It’s an overcast morning in April as Matt Bischoff, a Monterey District state parks historian, leads the way across Point Lobos Ranch, a state-owned property just across Highway 1 from Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. A small scattering of old homes, some of which are occupied by state parks employees, line the dirt road, but the land is mostly open save for some old dairy farm structures.
As Bischoff looks out over a pasture, the only sound is his voice and the trill of songbirds.
The area, he says, is known as Ishxenta, the name of the Rumsien village further north along San Jose Creek. The Big Sur Land Trust bought the land in 1993 and gave it to state parks, in pieces, over the next 10 years. Much to the frustration of the land trust, it still remains closed to the public.
That is set to change in the coming years, as state parks is embarking on a general plan update for the Carmel area that will largely be focused on what to do with the land. On a public tour in March as part of that process, Bischoff relayed some history of the area, and later agreed to offer this reporter a more in-depth historical tour of the property.
After the Spanish came and went, the area first saw changes in the mid-1800s, when whalers from the Azores arrived via New England after hearing about whaling opportunities. It is for them that Point Lobos’ Whaler’s Cove is named, and old houses on the ranch property still bear Portuguese names, like Victorine and Morales: “They’re the names that still remain on the landscape,” Bischoff says.
In the 1890s, the land was slated to become a subdivision after A.M. Allan, a racetrack developer from Pennsylvania coal country, bought the land intending to revive a coal mine at Malpaso Creek to the south, and develop the land into a development called “Carmelito.”
At the time, there were already railroad tracks built to Whaler’s Cove to facilitate coal shipments, but the mine didn’t bear much coal, and the operation eventually shut down. As that happened, Allan, in 1898, undertook a decades-long process of buying back subdivision parcels from homesteaders.
Bischoff says that was in part because of economics, but it wasn’t just that: “He started realizing the natural beauty and significance of Point Lobos.”
Bischoff also says Allan, flouting existing Japanese exclusion laws at the time, struck up a partnership with a Japanese abalone diver Gennosuke Kodani, and Allan moved a former Azorean dairyman’s house to Whaler’s Cove for Kodani to live in.
Bischoff says Allan did not keep a diary, but he did talk to Allan’s granddaughter, who used to live on the property, before she passed away.
“He sounded like an exceptional man,” he says. “Some people claim he was just a developer, that he was trying to develop this land – and I think that may have been true in the beginning – but I think he realized how special this place really was.”
Bischoff leads the way down a gravel road – which was once Highway 1, before Point Lobos became a state park in the 1930s – to an old dairy barn Allan’s daughter Eunice and her husband refurbished in the 1920s that, in keeping with the day’s sanitary standards, had concrete floors that could be easily cleaned.
“It was state of the art,” Bischoff says.
On a different building, he notes the blue paint chips sloughing off the roof’s bare shingles. He says the roof will eventually be restored to its original color.
“Now we want everything to be bare wood, but it’s not what they did back then,” he says. “They knew they had to keep wood painted to preserve it.”
Bischoff oversees the restoration and upkeep of over 250 structures on more than 100,000 acres of land. “It’s nice to have resources you’re responsible for,” he says, “but on the other hand it’s stressful because there are so many critical needs and critical issues everywhere.”
After a short drive up Highway 1, Bischoff slows and turns east onto a road that runs alongside San Jose Creek toward Palo Corona. He stops at a pasture that was once the site of Ishxenta village, a seasonal settlement of the Rumsien tribe for thousands of years.
When Gaspar de Portola’s expedition arrived at the site in 1769 – probably sick and malnourished, Bischoff says – indigenous people ran off at the sight of them.
But the area, Bischoff says, is otherwise mostly the same as it was then, and as he scans the steep hillsides to the east, he says, “Look in any direction, and it’s probably not too different than what the Spanish saw.”
The land was turned into a polo field for four years in the 1960s, remembered in name to this day.
“It was a village for thousands of years,” Bischoff says, “and for four years it was a polo field. So they call it the ‘Polo Field.’”