The Central Coast's Grand Canyon

Review by Nikki Nedeff

ARROYO SECO:The Central Coast's Grand Canyon
by Albert Coelho

© 2001 by Philip H. Coelho
Monterey Pacific Publishing, San Francisco
89 pages - retail price $9.95
ISBN 1-880710-55-2

T his slim little volume offers a charming introduction to the rich and intriguing history of the Arroyo Seco region, an area on the northeastern margin of the Santa Lucia Range that most of us know very little about. bookcov2.jpg The author, Albert J. Coelho, was the former Monterey County Manager of the U.S.D.A. Soil Conservation Service, who considered the Arroyo Seco farmers and ranchers as his friends. Many of the old families that settled in the Arroyo Seco watershed were also Mr. Coelho's neighbors, as he purchased 480 acres in the Arroyo Seco watershed in 1954 where he built a second home.

The Arroyo Seco: The Central Coast's Grand Canyon was pieced together from Albert Coelho's notes, conversations, interviews and research. The book is organized into chronological chapters, with segments on the natural resources slipped in-between sections describing the history of the region. Coelho starts with Native American occupation and the first 16,500-acre Mexican claim made by Joaquin de la Torre in 1840. The book closes with updates about local families in the 1960's and 1970's and finally ends with a collection of intriguing legends that continue to delight the imagination. There are lots of interesting historical nuggets in the book - Coelho believes Bancroft's disputed theory of Gaspar de Portola's route through the Santa Lucias is correct, because the early explorer descended the mountains into the Salinas Valley via Reliz Canyon and the Arroyo Seco River and that route later became the primary stage road between Soledad and the Mission San Antonio.

There are thirty historic photographs included in the book, including excellent images of early settlers, the building of Piney Creek Bridge, the Cahoon Adobe in Paloma Canyon, the abandoned Jamesburg School, and a really neat picture of the Abbott Family skating on a frozen solid Abbott Lake in 1893 (one of the man-made lakes that is now within the Forest Service campground).

The photographs and narrative about schools and post office locations that thrived in past times illustrate a history far more enterprising and dynamic than I realized. The Piney School at the corner of Carmel Valley Road and the Arroyo Seco Road had up to 14 students attending in 1898. The Sigsbee School seven miles north of the road in Paloma Canyon had 13 pupils on the roster in 1905. The first Paloma School (also known as the Jamesburg School because it shared the building with the Jamesburg Post Office), was actually situated on what became the Tregea Ranch along Carmel Valley Road. Eventually the Paloma/Jamesburg School was moved the Cahoon Ranch at the watershed divide between the Carmel and Arroyo Seco drainage basins. There were lots of schools that only functioned to accommodate kids from one or two families, and once the kids were grown, the schools were abandoned and teachers moved elsewhere.

I was surprised at the long and dynamic legacy of the families that settled in the Arroyo Seco region. The book has short sections about the Moore, Gilkey, Abbott, Gould and Tash families. Collectively, these pioneering clans farmed and ranched a huge portion of Monterey County for the better part of the Twentieth Century. Many of these homesteading families still own and operate ranches in the region, although some of the land has been acquired by the Forest Service and annexed to the Los Padres National Forest. Last year, The Nature Conservancy purchased the historic Arroyo Seco Ranch near Miller's (in)famous establishment. The Conservancy holdings include the area of Horse Canyon where Tiburcio Vasquez, the notorious bandit, reputedly stashed stolen horses that died when they were abandoned in their corrals after the thief's final heist in 1875.

The Arroyo Seco was first published in 1980, five years before Albert J. Coelho passed away. Mr. Coelho's eldest son Philip and nephew Jeffrey Whitmore collaborated to update the narrative and issue the new edition in late 2002. In the Preface, Mr. Coelho claims he is neither a journalist, nor a historian and he apologizes that his book is not a scholarly presentation. He notes that his book is created from an assemblage of material which others may find as interesting as he does. I really enjoyed the history and tall tales of the Arroyo Seco and feel like this short volume simply touched the tip of the proverbial iceberg of fascinating history yet to be shared about this region.

Revenue from the sales of this book are being donated to the Arroyo Seco Fire Station and Community Center. It retails for $9.95 and can be purchased at the Thunderbird Bookstore in Carmel and possibly other local venues.