Last week this column told the story of a mystery tunnel being filled in Paso Robles. When Phil Dirkx wrote his story in 1985, he did not have access to the obituary for the tunnel builder.
PASSED AWAY AT PASO ROBLES.
Death of Dr. Somerset Robinson, a Retired Officer of the Navy.
A REMARKABLE MAN.
Became a Spiritualist During the Declining Years of His Life.
ONCE HE WAS ALMOST STARVED,
But the Surgeon Made a Good Record While in the Service of the Nation.
PASO ROBLES, Cal., Jan. 19. — Dr. Somerset Robinson, U. S. N. (retired), died at his residence here to-day. He had been in poor health for a long time and the end was not unexpected. No man in this section of the State was better known than Dr. Robinson. He was unmarried and just 60 years of age. He was a native of Maryland and entered the Navy in 1861. He served with distinction during the Civil War, most of the time being attached to the gulf squadron. In 1881 he was fleet surgeon of the North Atlantic squadron, and from 1884 to 1886 was in charge of the Naval Hospital at Mare Island. He was retired in 1887 and soon afterward located in this village, where he has since resided.
While one of the most eccentric characters in the State, he always displayed qualities which won for him the respect and love of his fellows, and his gentleness of nature, generosity and hospitality were proverbial.
Before his retirement he was afflicted with rheumatic gout, and as inheritances and lucky investments in Washington real estate provided him with plenty of means he traveled extensively for relief, visiting famous doctors and famous springs. Hs journeyed [sic] on his quest for health until he found his first considerable relief in the hot springs in Paso Robles, and he decided to spend here the rest of his life. With this end in view he set about surrounding himself with all the comforts and luxuries that his tastes craved. Securing fifteen acres of land on a steep hill not far back of the Hotel de Paso Robles he lavished money in its adornment.
He built a large brick house of Southern type, with wide verandas encircling each story. A highway ran through his grounds, and the smaller portion across from his house he made a garden of wonderful beauty, with flowers, shrubs and trees arranged with much taste for landscape effects, but never trimmed, for he believed that a tree was most beautiful when it grew as God made it grow. In these ornamental grounds he placed a large pond, which was stocked with goldfish and water-lilies, and under the roadway he built an expensive tunnel for a private passageway.
About his house were many flowers and ornamental trees, and up the hill to the rear his grounds became vineyards and orchards, full of variety, in which he took much pride. Though his life had been largely passed on salt water, he had in his quarters on board many a ship acquired wisdom about chickens, fruit-trees, the most scientific ways of draining wet land, etc. Perhaps he was born for a pastoral life, and that streak in his nature asserted itself when he indulged in fancies; but at any rate the man whose active life had been devoted to doctoring marines and Jack tars could give pointers to San Luis Obispo farmers when he went to Paso Robles. So it was an expert that superintended the fifteen acres of flowers and fruits.
His residence he furnished with simple elegance, but he made it, too, his own ideal of comfort. His library was large, and in his grounds were all sorts of summer houses fashioned to filter every harshness from the sun and wind and to afford every means of extracting enjoyment that the hours could bring there. Few people would build a summer house up in a big live oak tree, but that was what Dr. Robinson did, and he didn't care whether anybody laughed or not.
By day the Robinson place was always a gem of striking beauty seen from the town below, but at night it was still more noticeable. The big house was filled with incandescent lights, while outside and on a tower rising above the roof arc lights with colored globes were placed. These always burned brightly far into the night, and one of the doctor's peculiarities was to always leave his door wide open at night through some strange notion that was nobody's business; the house always suggested to a stranger at midnight that some great social event must be going on up there. Many a patient, sleepless in the small hours in the hotel below, has watched the weird radiance up on the hill and gone to sleep to let strange nightmares come.
In that place of beauty Dr. Robinson lived the life of his choosing for nine years, and there he indulged every wish that could be indulged up to the time when his health gave way. His housework and his assistance and service about his home and place were furnished by two elderly men. No woman ever set foot on his property if he could help it. He had for many years showed an intense dislike for the society of females, and would always avoid meeting ladies that he well knew if he could do so. The reasons of his being a woman-hater are not generally known, and that has been accounted merely one of his peculiarities. But though no ties of friendship rooted him to the hearth, and though woman's presence was unwelcome, Robinson was no recluse. When in health he went to the postoffice downtown daily, and generally welcomed strangers with a warm hospitality. When his naval or other friends came to see him his hospitality was princely, and his checkbook was always at their disposal. He liked to go to Mare Island frequently, and when there would visit a friend who is a butcher and with whom he liked to discuss the best and most scientific ways of killing cattle and such practical questions.
Not less noticeable than his peculiarities of manner and living was his appearance. His face much resembled that of Edwin Booth, a fact of which he was proud. It was strong, expressive and intellectual. His hair was always worn long and he never touched it with brush or comb. He always dressed his long dark locks by running his fingers through them from his forehead backward. His physique was striking and his manner somewhat tragic. His hat was invariably a stovepipe, generally tilted back. When in the service he suffered much discomfort when compelled by naval regulations to attend some function that required full-dress uniform, with brass buttons and gold braid. He liked civilian's attire and never cared whether the cut was fashionable or not.
When he was in charge of the naval hospital at Mare Island this cultured man and tireless student liked the society of an old stableman named "Barney" better than that of most anybody else. He and Barney would pace the stable-yard for hours discussing the raising of chickens and turkeys and such things as Barney's experience and the doctor's reading had given them a common interest in. He was always loved by his inferiors in the service, and while he was recognized as a man of great executive ability it is said that he was never known to speak harshly to any one.
The doctor's aversion to cats was even stronger than his aversion to women. In a case of cats he would kill one whenever he could, and he generally used a small rifle, with which he was expert.
The peculiarities most talked about among those who knew him were, perhaps, his gastronomic tastes. He was always making strange experiments in the kitchen. While serving on the Asiatic station he learned to appreciate the deliciousness of the Japanese eels. Later he proved by experiment that the American rattlesnake is even a greater delicacy than the Japanese eel. It took considerable experimenting to acquire the highest art of frying rattlesnakes, but he acquired it and was happy.
It is said that another toothsome dish he discovered was afforded by young rats. He would take rodents when quite young and feed them for forty days on wheat to fatten them, and then he would have them served in a ragout, for which he found them superior to rabbits. He was always a great smoker, and his taste for the weed was gratified by the choicest brands of tobacco from all over the world. Champagne was his favorite beverage, occasionally varied with a special brand of good old French brandy.
During the years he spent in retirement at Paso Robles he gratified himself to the full, but his intellectual taste was in the ascendancy. He passed his time largely in the study of abstruse subjects, and especially of spiritualism and the occult.
Dr. Robinson's belief in spiritualism was quite strong, and about a year ago he became so infatuated with its mysteries that he was completely under the control of the spirits. He said that the forms of his friends had gathered around him and beckoned him alluringly to their happier world. He trustfully tried to cross to them, and not being willing to take his own life in any of the usual ways he decided to starve himself to death. In this he would have probably succeeded had it not been that an old naval friend happened to arrive at the springs at the time and he induced his comrade to linger a while among the living. A mutual friend, the medical director at Mare Island, was hastily summoned, and when he left Dr. Robinson's bedside the latter had been induced to resume eating. Since then, however, he rarely left his house and his physical strength failed gradually until he passed away.
Dr. Robinson's only relatives reside in Maryland. He owned considerable real estate in the city of Washington besides property here and in Vallejo.