MONTEREY — Long before California was the eighth largest economy in the world, its entire economic might passed through a building with a footprint the size of a modern McMansion.
The main exports weren’t high tech, movies, or almonds. They were cow hides and animal skins.
San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco were mere outposts. Sacramento did not exist.
It was in 1827 — six years after New Spain, now known as Mexico, gained independence from Spain — that the Custom House was built in Monterey to serve as the point of entry for trading in Alta California that is today California.
The Custom House as it appeared in the 1840s has been restored and is part of the Monterey State Historic Park. It preserves what is arguably the cradle of California’s civilization in terms of government and modern civilization. Besides the Old Custom House being the oldest standing government building in California, the state park is also home to what are believed to be some of the oldest homes still standing in California.
Less than a dozen days after the Bear Flag Revolt, U.S. Commodore John Drake Sloat led a naval excursion into Monterey Bay during the height of the Mexican-American War and raised the Stars and Stripes in the Plaza near the Custom House. It brought 600,000 square miles of land including what is now California into American control. The plaza in Monterey is the first place an American flag was ever flown in California.
Monterey served as California’s capital under military rule by Spain, Mexico, and the United States. That said it never was capital of California after it was declared a state. That honor went to San Jose, Benicia, Vallejo, San Francisco (temporarily when Sacramento flooded) and Sacramento.
Still there is arguably more mid-19th century California history on the Monterey Plaza and within easy walking distance than any other same sizes area in the state.
The plaza itself has 12 buildings including the Custom House as well as several residences that house museums complete with guided tours.
The park’s interpretive center can be found in the Pacific House Museum. This is where you can pick up information for a self-guided tour or be part of a guided tour. There is a fee for the guided tour of the houses and museum.
Admission to the Custom House, Pacific House Museum that includes the American Indian Museum, First Brick House, and the stunning series of “hidden” Monterey gardens are free and open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
That said, the guided tours are exceptional with the volunteers leading them able to provide you with tons of more insight and information than you’d get wandering about on your own. Years ago I did the self-guided tour. Two years ago I did the guided tour. It’s a difference on scale with day and night. Even if you consider yourself a student of California history, there are a lot of tidbits and insights from the guided tours.
The tours last about an hour. They cost $10 for adults while those 12 and under are free.
They are offered at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 2 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and any Monday when a federal holiday is observed. Tours are held Monday through Thursday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. when volunteers are available. Call 831-649-7111 to check to see if tours are available.
By now you are probably asking yourself why drive two and a half hours to tour Monterey State Historic Park if you’re not a history aficionado?
The reason is simple. They are other low-key things nearby you can combine it with for a pleasant day trip. When the valley is dreary and blanched with fog it is usually somewhat warmer by Monterey Bay. In the summer when the Central Valley sizzles it’s often 20 to 30 degrees cooler.
The Monterey State Historical Park is across the way from Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s not “the tourist trap” Cannery Row just to the west has turned into, but it still is a nice little excursion complete with dining spots, salt water taffy, seafood and chowder, shops, and the jumping off spot for whale watching tours. Just before you reach Monterey State Historical Park you will pass Monterey State Beach, a nice sandy stretch that attracts a lot of folks.
You are near the Monterey Bay Aquarium plus all of Monterey’s unique offerings including a kids’ favorite in the form of Dennis the Menace Playground put in place with the help of the comic strip’s creator, Hank Ketchum.
For more information on what to do in Monterey go to www.seemonterey.com.