New-old story by June Morrall
Pescadero innkeeper Sarah Swanton was 100 ahead of her time. Often praised as a woman of remarkable business ability, she was also blessed with an affable personality.
“…an an entertainer, she has few equals and no superiors in hotel management,”raved the San Mateo Times & Gazette in 1896.
But most of her success between the 1860e and 1890s was credited to the “courteous and accommodating way in which she treated her guests” at the famous Swanton House Hotel.
As a major contributor to Pescadero’s economy, Swanton was well respected. She also spoke out what that prosperity was threatened. Besides tending to the day-to-day operations at the Swanton House, she hired R.K. Farley to manage her thriving stable business next door.
This put her into direct competition with the village’s millionaire=miser, Loren Coburn, who also had a nearby stable. Both livery stables depended on the lucrative tourist trade. Most tourists came to Pescadero to visit irresistible Pebble Beach, the well known hunting ground for beautiful “gems” to fashion local jewelry from. The coveted beach lay a couple miles west of Pescadero, and to get their there, the tourists had to rent wagons and horses from the competing stables.
Loren Coburn looked upon Pebble Beach as his; he had reasons, owning much of the surrounding, including what he thought was the special pebble covered beach. His wild strawberry fields bordered the beach , and when he fenced them in, and installed a sturdy lock, he “in effect,” declared a personal war on all livery stable owners, including the feisty Sarah Swanton… Soon her loud and bitter complaints reached Coburn’s ears.
Believing he had a monopoly on the stable business, he dismissed Sarah’s comments. To anyone would listen, Coburn said Sarah Swanton was angry because she couldn’t whereever she wanted to go.
It’s true that Sarah Swanton may have had little control over the livery business, but she was queen of the Swanton House, her bed and breakfast near San Gregorio Street. With charm and grace, she ruled over the billiard room and the parlor, was her expertise was in the kitchen. She was the culinary whiz f a “plain country hotel with a good table.”
The breakfast menu included items we may not have heard of in this century: mutton chops, mountain checkens and the more familiar beef steak cooked to perfection.To this menu was added strong coffee and fresh sweet milk.
In front of the famous Swanton House stood the town’s revered handmade flag, the flagpole crafted by the locals. The flagpole also served as a distance marker—how many feet or miles from the pole to somewhere else.
Known throughout California in some of the travel guides of the 19th century, the Swanton House was a recommended place for guests to book a room, with choices including the Fern, Myrtle, Rose, Elm, Ivy, or Woodbine room (all named after herbs.)
Born in Abbot, Maine in 1825, Sarah wed Charles Swanton in the 1840s. The newlyweds made their first home in Augusta, Maine, where Sarah operated a hat business until 1854. That was how she learned to please the fickle public.
Meanwhile she gave birth to children, Eva and Frank. Husband Charles, an employee of the Light House Board, predecessor to the modern Coast Guard, was sent to the West coast, ending up in Pescadero, while Sarah and the kids remained back in Maine. (Interestingly, a decade later a lighthouse was built at Pigeon Point.)
In 1863 Sarah and the kids joined Charles in Pescadero and the Swanton House was born. The Swanton House was an overnight success, good timing, that coincided with great interest in the pebbles at Pebble Beach. By this time San Franciscans were craving for places to visit away from the city. Even though it could take seven hours by stagecoach to reach Pescadero, the amount of time didn’t phase the tourists.
“…After a sound night’s sleep,” write Howard Glyndon, a male 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.”
To accommodate her many guests, Sarah’s lovely daughter Eva was a great help. At its peak the Swanton House hosted more than 150 guests at one time. It became a popular spot for weddings, as well.
Charles Swanton, Sarah’s husband, was a jaunty fellow, a kind of one-man chamber of commerce. He loved showing off the “natural curiosities” of Pescadero to the guests. He particularly enjoyed escorting visitors on a very special trip of the Pigeon Point lighthouse. He knew all the facts about the construction of the lighthouse: the 500,00 bricks used in the cone-shaped white tower–and that on a clear day white flashes were visible from the deck of a vessel 15 feet above the sea at a distance of 181/2 nautical miles.
The Swantons were proud of their children who made good marriages. Eva wed Peter Stryker, a Pescadero businessman, and the couple eventually moved to San Francisco. Son Frank got married at the hotel in 1877.
But after so many fruitful years, tragedy struck.
At age 30 Frank Swanton, Sarah’s son, died of a sudden heart attack. In the 1880s Sarah’s husband, Charles, began to diminish, was judged insane, and committed to a sanitarium in Napa, where he passed away. Sarah handled all the sadness by focussing on the hotel. But in 1896, Sarah, fell ill and died in her beloved hotel.
Said one San Francisco newspaper: “The death of Mrs. Swanton removes one of the oldest and most highly respected and estimable members of the community…Although for the comfort and encouragement of the traveling public we must say her mantle has fallen on worthy shoulders as her only daughter, Mrs. Stryker , takes charge.”
With Sarah’s passing, the Swanton House lost the magic spark that once glowed within its walls. The hotels ws sold and new innkeepers came and went. As the years wore on, the Swanton House was neglected and failed to age with dignity.
In the 1920s “the plain country hotel with a good table” burned in what was an alleged case of arson—unsolved–so no one was ever prosecuted.
Although the Swanton House turned into ashes, Sarah Swanton’s legacy remains that of a willful, proud and productive woman.
A ndw-old story by June Morraall
Story from John Vonderlin
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