1870s: Colonel Zig Zag Covered All the News in San Gregorio…

“It always rains when I give a ball,” R.W. Savage, the new owner of the San Gregorio House complained to his friends in 1873.

And who got the quote? Why Colonel Zig Zag, the San Gregorio correspondent who mailed his news to the San Mateo Times & Gazette where his column appeared sporadically.

Mr. Savage supported the theory I’ll call reverse psychology. It seemed to him that if he admitted from the get-go that it was going to rain, because it always rained when he gave a party in the spring, well, it seemed to the hotel owner, that, then, it just might not rain.

Did you follow that?

But it was raining hard when he made his weather prediction. It had been raining so much and for so long that the earth looked like thick brown gravy. You had to think twice before traveling anywhere in that goop but the tougher San Gregorians left the driving to their horses. Others enjoyed homemade “sleigh-rides over the slick, greasy mud in high style.”

Who got that quote? Colonel Zig Zag.

Caught up in the moody weather, Mr. Savage offered free mud rides to and from the beach for anyone willing to slide across the soaked ground and spend the night at his quaint hotel.

Mr. Savage purchased the San Gregorio House from George “W.T.” Carter, the original owner-builder. The bearded Carter, who built because he believed in the coming of a railroad, actively promoted San Gregorio as a wonderful seaside resort. In 1866, he described his new hotel as “…situated in one of the most beautiful coast valleys, near to the ocean, with a salubrious climate, no summer winds, and of easy access.”

(Except during the winter rains.)

George “WT” Carter’s nom de plume was “Colonel Zig Zag,” San Gregorio’s faithful newspaper correspondent, mailing his stories to the San Mateo Times & Gazette.

How did the out-of-town guests get to the San Gregorio House? The Half Moon Bay-Pescadero stages drove passengers to the hotel after picking them up in the morning at the San Mateo train station. You bet it was a rocky, dusty ride–the kind that made the driver want to stop for a strong drink or two midway through.

As “Colonel Zig Zag,” “WT” Carter bragged about the San Gregorio House. It was his place, after all, “offering superior attractions as a summer resort for the citizens of San Francisco. Hunting, fishing, boating and bathing in the immediate vicinity.”

Seven years later, Colonel Zig Zag sold the hotel to Savage, but Carter didn’t leave San Gregorio; he remained a landowner with an active interest in his tiny farming community.

In his role as columnist, penning the “San Gregorio Letter,” Colonel Zig Zag collected admirers who crowned him the “Mark Twain of San Gregorio.”

In 1873–the year the winter rains drenched the land–potatoes were the big crop, and Alexander Gordon, who owned one thousand acres, was one of San Gregorio’s leading citizens. Mr. Gordon, who became a county supervisor, came up with a wild plan to build a shipping chute at Tunitas Creek. Take my word for it, this was an engineering feat– maybe even an act of desperation–because, other than the wharf at Pigeon Point, there was nothing closer that could accommodate both the farmers and the deeper water vessels.

When “Gordon’s Chute” was working as it was meant to work, freight regularly arrived from Purissima and Pescadero. One steamer made 23 trips in 49 consecutive days.

“Not bad, for an outside landing where Goodall and Nelson can’t run it,” was Colonel Zig Zag’s assessment.

Who were Goodall and Nelson? They were the competition, operating landings at Pigeon Point and Amesport, in present day Miramar.

San Gregorio was not all storms and commerce. There was a community, and of great interest to the ladies was the new “Secor” sewing machine–welcomed as an improvement over the old Singer model. The “Secor” was marketed by a quiet lady called Mrs. Roberson. For a saleslady, she said so little that one local quipped: “…the machine speaks for itself, which is quite an item, as the lady agent is not much of a talker herself.”

Although life was austere for the San Gregorians, there were plenty of chuckles. One time “an immense wild-cat skin” tacked to James Buchard’s door brought wide grins. And the story accompanying it made the rounds. The 40-pound animal had been a nuisance, roaming up and down San Gregorio Creek, terrifying the city folk who came for a restful week of fishing, only to be told there was a “dangerous California lion” on the loose.

“When they saw it,” laughed those in the know, “their hair rose like the quills in a porcupine.” The locals liked to tease the city folk.

The San Gregorio community Colonel Zig Zag knew was warm and intimate. And the number of residents remained stable until the hoped-for railroad did not appear and then the town’s population dwindled.

“This has become one of the most shifting communities on record,” Colonel Zig Zag wrote. “No sooner has the harvest been completed than a general stampede commences on all sides. Everybody is on the move to find a more comfortable layout.”

With heavy heart, he recorded a few of the changes “as a sample of how this burg is conducting itself.”

Eben Kinnear, who had grown from “a raw Scotch lad to a responsible member of society, was now an American citizen, married and moving to San Mateo. “He will carry with him the best wishes of many friends,” promised Zig Zag.

A tenant farmer called John Miller “was pulling up his corrals” and going into the stock business in San Francisco. Alexander Gordon and his family were expected to leave soon for San Mateo.

“And so,” complained Zig Zag, “I might go on Ad nauseam, and also tell you how H.C. Hart (the general store owner) wants to sell out and leave us. Rumor says he has found a purchaser in that quiet spoken old pioneer of S.G., John Sears.”

The price of taking stage back and forth, across the mountains factored into some of the relocations. It cost a whopping 85 cents to ride Taft and Woolley’s stage to the Southern Pacific Railroad Station at San Mateo.

“It is astonishing,” the Colonel lamented, “what an amount of such punishment the public can stand.”

Clearly, it was heartbreaking for Colonel Zig Zag to keep track of folks leaving town–but there were plenty of other distractions to amuse him.  Most interesting, for example, among the “curiosities vegetile” was a muskmelon three- feet long.  And a local called  Culver “has a new patent quail trap; he caught 394 quail in 33 minutes.”

In an especially upbeat mood, Zig Zag wrote: “The newly appointed ministers for this benighted region are slow coming to the front (we always consider this place the front). We have been anxiously looking for them to put in an appearance and give us a sermon.”

What heated up Colonel Zig Zag’s pencil was the controversial proposal, to be decided by vote, of whether or not to move the county seat from Redwood City to San Mateo. Zig Zag favored keeping the county seat where it was. To the north, the residents of Half Moon Bay disagreed.

“The opening of new roads to Redwood City,” Colonel Zig Zag opined, “has a debilitating effect upon your charming village, and you are justified in getting your back up about it, and you will try your best to move the county seat…We will go in for our own interests in this election, and may the best man (or place) win.”

The county seat remained in Redwood City.

When closing one of his “Letters from San Gregorio,” Colonel Zig Zag, no longer a young fellow, philosophized: “Like our youthful legend, we went to the end of the rainbow where the traditional bag of gold was to be found. We may have passed it on our journey, and now retrace our steps to seek it. It may have been at the other end of the bow…”

By the way, the San Gregorio House still stands—and nobody has found the gold at the end of the rainbow.

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About June Morrall

1947 - 2010
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