Big Sur is a sparsely populated region of the Central Coast of California where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. Although it has no specific boundaries, many definitions of the area include the 90 miles (140 km) of coastline from the Carmel River in Monterey County south to the San Carpoforo Creek in San Luis Obispo County, and extend about 20 miles inland to the eastern foothills of the Santa Lucias. Other sources limit the eastern border to the coastal flanks of these mountains, only three to 12 miles inland. Another practical definition of the region is the segment of California State Route 1 from Carmel south to San Simeon. The northern end of Big Sur is about 120 miles south of San Francisco, and the southern end is approximately 245 miles Northwest of Los Angeles.
The name “Big Sur” is derived from the original Spanish-language “el sur grande”, meaning “the big south”, or from “el país grande del sur”, “the big country of the south”. This name refers to its location south of the city of Monterey. The terrain offers stunning views, making Big Sur a popular tourist destination. Big Sur’s Cone Peak is the highest coastal mountain in the contiguous 48 states, ascending nearly a mile (1571 m) above sea level, only three miles from the ocean.
The name Big Sur can also specifically refer to any of the small settlements in the region, including Posts, Lucia and Gorda; mail sent to most areas within the region must be addressed “Big Sur”.
During the 1890s, Dr. John L. D. Roberts, a physician and land speculator who had founded Seaside, California and resided on the Monterey Peninsula, was summoned on April 21, 1894 to assist treating survivors of the wreck of the S.S. Los Angeles, which had run aground near the Point Sur Light Station about 25 miles south of Carmel. The ride on horseback took him 3 1/2 hours, and he became convinced of the need for a road along the coast to San Simeon, which he believed could be built for $50,000.
In 1897, Roberts travelled the entire stretch of rocky coast from Carmel to San Simeon, and photographed the land, earning him credit as the first surveyor of area. He initially promoted the road for allowing access to a region of spectacular beauty. Roberts was only successful in gaining attention to the project when State Senator Elmer S. Rigdon, a member of the California Senate Committee on Roads and Highways, promoted the military necessity of defending California’s coast. A $1.5 million bond issue was placed on the ballot, but construction was delayed by World War I.
The state first approved building Route 56, or the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, to connect Big Sur to the rest of California in 1919. Federal funds were appropriated and in 1921 voters approved additional state funds. San Quentin Prison set up three temporary prison camps to provide unskilled convict labour to help with road construction. One was set up by Little Sur River, one at Kirk Creek and a third was later established in the south at Anderson Creek. Inmates were paid 35 cents per day and had their prison sentences reduced in return. Locals, including writer John Steinbeck, also worked on the road. The road necessitated 33 bridges constructed, the largest of which was the Bixby Creek Bridge. Six more concrete arch bridges were built between Point Sur and Carmel, and all were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
After 18 years of construction, aided by New Deal funds during the Great Depression, the paved two-lane road was completed and opened on June 17, 1937. The road was initially called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, but was better known as the Roosevelt Highway, honouring the current President (Franklin Delano Roosevelt). Actual cost of the construction was around $10 million. The road was frequently closed for extended periods during the winter, making it a seasonal route. During World War II, night-time blackouts were ordered as a precaution against Japanese attack.
The route was incorporated into the state highway system and redesignated as Highway 1 in 1939. In 1940, the state contracted for “the largest installation of guard rail ever placed on a California state highway”, calling for 12 miles (19 km) of steel guard rail and 3,649 guide posts along 46.6 miles (75.0 km) of the road. After World War II ended, tourism and travel boomed along the coast. When Hearst Castle opened in 1958, a huge number of tourists also flowed through Big Sur. The road was declared the first State Scenic Highway in 1965, and in 1966 the first lady, Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, led the official designation ceremony at Bixby Creek Bridge. The route was designated as an All American Road by the US Government.
Music is Big Sur by the Thrills © 2003 Conor Deasy / Ben Carrigan / Kevin Horan / Pádraic McMahon / Daniel Ryan. Out on Virgin Records.