Monterey – Historic Landmarks

WE reach Monterey in the cool of the evening. A queer tumble-down Spanish town lying close along the sea-shore. One or two fishermen are trailing their nets on the face of the water, and some fishing-smacks, with their brown, patched sails, are anchored in the bay, and are rocked so gently by the waves they seem to be coquetting with their own shadows. Not much more than a century ago a host of Spanish vessels sailed into this now lonely and deserted harbour, their colours flying, their decks crowded with soldiers, sailors, priests, and nuns. Here they landed in search of a good site whereon to found a mission for their priestly labours. They stationed themselves on an elevated point about two miles from the sea; there the labour of love began. They buit a presidio for the soldiers to protect the fathers from the native Indians. Every man who had hands to work devoted himself to the cause, and laboured till the church and mission buildings were completed. All that part of the country was taken possession of in the name of the King of Spain, and the work of conversion began. The ceremony was performed with a blare of trumpets, beating of drums, and salvos of artillery, calling out an army of echoes from the surrounding hills and mountains. The poor Indians were at first dazed with the display of tawdry magnificence and frightened at the thundering sounds which shook the air and seemed to make the solid earth tremble beneath their feet; but by degrees they approached, and then learned that this wonderful expedition was organized expressly for their benefit. Peace in this world and glory in the next was freely promised them. The gates of Paradise were opened before them; they had nothing to do but to walk in and take possession. Scores were converted every ‘day; they bowed down before the altar. The acolytes swung the incense, the fathers preached and chanted in an unknown tongue, the nuns, from behind their grated gallery, lifted their songs of adoration and praise, and the poor heathen souls were caught up in the great mystery and won to God.

From Mexico and Spain settlers soon came flocking into the beautiful valley, establishing themselves upon the sea-shore, building dwellings, grazing cattle, and growing fruits and flowers, increasing and multiplying themselves and their houses till the city grew and, for a time, flourished in peace and plenty, carrying on a thriving trade not only with Spain and Mexico, but with the inhabitants along the coast. The descendants of the first settlers, to a great extent, still occupy the now half-deserted, dilapidated town. The mission church, presidio, and other buildings appertaining thereto are on an elevated spot some two miles distant from the town overlooking the lovely and extensive Carmel Valley.

Only a century ago the church was filled with priests and converts, the presidio with soldiers, their clanking arms and breastplates glittering in the sun; vessels rode at anchor in the harbour, and crowds of Dutch and Spanish traders, with their bales of merchandise, swarmed upon the silver-sanded beach below. Now all is gone, like painted shadows fading from the sunshine.

The church, crowning the hilltop and dominating the landscape for miles around, is one of the most beautiful, picturesque, and perfect ruins upon the coast. Its exterior is complete, even to the rusty bell which still hangs in the belfry tower, and creaks with a ghostly clang when the wind blows through; and we are surprised to find so much of the decorative masonry still intact. Dilapidated saints and cherubs, with broken trumpets and mouldering wings, still hold their places, while all around is slowly but surely crumbling to decay; and, though in places you may see the day-light streaming through the roof, you can still ramble through the nun’s gallery and look down upon the altar, where the broken font still clings to the wall.

On the occasion of our visit, a small side chapel or vestry was decorated with ivy, evergreens, and paper flowers, and tin sconces, with the remains of guttering candles, were left upon the walls. It had evidently been used very lately—by the villagers, perhaps, for some festive gathering. The extensive range of adobe buildings which surround the church and were occupied by the converts and day-labourers, are still in a state of semi-preservation; the roofs are gone, but the walls are still standing. The whole of these sacred possessions were enclosed, and entered then as now by a massive gateway at the foot of the southern slope.

The town of Monterey is only interesting from its association with the past. It is dirty, it is dusty, it is utterly void of all modern improvements. Streets! there are none to speak of, except, perhaps, a row of slovenly shops which have been run up by some demented genius the last few years. The old adobe houses—and they are all made of that species of sun-dried clay—straggle about in the most bewildering fashion; it is much easier to lose your way than to find it. The people are all strongly characteristic of their Spanish origin ; they are a dark, swarthy, lazy-looking race, and scarcely seem to have energy enough to keep themselves awake. Their houses have no pretension to architecture of any kind; there is no attempt at pretty cottage-building or rural decoration; not even a creeping plant is trained to hide the bare walls. I suppose the men do the work some-times, but I have seen them at all hours, shouldering the door-posts, smoking in sombre, majestic silence, while the wives sit on stools beside them, generally with bright-coloured handkerchiefs pinned across their breasts, huge gold hoops in their ears, and often thick bracelets on their arms. In her barbaric love of display the woman forms a picturesque and striking figure in the shadow of her majestic lord; she is a piece of brilliant colouring, from the full, red lips, rich-hued complexion, to the sparkling black eyes which illuminate the whole.

In the heart of the town there is a long, low range of deserted buildings, formerly occupied by the military; the windows are all broken, the worm-eaten doors hang, like helpless cripples, on their hinges, and only the ghostly echo of the wind goes wandering through the empty chambers. In all quarters of the town you may come upon houses with windows patched or broken and padlocked doors, the owners having died or wandered away, and no one (but the rats) cares to take possession of bare walls. Nobody heeds them; they are left to natural decay. We passed some lonely, barn-like dwellings, with curtained windows and large gardens behind, where we could see the orchard trees, and flowering shrubs, and white winter roses growing; these were shrouded with almost monastic quietude. We go to the primitive Catholic Church on Sunday, and wonder where all the beautiful women dressed in their picturesque national costume have come from. They have a proud, haughty look upon their faces, and seem to resent our intrusion. These, we are told, are the aristocratic remains of the ancient dwellers in the city, who form a small exclusive society among themselves, and live in the secluded barn-like buildings above alluded to. Some are in the midst of the town; some scattered on the outskirts. The music was good and the service reverently conducted.

One clear, cool morning we pack a luncheon basket and start for a ” cruise on wheels.” We drive first past the old mission buildings to the Moss Beach, lying along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and so called from the peculiar mossy character and beauty of the seaweed it flings liberally along the pure, white sand, for the beach here is like powdered snow, and stretches far into the wild inland, its still, billowy waves sparkling like diamonds in the sunshine. A few miles farther on, and after a pleasant drive through pretty home scenery, we pass a Chinese fishing village, it being a mere collection of miserable hovels, and, as an Indian decorates his wigwam with scalps, these are hung inside and out with rows of dried and drying bodies of fish. The beach is covered with their bony skeletons and fishy remains in different stages of decomposition, and the whole air is redo-lent with an ” ancient and fish-like smell.” We are satisfied with an outside view, and have no desire to explore, but drive on as fast as we can till we reach the ” pebbly beach of Pescadero,” which is quite a celebrated spot. People come from miles round to visit it, and spend many hours in hunting for moss agates; for these, and many others of a beautiful and rare description, may be found in great numbers there. But apart from the chance of finding these treasures, the pebbly beach is in itself a great attraction for its rarity, as all along that portion of the coast there is only a sand shore.

Thence we drive on to the lighthouse, which stands on a rocky eminence jutting out into the sea. We climbed the narrow stairway to the top, and enjoyed an extensive panoramic view of the wild sea and wilder land surrounding. A lonely, desolate place it was, and to some folk would be maddening in its monotonous dreariness, with the waves forever beating round its rocky base, varied only by the screech of the sea-birds or howling of the wandering wind. Yet even in this bleak spot the keeper has coaxed flowers into growing, and hollyhocks, scarlet geraniums, dahlias, and other hardy plants are blooming round the lonely dwelling.

We are to take our lunch at Cypress Point, which we reach about three o’clock in the afternoon. This interesting and romantic spot which we had selected for our temporary festivity is an extensive grove, a miniature forest of cypress trees, covering and growing to the very verge of a lofty cliff which rises about two hundred feet perpendicularly from the sea. Their sombre forms, still and motionless, though a stiff breeze is blowing, turn oceanwards like dark-plumed, dusky sentinels keeping watch and ward over the rock-bound land. How many centuries have they stood there? Their age is beyond our ken. We feel the strange fascination of this gloomy spot. The ancient trees have grown into strange, fantastic forms. Some lie prone upon the ground, gnarled and twisted as though they had wrestled in their death-agony ages ago, and left their skeletons bleaching in the sunshine, for, like the whitening bones of a dead man, they crumble at the touch. Some have twined their stiff branches inextricably together, apparently engaged in an everlasting wrestling match. Here, like a half-clothed wizard, stands a skeleton tree with fingers pointing menacingly at its invisible destroyer. On every side the weird, strange forms strike the imagination, and though the sea is laughing and sparkling in the sun, and the soft wind fanning us with its cool, invigorating breath, the grim, silent congregation gives us an uncanny feeling, though we gather under their shade and eat, drink, and are merry. We shiver as we think what a spectral scene the cypress grove must be in the moonlight.