Santa Cruz County History - Places

A Sea-Port on the Pacific
by Mary Hallock Foote

Part 1

[This article was published in the August, 1878 issue of "Scribner's Monthly." Through it, we can go back to the19th century and "walk around" and "see" parts of Santa Cruz and its coastline as they were then. But the descriptions are not totally impersonal. We walk with a person who, naturally, has a particular way of interpreting what she sees; and whose point of view reflects both her own background and the conditioning of the 19th century society in which she lived. RAP--ed.]

The whitish-gray sandstone cliffs rise above the breakers to the level of the breezy plain above; they are like an old sea-wall which the waves have shattered and crumbled, obliterating all but the massive original plan. I have seen old fortifications and earth-works with this half-premeditated, half-natural look. The sea working its way in, or little streams from the mountains working their way out, have left at intervals along the coast, long, bare headlands with bayous, or "lagunas," as they are here called, between them and the main-land; as they near the mouth of the bay they grow wilder, more ragged and wave-worn, with a thinner upper-crust of soil, and a harder under-crust of rock; often they are tunneled into natural bridges, through which the breakers plunge with a hollow roar. There will be a little sandy path following along the top, or two paths, one in use, and one that may have been trodden with safety a few years before, now perilously near the edge, or disappearing entirely in places, showing how rapidly the rock wastes away.

The yellow-white glare of these cliffs in the sun is strange to one accustomed to the sober gray ramparts and deep-rooted bowlders, laced with wild vines, or figured over with pale lichens, of our eastern coast. The effect is brilliant, but one turns for relief from this immovable, solid brightness, even to the piercingly blue depths of the sky, or to the changing white foam-flashes. A colorist would rejoice in the luminous shadows which fall along these cliffs, bringing out all the purple, and red, and green tints, which the blinding light effaces; and if this shadow inclose a group of figures standing against the rock, how the faces glow, and every bit of white is cut out as clear and solid as on a cameo.

The light-house stands on one of these bleak promontories (I hesitate to say what an ugly little light-house it is;--it is most unaffectedly built, and I believe it answers the purpose for which it was intended; therefore, should it not be beautiful? but distinctly, it is not). From the light-house point, looking back, we see the little white town brightening the low tones of the landscape; all this glare at a distance has a tremendous depth and strength of color, against which the town shows as a flock of sheep shows on a sunny field. Its terraces and slender poplar spires and spots of dark pine shadow, the broad white beach, and the "composed" effect of the bay and mountains give it a foreign look. You feel as if a curtain rose on it; or, as if you had seen it through the frame of a car window, on some journey through southern Europe.

It is January, but the air has an Indian summer mildness, with its underlying chill also. The early rains have brought out a tender faint greenness, like a smile over the patient, brown hills. The path which we follow along the cliffs toward the town is fringed with budding willows, and a pale, downy-leafed lupine with a dark stem. We cross a stile, - an American, not an English stile, - and the path leads on to the high railroad bridge, from which we overlook the beach, the wooden piers wading out through the surf, the bath-houses, and "sea-foam restaurants," the "Plaza" and "Pacific Ave." horse-cars, and the unmistakably American crowd which eddies below.

As we go down the steps of the bridge, we meet a Chinese washerman shuffling up, with a basket of clean clothes, neatly covered with a sheet, balanced on his shoulder; it is Saturday, and the town is full of them, hurrying in all directions with the weekly wash. We take the red "Plaza" car and rumble off through a deep cut in the cliff, past the Chinese vegetable gardens in the suburbs of the Flat, as the lower part of the town is called, and so on, to the foot of a flight of steps leading to one of the streets on the "Hill."

Santa Cruz is sometimes called the Newport of California, but it is like calling the Hudson the Rhine of America or Joaquin Miller the Byron of the West. The padres in choosing this site for their mission had, no doubt, a comfortable belief that the best of everything was none too good for them; or they may have wished to enhance the virtues of abstinence and prayer by surrounding themselves with every temptation to live according to the flesh. The climate is certainly not favorable to asceticism. There is a breadth and intensity of light and color here; the flowers blossom recklessly all the year round; the flame-colored eschscholtzia that grows wild on the downs is twice as big as those in our gardens at home; even the white sand of the beach bears a delicate purple flower with a pale-green waxy leaf and a perfume which the sun and the sweet salt wind must have given.

The high, windy plain,which sweeps across from the first low range of hills to the ragged brink of the cliffs, has been compared to the English downs. It is a pity that fences and houses should ever interrupt the impressive monotone of these wide plains. In their summer brownness they make one deep, quiet chord of color, with the cliffs and the yellow-white line of beach; the sky and sea are another; figures walking between have an intensity of effect, like that prolonged high note in the "Lohengrin" overture, against the swelling crescendo of the violins. Nature here is rather unmanageable when you try to bring it within the range of human emotions and sympathies; it cannot be made to express subtleties or half shades of meaning, but there is a massive and savage grandeur, which would fitly accompany a drama like the "Nibelungen," or the unearthly harmonies of the "Lohengrin," where even the tones of passionate love and grief seem as if borne from far off, like that "tale of little meaning, though the words are strong."

The lines of the landscape are broad and simple. The terraces of the town, the first low range of bluffs, the dark, smoky, blue mountains beyond, rise and gradually step back, with stretches of plain between, like the circling seats of a great amphitheater, from the broad bright arena of the bay, - the Bay of Monterey, forty miles wide, into whose barriers the ocean pours its winter tides, lashed by the wild "south-easters." The storms here are warm with all their violence; the roaring of the surf, the tumult of the wind and rain are more like wild rough play than the wrath of nature, and the tides, which, when they swell, cover the long wooden piers with spray and shake them to their foundations, still, to me, have no association with fear or peril. This may be because during the season of storms the bay is solitary. No net-work of black masts and ropes and yards fringe the wharfs: there are no white sails or black smoke pennants traced on the horizon. In all the wide stretch of water, there is nothing human for the elements to harm.

The earliest voyagers along this coast seemed to have noted the mountains, especially from the fact of their being heavily timbered. Cabrillo first speaks of these "wooded mountains", and Viscayno, "exploring the coast more carefully in search of harbors," anchored in this noble bay, and gave it the name of his patron viceroy. I confess the names of Cabrillo and Viscayno are not as familiar to my ears as Hendrick Hudson, or Captain John Smith, or the valiant Miles Standish; but we feel quite at home with Sir Francis Drake, (1) who, in 1578, "sailed along the same track and without doubt, observed these same 'wooded mountains.'"

I quote from the historical sketch of Santa Cruz prepared for the Centennial by the Rev. Mr. Willey. He gives some interesting extracts from the diary of Father Crespi, a Franciscan priest, who accompanied the expedition to rediscover the Bay of Monterey. Viscayno had given a brave account of it, and "Governor Portala, Captain Rivera, with twenty-seven soldiers in leathern jackets, and Lieutenant P. Fages, with seven volunteers of Catalonia, besides an engineer and fifteen Christian Indians from Lower California," set out from San Diego in search of it. By the time they came to this spot they had almost given up their quest, and, like Cadmus and his brethren, where they rested, they founded a city on the shores of the bay, the existence of which they had begun to doubt.

Viscayno, in his good report of the country, had spoken of an infinite number of very large pines, "straight, smooth, fit for masts and yards; likewise oaks, thorns, firs, willows and poplars; large, clear lakes, fine pastures and arable lands." And Father Crespi prophesies, with a keen temporal eye:

"This place is not only fit for a town but for a city, without wanting any of the things necessary, with good land, water, pasturage, wood and timber within reach and in abundance, and close to Monterey Bay." [They had by this time verified the existence of Viscayno's bay.] "The town could be put a quarter of a league from the sea with the said advantages."

So here they founded the mission of Santa Cruz. They built the old church (its ruins are now roofed over, and protected from the weather by a dreary board sepulcher). But it was not only a question of souls, - they planted trees, - one thousand and twenty-two fruit-trees and eleven hundred and ninety grape-vines. Their flocks and herds increased and multiplied. They taught the Indians how to make adobes, and the use of such rude tools as were then known. The crop of beans was trodden out on a threshing-floor by the feet of oxen yoked by a stick across the horns, and winnowed by tossing it in baskets into the air.

When they ran short of provisions, in the very early days of the settlement, they were supplied by the soldiers with beans and corn to the value of $42, "which value," the father in charge does not fail to mention, "was faithfully returned to the soldiers." The mission grew rich in temporal treasure as well as in souls. There were vessels of gold and vessels of silver, and priests' vestments, - a gold chalice was valued at $608, two capes at $1,200, and a priests' vestment, yet preserved, at $800. Of the bells belonging to the mission two remain in use, and one large one lies broken and silent in the priests' garden. For twenty-three years the mission prospered undisturbed by outside influences.

The mild (2) rule of the padres faded away like an old moon at day-break. Their slow foot-prints have been trodden out of sight by all the busy feet crowding in. All that remains of them and their work scarcely furnishes one distinct outward feature of the place they created, and yet the parent sap still thickens the swifter current of new life springing out of it. The influence of the climate helps to perpetuate it in its soft, persistent protest against individual effort and self-reliance; and with all its softness, the climate here is as strong as fate, or a universal scheme of salvation. There is something almost tragic in the anxiety with which, during the last dry months, the whole country waits the blessed winter rains. If they are withheld, all is gloom for another year; if they come in joyful abundance, the dread is past, the shops enlarge their "stock," smiling faces show the general relief, and everybody spends a little more money than, a month ago, he thought he could afford. It is all a matter of luck, or of Providence, according to one's belief, or lack of it; and in every society, those who recklessly accept their luck outnumber those who have learned to find a meaning, even in waiting. There is certainly a strong element of fate in the life of a Californian, - even the wide limits of the horizon, and the far-off meeting-line of sea, or plain, and sky, lead one's eyes away toward unknown possibilities, and teach one an impatience of wearisome details.

Several years ago the old mission church was shaken by an earthquake which startled the town. Its interior is a mass of ruins (horses are stabled in one end), and the entrance is entirely gone; only the long side-walls remain in somber massiveness to serve as the tomb-stones of the dead mission. From the street little can be seen except the boards which inclose the gable and roof, but the priests' garden is sheltered under the side-wall, which gives to it, with all its greenness and growth, a character of heavy quietness, as if only the life of the past haunted it. The blossoms of a yellow acacia touch it here and there half shrinkingly; there are pigeon cotes, a whole colony, built against it, where the afternoon sun strikes warm. Two small windows piercing its massive crust show nothing but blackness within, - black holes laced across with thongs of raw hide, after the manner of an iron grating.

There is a still, brown pool of water in the priests' garden; the sunlight only touches it in gleams, for it is roofed by the green canopy of the grape-arbor which covers half the garden. The huge parent vines, coiled like brown serpents up either post of the piazza entrance, look as if they might be as old as the mission itself. The calla lilies which border the fountain seem all the whiter in this green gloom, and, rising above the water, are reflected in it like pale gibbous moons. A pine-tree throws its mass of shadow across the sunny space between the grape-arbor and the church wall.

Late in November there are days when the air is still and lifeless, and the clouds shut heavily down: it was on such a day that we first went to the priests' garden. The grape-arbor was bare of leaves, and through the cordage of stems overhead the dull sky looked down. Father Adam (there is a familiar sound about the name) talked with us a little while, and then went away and walked up and down the path beside the church wall reading a little book. The white pigeons were flitting about past the shadow of the pine-tree or perching on the brink of the pool. It all seemed strangely unreal and yet familiar, as if I had read of it long ago or seen it in a picture. It must have been the old gray wall, the smoky green masses of the pine-tree, and Father Adam in his black gown walking and reading to himself. And the pool was fascinating in its still opaqueness: those cold, white lilies, - what fellowship could they have with its secrets!

Another day, when I visited the garden, one of the sisters from the convent was there gathering flowers, - for Our Lady's Chapel, perhaps. She was a Spanish sister and spoke very little English, so we could only smile at each other. Her eyes were as dark as the pool, and her cap as white as the lilies. She had rather a heavy face, but there was a gentle dignity about her that suited her dress, and she looked very happy with her hands full of flowers. Another lady, in a dress of the world, had also a bouquet. I should like to have followed them into the chapel for which their offerings were intended.

>>Continue with Part 2


(1) We never can escape the ubiquitous Sir Francis. A quicksilver mine would seem an unlikely place to encounter him,--he could hardly circumnavigate that,--but we found him at New Almanden. One of the mining captains said he had lived near the old family-seat in Devonshire; there was a room in which hung a suit of Sir Francis's armor; the room was not frequented, because so much of the old gentleman's vigor still remained in his sword and gauntlet that anyone opening the door was unceremoniously knocked down by those lively antiquities. Captain Gray was very young when he heard this story.

(2) The "tender mercies" of the mother church sometimes bore a painful resemblance to those of the wicked. One means of conversion employed by the padres was no doubt irresistible: "They sent out horsemen armed with the lasso, and by its skillful use the savages were caught and compelled to come into church." They were also urged to the confessional by men standing in the church aisle armed with whips.

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Mission Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz


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