Explore California of 100 years ago through the eyes of one remarkable couple

William and Grace McCarthy are my heroes.

From 1905 to 1938, the native Californians led a life of adventure and wanderlust traveling all across the state and beyond, visiting historic landmarks in iconic cities and camping out of their car in national parks.

They witnessed San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and the devastating fire that followed. They joined the throngs of people on May 27, 1937, who walked across the Golden Gate Bridge the day before it opened to vehicle traffic. They braved narrow, winding dirt roads from one corner of the state to another, down to Mexico, up to Canada and all the way across the nation.

Read Next

And everywhere they went, William McCarthy brought his camera, capturing in nearly 3,000 remarkably clear photos just what life was like in the early 1900s.

The high-resolution images were released online this week by the California State Archives in a detailed searchable database that has been intricately assembled, down to the diligent writing of captions with small historical details that put the photos into perspective.

Once you dive in and start exploring, you may very well lose yourself for hours, tracing the couple’s journeys from one well-known California locale to another.

1907 cliff house burning
Fire consumes San Francisco’s famed Cliff House in 1907. California State Archives William M. McCarthy Photograph Collection, Identification #96-07-08

Meet the McCarthys

The McCarthys lived most of their lives in San Francisco, where William was stationed as an armaments expert with the War Department.

That put him in a central location to capture moments ranging from the historical to the downright mundane.

He must have been something of a news buff, because on more than one occasion, he shows up in time to capture images of significant events, whether it was San Francisco’s Cliff House in flames in 1907 or a steamship that ran aground and broke in half near Santa Barbara in July 1911.

His photos of the 1906 quake are stunning, capturing the destruction in its immediate aftermath, as well as the slow process to rebuild the devastated city.

1911 wreck off s.s. santa rosa off point arguello
On July 6, 1911, the steamship the S.S. Santa Rosa ran aground off Point Arguello in Santa Barbara County. The surf split the boat in half, but all 200 passengers made it to shore alive. The only fatalities were four sailors who were thrown from a lifeboat in rough seas while trying to secure the wreck. California State Archives William M. McCarthy Photograph Collection, Identification #96-07-08

However, McCarthy capturing moments of history is not what’s most engaging about this collection. What’s best is how it offers a glimpse inside the couple’s modest travels and adventures that even by today’s standards would be considered enviable.

They enjoyed camping and outfitted their automobile into what can only be described as an early-century RV. They would lay a mattress across the tops of the seats and secure a tarp over the roof for privacy. More than one photo shows them heating their food in a metal box on the engine block of their Studebaker sedan.

That was during a five-month cross-country trip in 1934 that spanned more than 10,000 miles.

Just think about that.

1934 u.s. tour
The McCarthys carefully charted the route of their 1934 cross-country tour. California State Archives William M. McCarthy Photograph Collection, Identification #96-07-08

In the middle of the Great Depression, they embarked on an epic road trip, traveling through the heat of the summer in a primitive car with no air-conditioning and limited storage space. For weeks on end, it was their home on wheels.

They left San Francisco on May 14 on a circle route that took them as far south as the Florida Keys, as far north as New York, through the desert and the Rockies and all the way back again, arriving home on Oct. 10.

Now that is an adventure.

The many photos from Yosemite prove that on these travels, they didn’t just roll up, pitch a tent and hang out at the campground. Various images indicate the two were willing hikers, including one from 1935 showing William clinging to the cables on the way up the back side of Half Dome.

1920 car outfitted for camping
In a photo from 1920 Grace McCarthy stands next to the couple’s car outfitted for camping with a mattress on top of the seats and a tarp over the windows for privacy. California State Archives William M. McCarthy Photograph Collection, Identification #96-07-08

They also liked to feed the bears. One photo shows a Yosemite black bear standing on its back feet to take a snack out of William’s hand. In another, Grace watches a bear from the car window.

The only bummer about William McCarthy’s photo collection is that they didn’t visit San Luis Obispo County more thoroughly.

The couple clearly spent time in Monterey and Santa Barbara, but beyond a few photos of the Paso Robles Hotel and Atascadero’s La Plaza Building, it appears they did little more than drive through our area.

I was hoping I might find photos of the couple at Hearst Castle, but clearly they were not high-profile enough to earn that kind of invite.

But then again, lounging by the Neptune Pool with Hollywood celebrities probably wasn’t really their style.

Whether you’re a fan of California history, curious about how a regular couple lived 100 years ago or just interested in flipping through photos of state landmarks, the William M. McCarthy Photograph Collection is a true treasure.

Joe Tarica: 805-781-7911, @joetarica