northern California where I learned about the many lives, stories, and yes, splendor that each stop held. In the end I walked away with a greater sense of its rich and diverse history.
Perhaps a good place to start is at the Oakland Museum of California where “California—multilayered and ever evolving—has no single storyline, no fixed narrative.” The Gallery of California History asks visitors to see history in terms of their own past and to remember that history is always under construction as it guides us through the experiences of native people and immigrants from pre-Spanish arrival through to the 21st century.
In this gallery I saw my own tour of California, where the full story of each place depended recognizing and understanding the layered past. Just as archaeologists dig through the soil to parse through strata of time, I waded through the historical layers, traveling to places where the people, the land, and culture all came together.
Stop #1: Muir Woods
When I first arrived at Muir Woods, I could feel the gentle breath of history as I walked through the trees. It was peaceful, calm, and incredibly powerful. At eight-hundred years, these old-growth redwoods exemplify the sublime sense humans feel when faced with something so old and larger-than-life.
At one time these forests were home to the Coast Miwok people, just one of many native peoples who were decimated by disease or converted through the Spanish mission program (more on this in Stop #2). Following Spanish conquest, the ownership of these woods changed a few times until the last owner, William Kent, worked to prevent the area from being seized through condemnation procedures following the 1906 earthquake.
That conservation effort led to the designation of Muir Woods National Monument (National Park Service). While the organic act formally creating the National Park Service was a few years off, the designation was an important step toward that important milestone.
Stop #2: San Francisco Solano
My visit to San Francisco Solano came during my drive through Sonoma Valley. This site was one of 21 missions (the final one, in fact) built by Franciscan priests between 1769-1833 as part of the initial Spanish colonization. One of the goals of these missions was to convert and “civilize” the indigenous conquered population.
While here, I learned that the mission system ended in 1833 after the Mexican government secularized the missions (that is, removed them from Franciscan control). The land was supposed to be divvied up by those that had been brought to the mission, but this plan wasn't always implemented.
Part of the mission’s larger goal was to transform California from a wilderness, which included introducing livestock to the environment and cultivating crops, such as the grape vines used in the production of wine.
Stop #3: Wine Country
Both San Francisco Solano and Muir Woods are great examples of how one particular place can hold a variety of stories. Sometimes, though, history is a living, breathing entity, one where we can actually see the past in action.
Case in point? Wine country. I know now that wine first came to California through the mission system when St. Junípero Serra brought grape cultivation to each site. But what further developed the region was essentially a byproduct of the California Gold Rush: Many of the individuals looking for gold were Europeans who brought with them the knowledge and expertise of growing grapes.
Visiting these historical (and some not-so-historical) vineyards also reminded me that this process is as much about community and family as it is about industry and technique. I saw this connection firsthand at one vineyard that was restoring a historic wooden wine building that had been damaged in the 2014 Napa earthquake. The current owners are part of a three-generation wine making family where the knowledge of producing wine in a wooden structure has been passed down from the building’s original 1886 construction to the present.
Stop #4: Lands End
I encountered a different sort of history when I hiked through Golden Gate Recreational Area to Lands End. This area was home to the Yelamu Ohlone tribe where they had “hillside springs gushing with fresh water; trees and brush for shelters; and easy access to the shore, where they fished and hunted for otters, sea lions, and sea birds” (National Park Service).
It’s an incredible view, to be sure. But in the ruins of a 19th century bath house, I learned about the leisure activities of San Francisco’s past. In 1894, a millionaire named Adolph Sutro established the Sutro Baths which were to be used by all San Franciscans regardless of wealth. According to the National Park Service, “There were slides, trapezes, springboards and a high dive. The power of the Pacific Ocean during high tide could fill the 1.7 million gallons of water required for all the pools in just one hour. The Baths could accommodate 10,000 people at one time and offered 20,000 bathing suits and 40,000 towels for rent.”
After Sutro’s death the baths declined due in part to the onset of the Great Depression, and were destroyed in a fire in 1966. What’s left evokes a sense of loss and the unyielding flow of time against the absolute stunning vista of the ocean beating against the Pacific horizon.
Stop #5: Pacific Grove
As we drove south later in our trip, we ended up in Pacific Grove. Here I learned about California’s flora and fauna driving along Sunset Drive through the Asilomar State Beach and Conference grounds, which has the original campgrounds for the YWCA designed by architect Julia Morgan. The role of Pacific Grove as a religious retreat was further cemented at my B&B, the National Register-listed Gosby House Inn, which spent part of its history as the center for Methodist life in the area.
This wasn’t the only layer of Pacific Grove history. In the last few years the city has documented the story of a Chinese village and its role in the regions fisheries industry. The village, which burned down in 1906, was home to the first Chinese families (as opposed to individual laborers) who lived under the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act limited travel in and out of the country while also requiring each individual to have resident cards. The images for these cards now live in the collection at the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum, and are one of the pieces of documentation used to reconstruct their story.
Pacific Grove is one of many examples on this trip where many histories live in tandem. In the end, understanding life in this part of California comes from seeing the intersections between the natural and historical—where plants, architecture, and religious and immigrant life all paint a broader story of how different segments of society lived and interacted.
Stop #6: Big Sur
When the Spanish first arrived in California, Big Sur was seen as impenetrable, but over time the region ended up being used for various industries, creating a thriving local economy even with the difficulty of bringing supplies into the hills.
Beyond its industrial history, however, the area that includes Monterey, Pacific Grove, Carmel, and Big Sur reflects how land and space impacted the artist community. For instance, the large artist population in Carmel grew following the 1906 earthquake when artists left San Francisco for new homes. Later, long after the completion of Highway 1, writers such as Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson traveled to this region to take advantage of the inspiration Big Sur provided. In their work the soul of California has been captured.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that Highway 1 was the final leg of our trip. The precariousness of the road at night coupled with the incredible snatches of breathtaking beauty brought my California experience full circle. And while I know I have barely touched the surface of the history of each of these places, one thing is clear—once you stand in situ, you fully understand why this is a place of solace and joy for so many across the world.