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Douglas Houck | all galleries >> Roadside Geology >> Road Trip > Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
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28-OCT-2010 DHouck

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Big Sur, CA

FDRs longtime friend and Harvard roommate, Lathrop Brown,
Mr. Brown married Helen Hooper of Cambridge Massachusetts, an heiress to the great Ames estate to the extent of $10,000,000. She too is fond of horses, for her father formerly owned, under the racing name of Mr. Chamblet, one of the greatest stables of jumping horses the American turf has seen.

Julia was a pioneer, and the park was named after her by Helen and Lathrop Brown. Lathrop was a congressman from New York, and became a high ranking official in the U.S. Dept. of Interior. Helen was the daughter of a wealthy banking family. Together they built resorts on the Eastern Seaboard. They researched to find what would be the perfect seaside location on the Pacific Ocean side of the continent. After coming to Big Sur, they found McWay Cove, bought it, and built the Waterfall House.

They so admired their caretaker, Julia Pfeiffer Burns, the Browns bequeathed the land to California for a park.

In the 1930s Lathrop and Helen Brown built a two-story residence overlooking McWay waterfall. The State of California tore the house down in 1965

What brought the Browns to Big Sur is not entirely clear. One story has it that one of their two daughters had learned about this stretch of the California coast in school. The family came to look, and fell in love with the place. Add to that the story that they wanted to buy property in a place without roads, and you have a perfect reason to build a house in the middle of nowhere. (The Big Sur stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway was not completed until 1937.)

Julia Pfeiffer Burns leased pasture from the Browns. A daughter of the first permanent settlers in Big Sur, she was less than a year old when she arrived there with her parents, Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer, in 1869. She remained single, living with her parents until she was in her mid-forties, and eventually ran the ranch for her aging father: caring for the stock, milking the cows, plowing, planting, mowing, maintaining substantial flower and vegetable gardens, and keeping the machinery in repair. In 1915 she married John Burns, another homesteader, and settled with him at Burns Creek, just over the ridge from McWay Creek.

The couple ran cattle on Saddle Rock Ranch. Later they also rented the Hot Springs (now Esalen Institute), where Julia provided meals and accommodations for visitors. In the book Big Sur Women (Big Sur Women's Press, 1985, Judith Goodman, ed.), her niece, Esther Pfeiffer Ewoldsen, characterized Julia as a hard worker who "loved people, picnics, dances, and whipped cream cakes," and who led children "on many joyous excursions to what now is Pfeiffer Beach."

Julia and Helen formed a close friendship during the last years of Julia's life (she died in 1928, just a few years after the Browns' arrival). The fact that Helen wanted the park to be named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns certainly bespeaks her admiration for this practical frontier woman.

The Browns' first house on the promontory was a rough redwood structure. In the mid-1930s they replaced it with a sumptuous two-story residence. Their granddaughter, Pam Grossman, recalls a black marble staircase, eight feet wide at the top and 16 feet wide at the bottom, and huge plate-glass windows with incredible views up and down the coast. Inlaid in the entryway were an ornamental brass fish, an octopus, and a compass rose. Terraced gardens climbed from the rear of the house toward a caretaker's cottage, which was linked to the house by a mining-car line affectionately dubbed the "Big Sur & Pacific." Like almost everything else on the ranch, the rail car was powered by the Pelton Wheel. Across the cove, behind the waterfall, stood a lath house, next to the vegetable garden. (That explained the other foundation I had seen.) Life in Big Sur required a high level of self-sufficiency then, as it does even today.

The Browns spent most of their time traveling, and visited the Waterfall House infrequently. When they did come, they stayed for a while. In 1944 they built another house, the ruins of which can be found on a hillside at the top of the park's Tan Bark Trail. Because it was wartime and building materials were hard to come by, the Tin House was made of the shells of two gas stations patched together. One story has it that Helen, who suffered from arthritis, wanted a second home above the summertime fog. On their first night in the house, though, the Browns encountered an unexpected annoyance: as the metal structure cooled after the hot day, a boisterous crinkling noise arose. One sleepless night was enough, and Helen decided to put up with the fog down below.

In deeding Saddle Rock Ranch to the state, Helen Hooper Brown specified that the land to the west of Highway 1 should be "unmarred by further construction or out-of-place man-made improvements" and that the Waterfall House should be made into a "museum for the custody and display of indigenous Indian relics, flora and fauna of the California coastal area, and historical objects pertaining to the Big Sur country."

Things can change quickly in Big Sur. In 1983 a huge fire and, two years later, landslides altered the topography of McWay Cove. A beach formed. Where once the waterfall plummeted directly into the sea at all times, today it meets the water only when the tide is in.


Pentax K10D ,Pentax smc DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
1/180s f/13.0 at 35.0mm iso200
5 exposure HDR Hand Held full exif

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