America’s Last Hometown: A Brief History of Charming Pacific Grove


Nestled on the coast of California abutting the picturesque Monterey Bay, Pacific Grove is a small seaside community that embodies the hometown feel that used to be common throughout much of the country. Known for its annual monarch butterfly migration, Pacific Grove also boasts a rich and storied past that is still reflected in the historic Victorian homes that line its streets. Understanding Pacific Grove today is best accomplished by taking a closer look at the past 150 years of this seaside oasis’ history.

The Founding of Pacific Grove

By the mid-nineteenth century, Monterey was already a bustling seaport along California’s coast, but the area that would become Pacific Grove lay undisturbed and covered with thick pine forest. In 1855, Point Pinos Lighthouse was constructed, signaling the beginning of Pacific Grove’s development. However, not until 1875 did Pacific Grove truly begin to blossom. That year, the Pacific Land Improvement Company pledged approximately 100 acres of prime Pacific Grove land to the Methodist Episcopal Church in order to create the West Coast’s first Chautauqua retreat. This Christian seaside resort was to be modeled after Ocean Grove, New Jersey; a reputation for fresh sea air, beautiful pine trees and charming butterfly migrations began to draw crowds to this Pacific Grove retreat for mediation and rest.

In 1879, the first camp meeting was held for the West Coast’s chapter of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. Pacific Grove became firmly established as part of this nationwide education network, and summer campers continued to be drawn to the pleasant climate and beautiful scenery annually. However, Pacific Grove’s early days were characterized by quiet winters with few year-round residents. As the famous author Robert Louis Stevenson noted in November 1879, the Pacific Grove resort campgrounds were deserted during the off-season in its early years: “I have never been in any place so dreamlike. Indeed, it was not so much like a deserted town as like a scene upon the stage by daylight, and with no one on the boards.”

Growth of a Community

While the Pacific Grove Retreat Association which oversaw and ran the resort sought to limit the area’s exposure to the general population, Pacific Grove soon drew national attention. The Southern Pacific Railway created a stop for Pacific Grove on its “Road of a Thousand Wonders” route, allowing well-to-do tourists and traveling businessmen easy access to this seaside paradise. While the Retreat Association attempted to impose a series of rules and restrictions on these newcomers, the association’s efforts soon proved futile. By 1889, Pacific Grove was ready to establish itself as a full-scale community along California’s central coast. The town was formally incorporated that year, two years after its permanent post office was founded. Many of Pacific Grove’s streets received their names during this period, with multiple thoroughfares taking prominent members of the original Pacific Grove Retreat Association as their namesakes.

A Flourishing Artistic Retreat

The last decade of the 1800s saw the Monterey Peninsula become a haven for a wide range of artists. Like its neighbors of Monterey and Carmel by the Sea, Pacific Grove came to host a variety of painters and other visual artists. The end of the nineteenth century saw a rise in prominence of the En Plein Air art movement in the United States and throughout Europe, and many members of this school sought to find an outdoor painting location with ample natural beauty. As with the first seaside resort visitors, artists of the En Plein Air school gravitated toward Pacific Grove thanks to its gorgeous coastal vistas and grand piney forests. Prominent artists who called Pacific Grove home during this period include English painter William Adam, German artist Eugen Neuhaus and American muralist Charles B. Judson. Today Judson’s murals of Pacific Grove can be found lining the hallways in the California Academy of Sciences.

Pacific Grove was also home to famous American author John Steinbeck for many years. Steinbeck’s father, Ernest, acted as Monterey County’s treasurer for a period of time and owned the Pacific Grove cottage that Steinbeck called home. Many of Steinbeck’s most noted works take place in Monterey County, and one chapter of his lesser-known book Sweet Thursday is devoted to the description of a potentially fictitious rivalry between several of Pacific Grove’s residents regarding a variety of the game of croquet.

Pacific Grove Today

Although Pacific Grove has grown since its inception in 1889, the town still remains pleasantly small and quaint, encompassing an area of just over two and half square miles and a population of approximately 15,000. Despite its size, Pacific Grove maintains a number of annual traditions deeply rooted in the seaside community’s storied history. At the beginning of every October, the town’s residents host a Butterfly Parade to welcome the returning monarch butterfly population to its cold weather habitat. Although the last Chautauqua retreat was held in 1926, Pacific Grove’s annual Feast of Lanterns each July carries on some of this unique community’s traditions; the faux Chinese festival has its origin in the yearly closing ceremonies held at Pacific Grove’s summer campgrounds in the late nineteenth century. This week-long festival is launched by an opening ceremony hosted in downtown Pacific Grove’s Chautauqua Hall and leads up to fireworks and a pageant held on Lover’s Point Beach at night on the final Saturday in July.

With over 1,200 houses on Pacific Grove’s historical register, this tiny seaside town boasts more historically-recognized homes per capita than any other city throughout the state of California. Indeed, over three-quarters of Pacific Grove’s houses have been deemed historical, with many converted into bed and breakfasts for tourists. Pacific Grove’s downtown area is book-ended by the Pacific Grove Art Center and the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, a tribute to the area’s artistic past and its ongoing natural beauty.

Getting in Touch with Pacific Grove’s Past

As the center of such a storied and rich history, the residents of Pacific Grove take great pride in preserving and displaying their shared past. For newcomers and visitors seeking to learn more about this seaside town’s history, there are plenty of resources available. The Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with the Heritage Society of Pacific Grove have put together a Pacific Grove Walking Tour designed to highlight the architecture and history of this historic town. This self-guided tour allows participants to discover a wide range of Pacific Grove’s historical housing styles, ranging from the seaside resort’s first tent cabins to the National Historic Register’s recognized structures.

Those looking to dig even deeper into Pacific Grove’s past can investigate other important Pacific Grove destinations not included on the Chamber of Commerce’s walking tour, including the cottage where John Steinbeck stayed at 147 11th Street and the Pinot Pinos Lighthouse, which stands today as the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation along the United States’ West Coast.

Located in beautiful Pacific Grove with breathtaking views of Monterey Bay, Forest Hill offers a picturesque and vibrant senior living community with services and amenities to match any lifestyle . To learn more about our full continuum of senior care, please contact us today for more information about seaside living or to schedule a tour.

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