Times Past

Stevenson's writings conjure up a romanticized California history

The French Hotel in Monterey where Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson stayed in 1879.
The French Hotel in Monterey where Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson stayed in 1879.

“Fifteen men on the dead man's chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!”

Long John Silver’s “old sea song” as he enters the Admiral Benbow Inn, the fictional home of Jim Hawkins in the novel Treasure Island, is a chant familiar to children throughout the world.

The foggy mists surrounding Jim’s father’s inn when “the brown old seaman with the saber cut first took up his lodging under our roof . . .” leaves many readers to conclude that the setting is very much like the Monterey Peninsula.

Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Monterey four years before writing Treasure Island. He was being nursed back to health by some Monterey ranchers in 1879. The Old Pacific Capital, his stories of Monterey, was written while he stayed in a rooming house called the French Hotel. It’s a “must read” for lovers of California history.

A foggy day and good company on the Monterey Peninsula never fails to bring back every detail of Stevenson’s romanticized description of California’s past. Stevenson was present at a Mass set among Mission Carmel’s church in ruins on Nov. 4, 1879. It was the feast day of St. Charles Borromeo, the patron saint of the mission. Father Angelo Casanova, pastor of the Old Presidio chapel in Monterey, rode by buggy to Carmel.

Stevenson wrote:

“The church is roofless and ruinous, sea breezes and sea fogs, and the alternation of the rain and sunshine, daily widening the breaches . . . [in] the wall. As an antiquity in this new land, a quaint specimen of missionary architecture, and a memorial of good deeds, it had a triple claim to preservation from all thinking people; but neglect and abuse have been its portion.”

The mission’s “triple claim to preservation” was first begun by Father Casanova in 1883 when he built a barn-like structure to cover the church. That event marked the beginning of the reincarnation of Spanish and Mexican Monterey.

In 1931, Harry Downie, a third generation San Franciscan, arrived in Carmel. He was a cabinetmaker who specialized in the restoration of Spanish antiques. Monsignor Philip Scherer, pastor of the Catholic Church in Monterey, hired him to restore the statues in Carmel Mission. Soon he was restoring the whole mission. Downie went on to restore and rebuild portions of missions San Luis Obispo, San Miguel and San Antonio.

The resulting “new life” for Carmel and historic Monterey is alive today. To my mind, the re-creation is best seen by night. The Monterey State Parks Association makes that viewing possible through its Annual Christmas in the Adobes for two nights every December.

On Friday, Dec. 11, I’ll be leading a tour for the Mission San Luis Obispo docents that includes lunch at John Steinbeck’s home, a visit to the Steinbeck Library, visits to missions Soledad and Carmel and Christmas in the Adobes. This will be an overnight tour, returning to San Luis Obispo the next evening.

It’s open to the public, but you must reserve now to insure tickets. Call Silver Bay Tours at (805) 772-3409.

On a similar note, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, I will be speaking on the life and legacy of Father Junípero Serra at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, 820 Creston Road in Paso Robles. You are welcome to attend without charge.