1880s: We would have all booked a room at the Swanton House

Sarah Swanton, Pescadero innkeeper, was praised as a woman of remarkable business ability, blessed with the friendliest personality.

“As an entertainer she has few equals and no superiors in hotel management, ” the San Mateo Times & Gazette raved in 1896.

Sarah and husband Charles Swanton ran the Swanton House Hotel for three decades, between the 1860s and 1890s, earning many return guests who appreciated the “courteous and accommodating way” they were always treated.

The Pescadero community loved the Swantons because their well-run business brought cash into the village’s economy, the general store, the restaurant, the stables, and so on.

In fact, she kept a stable business next door to the Swanton Hotel and she hired R.K. Farley to run it, ferrying hotel guests to Pebble Beach,where entire days were spent sifting through the pebbles for a colorful one that might make a perfect pendant.

Owning the stable next door also put Sarah into direct competition with Loren Coburn, Pescadero’s least favorite citizen. Coburn also owned a stable and both Sarah and Loren depended on the tourist trade for profits. As I’ve posted many times, most visitors came to Pescadero to visit Pebble Beach, the well known hunting ground for beautiful “gems.” Horse-and-wagons had to be rented to get to the popular beach a couple miles from town–

Loren also owned the delicious strawberry fields that bordered Pebble Beach-and when Coburn planted a fence around the fields and built a gate with a sturdy lock, he, in effect, declared war on both the locals and the tourists.

Sarah’s horse-and-wagons couldn’t go to Pebble Beach, and she couldn’t stop talking about it; she’d have to shut down the stable–and her loud and bitter complaints reached Loren Coburn.

Now that Coburn had a monopoly on the stable business in Pescadero, he said Sarah was unhappy because “She couldn’t go all over the country and do as she pleases.”

Sarah Swanton may have had little control over the livery stable market, but no one questioned her right to do as she pleased in her own hotel.

She ruled over the billiard room and the parlor, but most of all she was the culinary expert. Her breakfast menu included:

Mutton Chops

Beef Steak

Mountain Chickens

Strong Coffee with sweet milk

The Swanton House was “a plain country hotel with a good table” that once stood near the corner of what was called San Gregorio Street (now Stage Road.) Out in the street, in front of the hotel, stood the town’s revered flagpole–the stars hand sewn by the village’s matrons.

The flagpole also served as a significant marker to measure distance from the town to a neighbor’s house or a farm or a sawmill.

Known throughout California, the Swanton House was the place to stay, especially in the 1860s for those addicted to pebble hunting. It was a delightful hotel with an intimate setting. Name plates above the rooms called out herbs such as Fern, Myrtle, Rose, Elm, Ivy and Woodbine.

Sarah was born in Maine in 1825. She married Charles Swanton in the 1840s and the couple made their first home in Augusta, Maine where Sarah tapped her business acumen by operating a profitable millinery business until 1854. The hat business taught her how to please the fickle public.

She gave birth to two children, Eva and Frank. Husband Charles, an employee of the Lighthouse Board, predecessor of the Coast Guard, was sent to the West Coast, ending up in Pescadero (where some 10 years later a lighthouse was built at Pigeon Point.)

Sarah and the kids joined Charles in 1863, and together they opened the Swanton House. It was an overnight success, nurtured by the burgeoning popularity of that natural curiosity called Pebble Beach. And for San Franciscans, a new “get out of Dodge” place, no farther than a dusty seven hour stagecoach trip.

“…After a sound night’s sleep,” penned Howard Glyndon, the pseudonym for Santa Cruz writer, Mrs. Searling, “the calm stillness of the morning is only broken by the singing of the birds, the echoes of the gurgling waters in the creek, or the roar of the surf on the beach.”

Assisting Sarah was her lovely daughter, Eva, described by one male guest, “as a very agreeable aide.”

At the peak of its popularity, the Swanton House accommodated 150 guests, hosting weddings as well.

Sarah’s jaunty husband, Charles, was a one-man chamber of commerce who loved showing off the the natural curiosities of Pescadero. He particularly enjoyed escorting hotel guests on a private tour of the Pigeon Point lighthouse.

Charles Swanton’s Guided Tour:

500,000 bricks were used in the construction of the cone-shaped white tower.

On a clear day the white flashes are visible from the deck of a vessel 15 feet above the sea at a distance of 18 1/2 nautical miles.

The Swanton’s children did well in Pescadero. Eva wed local businessman Peter Stryker, and the couple later moved to San Francisco. In 1877 Sarah orchestrated son Frank’s wedding at the hotel.

But, as in everybody’s life, tragedy eventually struck. Son Frank was 30 years old when he died of a heart attack. In the 1880s Charles showed signs of anxiety and mental distress; he was committed to the sanitarium at Napa, where he soon passed away.

As a widow and grandmother, the hotel became the focus of Sarah’s life. Then, in March, 1896, Sarah, who suffered from Bright’s (kidney) Disease, died in her beloved hotel.


“The death of Mrs. Swanton removes one of the oldest and most highly respected and estimable members of the community.” –a San Francisco newspaper

“…Although for the comfort and encouragement of the traveling public we must say her mantle has fallen on worthy shoulders of her only daughter, Mrs. Stryker takes charge.”–San Mateo newspaper

With Sarah Swanton’s passing, the Swanton House lost its magic spark and the hotel was sold. After that, innkeepers came and went. As the years passed, the neglected Swanton House failed to age with dignity.

The plain country hotel with a good table burned in the 1920s, in what could have been a case of arson, but no one was prosecuted.

The famous Pescadero hotel turned to ashes but Sarah Swanton’s legacy remains that of a willful, proud and productive woman.


Charles Swanton was Sarah’s husband. Here is a bio of Charles Swanton from John Vonderlin 

Charles W. Swanton. Was born in Bath, Maine, August 22, 1823, and 
when he was about six or seven years of age, his parents moved to Bangor, in 
the same State, where they resided five or six years, afterwards settling at 
Augusta. They lived here three years and then moved to Portland. Mr. 
Swan ton came to California in 1858 via Panama, landing in San Francisco in 
August of that year. He went to Mariposa county and took charge of a quartz 
mill for General J. C. Fremont, remaining there four months, when he located 
for a time in Bear valley, in the same county, afterwards returning to San 
Francisco. He came to Pescadero in 1861, and purchased the hotel now 
known as the Swanton House, of which he is still the proprietor. He is mar- 
ried,- and has two children. 

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