John Vonderlin: 1911: J. Smeaton Chase Rode Horseback from Mexico to Calif. to Oregon, 2000 Miles and Tells Us What He Saw

Here are J. Smeaton Chase’s Impressions, as he observed the Coastside from atop his horse.

For more information about J. Smeaton Chase, please click here

Story from John Vonderlin

Email John (


Hi June,

   The following is an excerpt from a book entitled

“California Coast Trails, a Horseback Ride from

Mexico to Oregon.” It was authored by Joseph

Smeaton Chase Smeato


and published in 1913. It is

available to be read at I’ve

attached a picture of Mr. Chase along with a short

bio. Anton is his faithful steed.

Enjoy John


   “So we lounged along, a mile an hour. Anton was

always curious about my note-book. Usually I did

my scribbling in the saddle, but when I was leading

him and stopped to write, he would watch me with

his head a little cocked and a puzzled air that plainly

asked, “What on earth are you always up to with

that bit of stick?” After some miles we crossed the

west fork of Waddell Creek at a lovely place of dim

pools, mossed rocks, and waving ferns. Reaching the

next crest, on a sudden we were among arid brush

and digger-pines, with a blaze of sunlight reflected

from a white, shaly soil . After the hours of greenness

and “dim religious light” the change was startling.

At the next rise I looked out upon the familiar

sight of a deep seaward canon up which the fog was

creeping. Its waves were just rosied by the evening

sun, and timbered shoulders of mountain stood up,

darkly purple, through the fleecy sea. Down this

canon we pursued our way in thoughtful mood at-

tuned to the gathering shadows, and came by dusk

to a lonely ranch where I made application for our

lodging. The good people made us welcome, and I en-

joyed the unwonted luxury of a table piled with mag-

azines beside the social hearth of a cultivated family.

   A few miles of travel next day down the cafion of

Whitehouse Creek brought me to the coast at

Franklin Point. A thin mist overhung sea and shore,

and through it I could dimly see in the south Point

Ano Nuevo, with a lighthouse on the adjacent little

island. The coast here, though not high, is pictur-

esque with scattered rocks and a sea vexed into con-

tinual turmoil.

   Five miles to the north is the hamlet of Pigeon

Point. A handsome lighthouse stands on the cliff.

I like to pay my respects to these beneficent senti-

nels, so I called there, and was courteously shown over

the building by one of the officers, who explained

to me the latest triumphs of invention in lighthouse


   From Pigeon Point the road passed for mile on

mile through a gray land, inordinately dusty, and

palliated only by occasional boons in the shape of

thickets of goldenrod or a sprinkling of lavender

asters. A dull sea with an uneasy voice kept us close

company, and about once an hour we met a team or

passed a lichened farmhouse. After crossing a la-

goon which lies at the mouth of the Arroyo de los

Frijoles, — thus does the Spanish aggrandize even

humble Bean Creek, — the road lay along the cliff

beside Pebble Beach, locally famous for agates and

moonstones. A hotel stood on the bluff, with no

other house in sight and no appearance of having

so much as a solitary guest to entertain. Its windy

desolation was so discouraging that I could not

bring myself to try their entertainment, though it

was time to think of stopping. Before long I found

a road leading inland, and turning into it came to

a broad green cafion with a winding creek. A couple

of miles away I saw the little town of Pescadero,

standing prettily backed by wooded ridges, its white

houses shining in the evening sun. In due course we

marched into town, where I was just in time for

supper at the comfortable inn.

   The experience of Moss Landing was repeated.

A party of bibulous sportsmen arrived during the

evening and pervaded the place with noise and pro-

fanity. When I learned that the noisiest, thirstiest,

and most obscene of the group was a banker of

San Francisco, I congratulated myself that no funds

of mine were in his keeping, and hoped that warning

visions might be vouchsafed to his clients in their



Dust and wild flowers — Half Moon Bay — “Gilt-edged” real-

estate — The Montara Mountain coast — First view of San

Francisco Bay —


In the last day’s travel we had crossed from Santa

Cruz into San Mateo County. Now ensued

twenty miles of dreadful dust, but compensated by

a grateful scarcity of automobiles, though we were

now nearing San Francisco and were almost in the

latitude of the southern end of the bay. The coast

road is continuously hilly, and the great bulk of

travel follows the level inland road by way of Palo

Alto and San Jose. Brown, monotonous hills rolled

along on the east, treeless but for occasional clumps

of eucalyptus that marked the rare farmhouses.

Now and then the road came out upon high whitish

cliffs fringed with a broad band of surf, the growl of

which was a matter of never-failing interest to Anton.

Fog obscured the ocean at a mile or two from

shore. The roadside bushes were drab with five

months of drought, but a few asters and late wild

roses still kept their cheerful smiles, and their petals

were as pure and bright as though newly washed by

the rains of spring, — a miracle which I never cease

to admire in wild flowers in general, and those of

our dry California summers especially.

   At the village of San Gregorio I noted one reason

for the small amount of travel on the road when I

saw the collection of wagons that were drawn up

awaiting their drivers, who were circulating indus-

triously from saloon to saloon. Nearing Tunitas

Creek, we were greeted by the screech of a loco-

motive, and I found that we were at the temporary

terminus of the Ocean Shore Railroad, which comes

down the coast thus far from San Francisco.

   Then we passed a straggling settlement named

Purisima, the capital, so to speak, of a grant of land

enjoying the lengthy title of Canada Verde y Arroyo

de la Purisima; and soon arrived at the town of

Half Moon Bay, lying a mile inland from the shore

of the bay itself, which I could see curving round to

the northwest, where it terminated in the promon-

tory of Pillar Point. It was still fairly early, but I

felt really unable to face any more dust for one day.

So we sought our respective quarters, and I, for my

part, subsided without delay into a bath.

   Next day was the equinox, and the morning was

dull, threatening (or, a better way of putting it,

promising) rain. We were early on the road, which

rounded the head of the bay, passing through a num-

ber of new-born “cities” whose existence was to be

known mainly by pitiful little cement sidewalks,

already bulging and broken. Each place in succes-

sion adjured me by stentorian sign-boards not to

miss the wealth that awaited investors in its “gilt-

edged” lots. It was a boon to exchange the songs

of these financial sirens for the charms of a sea and

sky alike of wistful gray, lighted ever and anon by

gleams of gold that bore no hint of real estate.

   The road came again to the shore at Montara

Point, where there is a small lighthouse. A mile

ahead a fine mountain came sharply to the sea, and

I could trace a road graded steeply over It. I had not

expected another taste of the mountains so near as

I now was to San Francisco, and I rejoiced at the

sight. We soon began the climb, which brought mag-

nificent views of cllfif and sea, often several hundred

feet almost sheer below.

   The mist lay thickly over the water at a little dis-

tance from shore, and I had to leave to the mind’s

eye the view I had anticipated, of the sails or smoke

of many vessels making to the Golden Gate. From

the summit of the grade I looked out to the north

upon the green valley of San Pedro and the long

line of cllfif shore that runs to the entrance of the

great bay. Below, the fine headland of San Pedro

Point stood out to the west, ending in a picturesque

little Island pinnacled like an iceberg; and farther

to the north I could just discern the outline of the

high, bold coast of Marin.

   A steep descent followed by a few miles of no-

notonous road brought us to Laguna Salada, where

I found an ambitious hotel and another array of

empty streets and avenues. Then came a winding

road, which at length turned inland and climbed a

long ascent. At the top I turned in my saddle to

take, as I thought, a backward view of the country

I had been travelling. To my surprise I saw no-

thing that I could recognize, but, instead, a coast-

line entirely strange to me. After a puzzled moment

it dawned upon me that I was looking down upon the

Bay of San Francisco, and we took a few minutes

rest while I digested the fact and congratulated

myself on having reached this salient point of the



California Coast Trails: In 1911, Chase journeyed 2,000 miles on horseback from Mexico to Oregon and intimately recorded his experiences along the way. In his journals, Chase poetically provides a glimpse of California’s towns and wilderness as they appeared at the beginning of the 20th century.


J. Smeaton Chase (1864-1923) American Author.

J. Smeaton Chase has become an integral part of California literature: revered for his poignant descriptions of California landscapes. An Englishman who toured the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains in 1915 with his burro, Mesquit, Chase published poetic diary entries detailing his escapades through the Sierra Nevada mountains and California desert.

Joseph Smeaton Chase was born in London in April 1864. He arrived in Southern California in 1890, although information surrounding his motive for doing so is sparse. It is known however, that he lived on a mountainside and managed to obtain a job tutoring a wealthy rancher’s children in the San Gabriel Valley. Chase was always drawn to the plants, animals, and Native Americans that resided along the California coast. Subsequently, in 1911 he took a trip with local painter Carl Eytel, traveling on horseback from Los Angeles to Laguna and then down to San Diego. Chase journeyed through the uncouth California land and detailed his escapades in his book California Desert Trails.[1] He was passionate that the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains be preserved as a national park. Chase appeals to readers who appreciate the unspoiled west and California history.


About June Morrall

1947 - 2010
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