Published on Monday, April 21, 2014
One of Big Sur’s pioneers, Charles Henry Bixby, was a transplanted New Yorker, born in that state’s Livingston County in 1837 where his father operated a successful textile business. In 1852, at the age of 15, he moved west by wagon train to California where he lived for five years before returning to New York.
A few years later, he returned to California and entered the Civil War in 1864 as a Corporal in the Seventh California Infantry Company G, enlisting in Placerville and serving in Arizona. After mustering out in San Francisco, he went north and began raising cattle in Sonoma County near Healdsburg. Apparently the cattle business went well, and in 1868 he moved south to a spot some 15 miles south of Carmel. In her book, A Tribute to Yesterday, Sharron Lee Hale notes:
“Charles followed in his father’s footsteps in his business ability, and he soon established a prolific lumber industry, logging with oxen during the tanbark period in Big Sur. He acquired several acres of land where he built his home on a gentle slope above what is known as Bixby Canyon, just above Bixby Landing, where he also established a school and mail stop. During this time, Charles Bixby took on two partners, one in business, a man called McClellan, and a wife, Miss Barbara Sammons of Alisal, the daughter of Ira Sammons, who himself crossed the plains from New York in 1864.”
Peter Gray Scott, in his book Where the Road Begins, provides an interesting account of Bixby’s early days in Big Sur:
“Bixby came for the logging but without a road or pier, he realized he had no way to move logs to market. Bixby approached the County government in 1869 requesting a road from Carmel to his cove. The County refused, saying the road would serve no purpose since “no one would ever want to live there.’”
So Bixby and his new partner McClellan built a landing and loading chute near their new sawmill in the area we know today as Bixby’s Landing, enabling schooners to dock and load Bixby’s shingles and shakes, railroad ties, and pulverized bark for the tanning industry for transport to San Francisco and beyond.
Later, following the discovery of lime deposits on Long Ridge above Mill Creek, the lime was hauled by mules to the coast on wooden sleds. Kilns were built and the fired lime was sold as a component for mortar and other building materials.
But a road was still needed, so in 1870 Charles enlisted the assistance of his father who had by now sold his textile business and also moved west. Charles and his father built the wagon road the County had refused to authorize, running some 18 miles down the coast from the Carmel Mission to Bixby’s Landing, complete with twenty-three bridges crossing the numerous creeks.
Somewhat later, the younger Bixby joined with another Big Sur pioneer, WB (William Brainerd) Post to improve and extend the earlier road south to Post Ranch.
The logging, tanbark, and lime production continued and Bixby, who had also begun to raise cattle in Big Sur as he had earlier in Sonoma County, steadily added additional property to his holdings, amassing some 1100 acres.
In 1904, Bixby sold his property to the Monterey Lime Company and moved from Big Sur to the relative metropolis of Monterey to a new family home at 517 Madison Street. Not being one destined for a rocking chair, he hauled the US mail for several years from Monterey to Corral de Tierra. He died in 1915 and is buried in Monterey at El Encinal Cemetery.
Bixby never saw “his” bridge, which opened in 1932, but his name certainly lives on. The official name of the bridge is “Bixby Creek Bridge.” Early on the bridge was also known as “Rainbow Bridge” after the nearby Rainbow Lodge resort that operated for several years. Today, it’s known to most everyone as simply the “Bixby Bridge,” and owing to its graceful architecture and magnificent setting, it’s one of the most photographed bridges in the world.
About the bridge:
Built by the State of California on what was then the Carmel-San Simeon Highway at a spot spanning Bixby Creek, approximately 15 miles south of Carmel, just south of the intersection with the old Coast Road. The State had begun construction of the highway in the early 1920’s.
Under the direction of California state highway engineer Charles H. Purcell, bridge engineer Frederick W. Panhorst, and design engineer Harvey D. Stover, the bridge was built by Ward Engineering Company of San Francisco at an under-budget cost of $199, 861. Construction began in August 1931; it was completed October 1932, and opened to traffic November 27, 1932.
Total length of the open-spandrel arch bridge is 714 feet, with the longest span being 320 feet, at a height of 280 feet.
In 1939 the highway was renamed State Route 1, following the highway’s extension to San Luis Obispo. Highway 1 was named California’s first scenic highway in 1965.
The bridge underwent seismic retrofitting in the 1990’s at a cost of $20 million, but is still classified as “functionally obsolete” due to its narrow, 24 foot width.
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