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Carmel History

Incorporated October 31, 1916

The history of Carmel began with Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s first sighting of the white-sand beach and pine forest of Carmel 50 years after Columbus discovered America. In 1602, another venturesome Spaniard, Sebastian Vizcaino, and three Carmelite friars found a river valley that they named “El Rio Carmelo.” On June 3, 1771, Father Junipero Serra founded the second California mission, which still stands on the edge of present day Carmel-by-the-Sea. The mission was secularized in 1833 and the City of Carmel incorporated on October 31, 1916.

The small village of Carmel-by-the-Sea represents a microcosm of everything that has contributed to the California dream — independence, creativity and tireless spirit. Carmel’s early residents, which included authors George Sterling, Jack London and poet Robinson Jeffers, settled in Carmel in tents, built smoky fires in the woods, picnicked on the beach and cooked abalone stew in the fireplace.

These early inhabitants were determined to create an intellectual oasis on the inspiring, sparsely populated Central Coast of California. Further prompted by the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, members of the city’s cultural community decided to make Carmel their permanent home. Their migration firmly established Carmel as a progressive artistic and cultural hub in Northern California.

Intent on promoting an environment conducive to creativity, Carmel’s founders fought to ensure the proliferation and appreciation of art, drama and literature. By 1915, the Outdoor Forest Theater was presenting celebrated performances and the theater became a central part of Carmel life.

The Carmel library boasted almost 3,000 volumes — proof that the village maintained a special appreciation for history and the arts. Additionally, every issue of the local paper, the Carmel Pine Cone, featured original poetry, and local theater productions often commanded the lead story on page one.

By the time Carmel-by-the-Sea became a city in 1916, the population had grown to almost 450. The village was composed of luminaries such as authors Sinclair Lewis, Mary Austin and Lincoln Steffens. At one point, local writers Grace Sartwell Mason, Frederick Becholdt and Harry Leon Wilson all appeared in the same week’s edition of the Saturday Evening Post. And, legend has it that Robert Louis Stevenson received his inspiration for Treasure Island while walking on the beach near Point Lobos.

The natural environment was also of primary concern to the residents of Carmel, who were dedicated to the preservation of the sparkling blue seas and majestic Monterey pine trees. To that end, in 1917, Ordinance No. 7 was adopted, which made it a misdemeanor to “cut down, remove, injure or mutilate any tree, shrub or bush growing or standing on any of the streets, squares, parks or public places.” The law is still on the books and is strictly enforced. Their efforts have resulted in a legacy of external harmony where the ocean, land and native creatures have remained relatively untouched.

During the 1920s, Carmel-by-the-Sea, like the rest of the nation, flourished in an economy run rampant. But as the Great Depression took hold, real estate prices tumbled for the first time. Some locals bemoaned the fact that grocers no longer offered personal credit to Carmel’s starving writer class. Said one wag, “Time was when the Carmel grocer was big brother to many a writer and artist struggling toward fame and a check that would pay for ham and eggs.” The economic situation improved when Roosevelt took over the Presidency, and 50 local writers found jobs with the Federal Writing Project, whose office occupied a small cubby next to the village post office.

Having weathered its way through World War II, during the 1960s, Carmel-by-the-Sea continued on the forefront of creativity. Lucky tourists could watch Donald Teague demonstrate the development of his illustration for Sergeant Houck, a story in Colliers. Or for those who preferred photography, Edward Weston’s work was displayed at the New Group Gallery’s first photographic exhibition. Isaac Stern thrilled music lovers with a program for the Carmel Music Society.

During the 1960s and ’70s, Carmel strengthened and grew, with an increasing amount of business activity taking place downtown. Artists continued to reside in the village, quite often transcending modern changes in the city. The list of creative residents was endless: impressionist artist William Ritschel, noted psychologist Dr. Eric Berne and Leon Uris, author of Exodus.

Carmel was introduced into the international spotlight during the mid-1980’s, when motion-picture star, Clint Eastwood, served a two-year stint as mayor. Through the years, Carmel’s small-town charm and appreciation of art and culture has remained intact. Today, there is a new breed of artist who may be more private, but the feeling of those who create from the unknown still abounds. Carmel-by-the-Sea continues to provide locals and visitors with a taste of history, past and present, and a glimpse toward tomorrow.

Celebrity Sightings

Carmel is famous for celebrities who live here and visit. You never know who you might see on the street.

Carmel’s most famous person is actor and director Clint Eastwood. He can often be found at the Mission Ranch where he occasionally plays the piano in the bar. One “claim to fame” he has is that he was the mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea from 1986-1988. He is a generous patron of many local non-profits and though he found Carmel after a stint at nearby former Fort Ord Army base, he is claimed as a native son.

Doris Day is a co-owner of the Cypress Inn, Carmel’s best-known pet-friendly inn. Take your dog to tea at this classic inn in downtown Carmel. You may not see Doris but you will see movie posters from her prolific career.

Carmel and the surrounding peninsula have been sites for over 200 movies and commercials. See where movies were made by going on the Monterey Movie Tour bus. Clips from “East of Eden”, “Play Misty for Me”, “National Velvet”; and many others will be shown as you tour the sites.

Historical Fun Facts

  •   Most people know that Clint Eastwood was the mayor of Carmel from 1986-88. City council meetings had to be moved during that time to a larger venue than the old church that serves as city hall and is generally the site of city meetings.
  •   With luminaries such as Clint Eastwood and Joan Fontaine living in Carmel, hardly an eyebrow was raised when ardent animal lover/actress Doris Day purchased a part ownership in the historic Cypress Inn. What did cause locals to sit up and take notice, however, was Doris’s new policy allowing pet owners to bring their furry friends into their hotel rooms for the night.
  •   Many years ago, Carmel’s founding fathers decided they didn’t want to see their village “citified” and decided to bypass the idea of house-to-house mail delivery. With that in mind, there are still no addresses, parking meters or traffic lights, and no sidewalks outside of Carmel’s downtown commercial area. The local post office continues to serve as a magnet for residents retrieving mail from post office boxes, while those seeking directions receive hints such as “fifth house on the east side of Torres Street, blue trim, driftwood fence”.
  •   Another ordinance that is on the books but is not enforced is that high heels may not be worn. This is to protect wearers from falling on the ubiquitous cobble-stoned sidewalks. Those who wish a souvenir may stop by city hall and sign a waiver allowing them to wear high heels which absolves the city from liability.
  •   It is an urban (or rural) legend that no ice cream cones are allowed however such a proposed ordinance may have driven Clint Eastwood to run for mayor.
  •   Carmel’s first inn, first known as the Carmel Hotel, was rolled down the hill from its first location to the present site on Ocean Avenue and is now known as the Pine Inn. It has always been one of Carmel’s favorite inns.
  •   While certainly not the wedding capital of the world, Carmel’s thousands of nuptials must qualify for some sort of recognition. One favorite for sweethearts is the Carmel Mission Basilica, founded by Father Junipero Serra, where weddings are often witnessed by tourists seeking a closer look at the historic site. The village is also visited each year by thousands of honeymooners and those celebrating anniversaries.
  •   Within the one-square mile of Carmel-by-the-Sea, visitors can see a beguiling blend of rustic cottages, shingled beach houses, modern see-through glass homes, log cabins and multi-million-dollar affairs.
  •   When most people think of Carmel they picture the architecture of Hugh Comstock, who, in the 1920s, created the fairytale English village cottage style, complete with rolled eaves, rounded doors and asymmetrical stone chimneys. There are still about 10 of Comstock’s original cottages standing in Carmel today.
  •   Throughout the years, Carmel has attracted a variety of internationally known architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Sumner Greene, Hugh Gutterson and Henry Hill.
  •   The oldest house in Carmel was built in 1846 by the Murphy family, and still stands today on San Antonio Street between 5th & 6th (no street address!). Incidentally, the structure once served as home to Frank Powers, co-founder of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
  •   It was more than 70 years ago that noted Carmel poet Robinson Jeffers completed his beloved Tor House. Today the site of docent tours and various community functions, Tor House features a residence of stone lovingly gathered by hand by Jeffers from nearby Carmel Beach. The outside retaining wall contains rocks from the Temple of Peking, Lava from Hawaii and a piece of the Great Wall of China.
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