Double Cone Quarterly
Spring Equinox 2004-- Volume VII, Number 1

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PAST TIMES:
The Big Sur Fire of 1906
Data Compiled, Edited and Introduced by David Rogers

On Sunday, September 30, 1906, the supposed campfire of a careless individual got out of control "On the Palo Colorado, near the ranch of Harry Vandall," or on the "Doud place in Wild Cat Canyon." According to two concurrent newspaper reports from Jamesburg, the fire started during a period of unseasonably warm weather(1), and thus it is likely than an offshore (hot/dry) wind pattern, in contrast to the prevailing onshore (cool/moist) pattern, was passing over the Santa Lucia Mountains at that time.

The fire burned for 35 days, and was finally extinguished by the first rainfall of the 1906-1907 rain season, which fell over the first weekend in November (Nov. 3rd and 4th). To the north-northeast the fire spread to Rancho San Francisquito (by then combined in with Rancho San Carlos and known as the Sargent ranch), and to at least the Big and Little Pines areas to the east. The southern limit was somewhere in the vicinity of Post Summit.

Due to the transitional nature of the times, this fire is noteworthy for a number of historical reasons. The fire started three months after the Monterey Forest Reserve (now the Monterey Ranger District of Los Padres National Forest) was proclaimed, and was partly concurrent with a forestry agent's preliminary work related to the management of the reserve. In the following month, December of 1906, a supervisor was appointed, and a staff of rangers and guards were hired in July of 1907.(2) If the Monterey Forest Reserve had been proclaimed in 1905, as originally anticipated, it may have been staffed by the time that this fire broke out. As one of the primary objectives of forest reserves was the suppression of fires, the residents of the Big Sur Coast would have automatically had their need for assistance in fighting this fire met.

This leads into another one of the noteworthy historical aspect of this fire. As will be seen, residents of the Big Sur Coast at first though of making an appeal to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors for assistance, and later on made a request to Colonel Maus at the Presidio of Monterey to sent the troops of his calvary to aid in the fight against the fire. Although none of the following reports state that any assistance was sent, based on my reviews of early Monterey County newspapers, it appears that this was the first fire in Monterey County in which people in remote regions had a notion that outside assistance in fighting fires was even a possibility. Prior to this time people were on their own in their efforts to save their properties.

Another noteworthy aspect of this event is that it was the first fire in the Santa Lucia Mountains of Monterey County that received more than one (or rarely two) extremely brief newspaper reports. Perhaps in California this was in part due to a heightened awareness of natural disasters, for the fire began almost exactly six months after the Great California Earthquake of 1906. In this earthquake, which was 16 times more powerful than the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989, the San Andreas Fault ruptured from a point northwest of San Juan Bautista in San Benito County to near Cape Mendocino in Humboldt County, and caused countless deaths and major destruction from northern Monterey and San Benito counties to Eureka.

Unfortunately only one edition of the two newspapers that were being published in Monterey at the time of the fire is extant: the Oct. 11th edition of the weekly Monterey New Era (from which one article is reproduced below). As for the Monterey Cypress, all editions prior to January of 1907 are lost. In spite of this, two of the following articles, from the Salinas Index, are credited to the Cypress. As all information concerning this fire had to pass to the outside world via Monterey, it is likely that additional information has been lost.

The following newspaper reports are presented in a strict chronological order (i.e., the datelines of the articles have precedence over the date of their publication):

Monterey Daily Cypress, Saturday morning, October 6th, 1906, as reprinted in the Saturday evening, October 6th edition of the Salinas Daily Index:

FIERCE FOREST FIRES

Raging at Palo Colorado, Garapatas [sic] and Mill [Bixby] Creeks, and Spreading Toward Tassajara.

Since last Sunday a large forest fire has been raging along the Palo Colorado, Garapatas and Mill creeks and is spreading toward Tassajara. It is beyond the control of the ranchers, and only a rainstorm will now be able to extinguish it. The fire started last Sunday on the Palo Colorado, near the ranch of Harry Vandall. It is supposed to have started from the embers of some camper's fire. Vandall's ranch was burned over, the house, barn, outhouses, many stands of bees and feed for the stock being destroyed. Vandall is a man eighty years of age and the loss will fall heavily on him.

From there the fire spread to the Swetnam ranch, where it is said the barns and outhouses were burned.

In this section are the tanbark camps of the Notley Company and hundreds of cords of tanbark that were ready for shipment were destroyed.

The Sargent ranch in the vicinity is also burned over.

The country in this section is rough and thickly wooded and the flames spread with great rapidity.

At last account it was burning beyond the Doud ranch. - Monterey Cypress, Oct. 6.

Monterey Daily Cypress, Sunday, October 7, as reprinted in the Monday, October 8 edition of the Salinas Daily Index:

THE FIRE DOWN THE COAST

One Hundred Men Are Fighting the Flames Night and Day.

There has been no check to the fire that is raging along the Palo Colorado, Garrapatos [sic] and Mill [Bixby] creeks, says Sunday's Morning Cypress. Over one hundred men are fighting the flames, but aside from managing to save the ranch houses scattered through the section they are making no headway.

The fire is now burning towards "The Pines," and in the direction of Tassajara. Every effort is being made to get cattle out of that region. All the feed is being burned and there will be much suffering among the stock on the ranges the coming winter.

Three cabins on the Gus Lang ranch have been burned. All the fences are burned in that section of the country.

I. N. Swetnam, who has a ranch between Palo Colorado and Garrapatos [sic] creeks, says that the fire is working toward the Sargent ranch. None of the buildings on his place were damaged by the fire. The ranches of Vandall, Sterrett and Murray escaped with the burning of brush and fences. Swetnam says the Notley Company lost 200 cords of tanbark and a lot of shingle bolts, fences and timber.

The lime kilns and the Notley Company have suspended work and their men are out fighting the fire. So large is the blaze that attempts are only being made to keep the flames away from the houses.

Friday night an attempt was made to stop the flames by clearing a space thirty feet wide at Murray Ridge, but the fire was so fierce and everything so dry that the flames leaped the clearing.

There has been a strip of land about twenty miles long and from six to eight miles wide burned over.

Should the fire get into the Santa Lucia forest reservation near Tassajara there would be no hope of extinguishing it and the loss would be terrific.

Every rancher in the section of the county where the fire is burning has been fighting the flames night and day. They are becoming exhausted and their number on the fire line is decreasing. Unless some headway is soon made in the fight against the flames the [Monterey County Board of] Supervisors will be asked to furnish men to get it under control.

San Jose Herald, Monday, October 8:

MONTEREY

Monterey, Oct. 7 - Special to the Herald - ...Owners of property in the burning district of Palo Colorado, Garrapatos [sic] and Mill [Bixby] creeks are still fighting flames, and have succeeded in saving their homes, but all feed, fences and timber have been swept before the flames. The fire is now burning toward Tassajara and every effort is being expired to secure the cattle from that region. I. N. Swetman's ranch buildings are exempt. In yesterday's statement [in the Saturday edition of the Monterey Cypress] relative to the destruction of the ranches of Vandall, Murray and Sterritt a correction must be made, as their buildings escaped, the fire burning only the brush and fences on their property. The Notley Company lost 200 cords of tan bark, and a quantity of shingle bolts, fences and timber. Both the men of this company and the lime kilns have suspended work to fight the fire away from the homes, and as they have been fighting day and night they are becoming exhausted, and their number is constantly decreasing. Should the fire continue in its action many days longer a call on the supervisors for assistance will be necessitated.

San Jose Herald, Monday, October 8:

SALINAS

Hundreds of Men Fight Fire in Wild[cat] Canyon, But Fail to Check Flames.

Salinas, Oct. 7. - Special to the Herald - Forest Fires which started in Wild[cat] Canyon, fourteen miles south of Monterey City, eight days ago and have been raging along the Palo Colorado, Garrapolos [sic], Mill [Bixby] and Stony [Rocky] creeks are still unchecked. Hundreds of men are fighting the flames, but aside from saving ranch houses they are making no headway. I. N. Swetman, whose ranch is on the Palo Colorado Creek and who has been burnt out, said this morning that the fire has passed Noltjes [sic] Landing, 24 miles down the coast, reached the lime kilns and was working toward Sargent's ranch [Rancho San Francisquito] on the Little Sur [actually to the south of Carmel Valley]. All work has been suspended in the district, the men being out trying to save houses and cattle. Last night an attempt was made to stop the fire by clearing a space 30 feet wide at Murray Ridge [a.k.a. Green Ridge, between the Palo Colorado and Rocky Creek canyons], but the flames leaped the clearing. The fire has reached the Santa Lucia government reservation, known as The Pines [Monterey Forest Reserve], and is sweeping towards Tassajara Springs eastward and Arroyo Seco southward. A strip of land 24 miles long, ten mile wide and covering nearly 135,000 acres has been burned over. The losses will be very heavy.

Santa Cruz Surf, Monday, October 8:

FOREST FIRES

A crimson sun rose over the Gabilan Mountains this morning. Its yellow rays were absorbed in the vast volume of smoke rising from the forest and field fires in Monterey County.

Since last Sunday a large forest fire has been raging along Palo Colorado, Garrapatas [sic] and Mill creeks, and is spreading toward Tassajara.

The preceding item appeared as a note in the upper left-hand corner of the front page of this edition of the Surf; at least some of the smoke was produced by three small fires that were burning in northern Monterey County at the same time.(3) The same edition of the Surf also included the following report about the larger fire down the coast:

TWENTY MILES OF FIRE

Ranches in Monterey County Devastated by Serious Forest Fires

Monterey, Cal., Oct. 8 - The most serious forest fire in the history of this county for the past twenty years is raging about fourteen miles south of this place. A hunter started a fire last week and forgot to extinguish it, and it soon spread beyond his control and is still burning.

It started just above the Doud place in Wild Cat Canyon, spread east and south along Palo Colorado, Garrapatas [sic] and Mill [Bixby] creeks, sweeping in its path the Doud, Swetnam, Van Dal, Sterrett and other ranches. Several bee ranches were destroyed and much stock is in peril.

About 100,000 acres of land have been completely burned over, and the fire is increasing, although a large force of men is [are] fighting it.

More men were sent by the county authorities yesterday morning. There is great danger that the flames will reach the Santa Lucia forest reservation, around Tassajara Springs, when that immense amount of timber may be destroyed.

The district reported burned over is four miles wide and twenty miles long. The flames are spreading and nothing but a rainstorm can extinguish them.

Every ranch below the Palo Colorado is threatened, all feed for cattle has been destroyed and the loss will be immense unless the conflagration is soon extinguished.

As evidenced by the following items, a little afer a week after began at least some people thought that the fire had been brought under control:

Salinas Daily Index, Thursday, October 11:

SUR NEWS

SUR, Oct. 8. - Mr. Chambers of Monterey has been spending a few days at the Ventana. Joe Post made a business trip to Monterey.

Mr. and Mrs. C. Vasquez are in Monterey.

H. Sherman, of Notley Landing, spent a couple of days in Monterey.

A. Cantua went to Monterey Friday [Oct. 5th] to get a half of beef for the men who were fighting fire.

R. J. Murray returned from Monterey to find that the fire had burned all his pasture land.

The fire that has been raging in the forests here for the past week is completely under control, except one branch of it that has swept over toward Sargent's ranch.

ONCE A WEEK.

Monterey New Era, Thursday, October 11, and again in the Oct. 13 edition of the Salinas Weekly Journal, as "Forest Fire Under Control":

BIG FOREST FIRE IN THE COAST COUNTRY

The big fire in the coast country, which has been burning for more than a week, is just about extinguished. For a time it threatened to do heavy damage, and many wild reports were circulated regarding it. The fire started in the Palo Colorado and Garrapatas [sic] canyons, and burned east and north, covering about 20 square miles and destroying much fencing. B. C. Vandall of the Palo Colorado was the heaviest sufferer, losing his barn and many stands of bees. The Notley company lost a small amount of tan bark. All the residents of the coast turned out to fight the fire, and through their efforts it was confined to an area large in size, but almost inaccessible, and covered principally with brush. Yesterday the fire was reported approaching the Sargent ranch, and R. C. Sargent took out a gang of men to fight it. No fear is felt of damage in that neighborhood.

The fire was far from being controlled, as evidenced by the following reports:

Pacific Grove Review, Tuesday, October 16, as published in the October 17 edition of the Salinas Daily Index:

COAST FIRES STILL RAGING

E. A. Preble has returned from the country down the coast and reports that the forest fires there are still raging fiercely. The Notleys have been compelled to leave their homes and there is great danger that the damage to property will reach well into the thousands of dollars. Mr. Preble went up to the Presidio on his return from the south to request Col. Maus to send the Fourteenth Cavalry down to assist in putting out the fire.-Pacific Grove Review, Oct. 16.

Salinas Daily Index, Wednesday, October 17:

FIRE IS NEAR LIME KILNS

The fire that has been raging in this vicinity for the past two weeks and a half is now burning just above the lime kilns. All the women and children that live there have left. The pasture land of Charles Greggs on the Mescal is all burned. There is a heavy north wind blowing, and it is feared that if it keeps up the fire will sweep over into [the] Little [Sur] River [watershed].

The preceding item was also published in the October 18th edition of the Santa Cruz Surf, under the caption "Fire on Charley Gregg's Place."

Santa Cruz Surf, Thursday, October 18:

FOREST FIRES STILL BURNING

Women and Children Living at Notley's Landing Flee for Their Lives.
Cavalry Aid is Asked by Settlers to Subdue Flames Which Have Been Raging for Weeks.

Salinas, Cal., Oct. 18 - E. A. Preble of Monterey, who has just returned from the country down the coast where a fire has been raging in the forest for the past seventeen days, reports that the conflagration still rages fiercely and is now burning above the lime kilns.

The Notley family has been compelled to leave home, as have all the women and children that live at Notley's landing and vicinity.

The pasture land on the mescal, 28 miles south that gave origin to the fire, all burned. Already the damage will amount to $35,000. As there is a heavy north wind blowing it is feared that the fire will sweep over into the Little [Sur] River section.

Preble went to the Presidio of Monterey on his return from the south to request Colonel Maus to send the Fourteenth cavalry down to assist in putting out the fire.

San Jose Herald, Friday, October 19:

FOREST FIRE IN THE SUR DISTRICT STILL RAGING

Men are Exhausted From the Fight with Flames--May Ask Military Aid.

MONTEREY, Oct. 18. - The fire that has been raging in the Sur district for the last two weeks seems to be doubling its force and is now savagely burning everything in its way above the lime kilns. All women and children have been driven to another locality and men are fighting fire both day and night. Their force has become weakened from exhaustion and loss of sleep and proper food and it may become necessary to call upon Captain Maus, of Monterey Presidio, to send a part of his men down to assist in squelching the fire. The pasture land of Charles Gregg on the Mescal is all gone, and the heavy north wind of the past few days, if it continues, will sweep the fire into Little River. Notley's Landing is in imminent danger.

The heavy winds noted in the three preceding reports did send the fire into the watershed of the Little Sur River; these winds may have continued for more than four days, for on October 22nd a Jamesburg news column reported that "There was a heavy windstorm here Saturday [October 20th] which filled the air with dust, equal to a sandstorm."(4)

San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, October 22:

FOREST FIRE IS STILL UNCHECKED

Flames Raging Down Coast Near Monterey Destroy Valuable Pasture.

SALINAS, October 21. - Stage Driver Mossep, who runs the stage down the coast between Monterey and Idlewilde [sic], reported upon his arrival last night that the forest fire in the district raged with unabated vigor. Over 150,000 acres have been burned along the Garapatos [sic] and Mill creeks, spreading in the direction of Tassanajara [sic] town [hot springs resort], near Idlewilde [not so], which is in danger of being totally destroyed. W. Howland owner, with Rancher Abbot, have removed furniture, etc., and are looking for a place of safety nearly two miles away, at Nuley's [sic] Landing. Fences miles in length have been destroyed by the fierce flames, and flying cinders have caused fires several miles from Idlewilde.

Down the coast, near Pico Blanco, which town [mountain peak] was threatened with total destruction, some stock has been burned to death, while the fire has denuded cattle ranges, and there will be much suffering among stock. For over a week [over three weeks] the ranchers fought the fire day and night, but as they were unable to make headway they abandoned it two weeks ago, and are now merely fighting the flames near the houses. Only a few houses have been destroyed, but the loss of pasture, wood, etc., will be immense. Further reports state that the road between the lime-kilns [on Bixby Creek] and Idlewilde [on the Little Sur River] was lined with fire for over five miles, and that communication is likely to be cut off. Only a good rain storm will extinguish the flames.

Los Angeles Times, Monday, October 22:

FOREST FIRE THREATENING

Town of Tassanajara in Danger of Flames
Over One Hundred and Fifty Thousand Acres Swept by Conflagration, and Fences and Stock Consumed. Ranchers Fight Day and Night for More Than a Week
[By the Associated Press-P. M.]

SALINAS, Oct. 21 - Stage Driver Mossep, who runs a stage down the coast between Monterey and Idlewild, reports that forest fires rage with unabated vigor. Over 150,000 acres have been burned along Garapatos [sic] and Mill creeks, spreading in the direction of Tassanajara [sic], a town near Idlewild, which is in danger of being totally destroyed.

At Nuley's [sic] Landing, fences miles in length have been destroyed. Some stock has been burned, and the fire has denuded the cattle ranges.

For over a week the ranchers have fought the fire day and night, but as they were unable to make headway they abandoned it two weeks ago, and are now merely fighting flames near their houses. Only a few houses have been destroyed. A good rainstorm alone will extinguish the flames.

The two preceding (and often erroneous) reports were obviously derived from the same press release, as was another very similar report that appeared in the October 22nd edition of the Fresno Morning Republican.

Salinas Daily Index, Wednesday, October 24:

THE FIRE ON THE SUR

Several Ranches Burned and Culverts on County Road Destroyed

SUR, Oct. 23. - The fire that has done so much damage in this vicinity is still raging. It has burned all over Pico Blanco. All of A. Dani's pasture has been burned. His house and barn were saved with great difficulty. A. E. Cooper's ranch has been burned over and his feed has all been destroyed. Mrs. M. M. Cooper-Vasquez, E. J. Molera, Joe Schmidt, Sam Ling and Al Clark have also suffered a heavy loss in the same way.

By the heroic efforts of the firemen the Idylwild Hotel was saved. All the culverts and most of the bridges on the county road between Mrs. Cooper-Vasquez's and E. J. Molera's are burned. The coast stage has to go four miles out of its way, across the Sur flats. The latest report is the fire is below Post's, on the range, still raging fiercely. A gang of men are still fighting it.

Mrs. Cooper-Vasquez will have to get pasture for 500 head of cattle. E. J. Molera is also in the same fix.

San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, October 26:

MANY RANCHES BURNED IN MONTEREY COUNTY

Forest Fire Destroys Bridges and Culverts for Thirty-Six Miles

SALINAS, October 25. - The forest fire which started a month ago on Palo Colorado Creek is still burning fiercely. Since Monday the ranches of A. Dani, A. E. Cooper, Mrs. Cooper Vasquez, J. Miller, Joe Schmidt, Sam Ling and Al Clark have all been burned over, and the Idylwild Hotel was only saved by heroic efforts. All the culverts and bridges for thirty-six miles down the coast have been destroyed. Today the fire is on the range forty miles from its starting point.

Salinas Daily Index, Thursday, November 1:

DEVASTATION ALONG COAST

Coroner Muller Reports on the Ravages of Forest Fire
Incidentally He Held an Inquest at Point Sur on Body of a Drowned Sailor

Coroner Muller returned last night from Point Sur, where he was called to hold an inquest on the body of Carl Ellingeen, a sailor who had been drowned there through the capsizing of a boat...

Mr. Muller describes the devastation caused by the fire that has been raging along the coast for some time as simply terrible. The mountains have been burned bare of trees and vegetation, and the fire is still raging. Dense clouds of smoke were visible in the distance above the hills. The fire is said to have started this side of Palo Colorado. It has traveled over thirty miles. The damage cannot be estimated, for all the feed in the path of the flames has been destroyed and all the stock will have to be driven elsewhere for the winter.

As predicted in the first newspaper report on this fire, it was the first rainfall of the 1906-1907 season that finally extinguished the flames. The following item is from "Rain Falls in Many Sections," a collection of reports from around the state that was published in the Monday, November 5th, 1906 edition of the an Francisco Chronicle:

Pacific Grove, November 4 - After two days of southern squalls and heavy breakers, rain fell here last night amounting to .98 of an inch. This will effectually quench forest fires down the coast and be sufficient to start feed in adjacent pastures.

On the eastern slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains the rainfall appears to have about the same as at Pacific Grove, for a report from Lockwood stated that "Seven tenths of an inch" had fallen, and a report from Jamesburg stated that they had received "About an inch."(5)

A "Sur News" column published in the November 7, 1906 edition of the Salinas Daily Index (datelined "Sur, Nov. 5."), failed to mention the rainfall, but it was certainly greater along the coast, and especially at higher elevations. This column did, however, confirm that the fire was out, for the last sentence stated that "Mrs. Cooper-Vasquez intends on giving a barbecue and dance next Saturday night for the fighters of the recent forest fires."

Although this fire was reported to have "Reached the Santa Lucia government reservation, known as the Pines [the Monterey Forest Reserve], and is sweeping towards Tassajara Springs eastward and Arroyo Seco southward," I did not find any additional information about the extent of the fire toward the interior. The fire, or even its smoke, was not mentioned in any of the concurrent newspaper reports from Jamesburg and Tassajara Hot Springs during this period, This literature consists of at least ten Jamesburg news columns, a number of reports in social columns concerning people who were at or just returning from their vacations at Tassajara Hot Springs, and an announcement that the 1906 guest season at Tassajara would be closing on October 15th. As both Tassajara Hot Springs and Jamesburg were in the tourist business (the later as the major stage stop which also provided meals and lodging), I suspect that the failure to mention the fire was due to an avoidance of negative publicity.




FOOTNOTED REFERENCES

1. "Jamesburg," Salinas Weekly Index, 10.4.1906 (article dated 10.1); "Notes from Jamesburg," Salinas Weekly Journal, 10.6.1906 (article dated 10.2).

2. Rogers, David. A History of the Monterey Ranger District of Los Padres National Forest, part one. Double Cone Quarterly, Summer Solstice Edition, 2002.
http://www.ventanawild.org/news/ss02/mrd.html.

3. "Monterey," San Jose Herald, 10.8.1906.

4. "Notes from Jamesburg," Salinas Weekly Journal, 10.27.1906 (the article was dated 10.22).

5. "Lockwood Items," Salinas Daily Index, 11.7.1906; "Notes from Jamesburg," Salinas Weekly Journal, 11.10.1906. Although the dateline of the Jamesburg column was Oct. 29, that date was also applied to the column that ran in the Nov. 3rd edition of the Journal. As the rain fell on Nov. 3rd and 4th, it's safe to assume that the dateline in the Nov. 10th edition of the Journal was an error.


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