Western Trips

Western Trips

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Visit Custom House Plaza / Monterey California

custom house monterey
Old Custom House, Monterey CA
 The Custom House in Monterey California is known as the oldest government building in California. This structure was erected by the Spaniards who chose the Monterey as their capital of Alta California. The Custom House was in existence by 1827 but deteriorated and was replaced by a larger structure in 1841. Monterey was at one time the only port of entry in Alta California.  

The historic Custom House Plaza is located between the Portola Plaza Hotel and Fisherman's Wharf.

Monterey as a Spanish and Mexican Port and Capital

As mentioned above, Monterey was the seat of government when the Spaniards ruled Alta California. This was also the capital when the Mexicans took over in the early 1820's. Before Sacramento became the state capital of California, Monterey was considered the first state capital.

custom house plaza monterey ca
Historical Custom House plaque
The area around the historic Monterey Custom House has changed over the past two hundred years. Originally the Custom House was closer to the beach. Not that the structure moved closer but landfill north of the Custom House placed the beach further away.

The area of the Custom House at the time of it's first construction occupied a strategic location because of the busy port activity. The area was so important that later excavations turned up a foundation from an earlier building on the exact site. An expedition from 1792 also reported a structure on the current site.

pacific house museum monterey california
Pacific House Museum
An interesting fact is that Spain discouraged foreign trade in California while the Mexicans, after seizing power, encouraged it. Historically, this was the same situation with Santa Fe during Spanish colonization. Not long after the Mexicans took over Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico) the legendary Santa Fe Trail came into existence and trade flourished between Santa Fe and the Missouri region.

The more open trade policy of Mexico made Monterey a cosmopolitan pueblo which included Americans who the Californios referred to as "Yanquis." A good number of the newcomers married into Californio families, and then became Mexican citizens. The American  presence in California grew to the point that the United States in 1842 established a consulate in Monterey.

British and American ships competed for the hide and tallow traffic. This became a very important part of the economy. A dried steer hide valued at about a dollar was termed a "California Bank Note". The hides were shipped to New England. There they were used to make saddles, harnesses, shoes and other leather goods. Tallow was melted down in large pots and poured into bladders and delivered to the ships. The tallow was ultimately made into candles or soap which helped the commercial expansion of Monterey.

See more Western Trips articles on attractions near Monterey California on the links below... 

Mission San Juan Batista on the old El Camino Real

The John Steinbeck Center in Salinas California

The Historic Bridges Along Big Sur

custom house plaza
Old anchor exhibit at Custom House Plaza
The Custom House

The Custom House was erected by the Mexican government to house offices that processed the paperwork for the import and export of goods in and out of Monterey's port.

The Monterey Custom House building was restored in the early 1900s by the Native Sons of the Golden West. It has added to the National Register of Historic Places and now the building is a part of Monterey State Historic Park. The old Custom House was also California's first Historical Landmark.

Today the Custom House is a museum open to the public. The Maritime Museum is among other attractions in the plaza that treat visitors to historic information of old Monterey. An old whaling station is nearby where the ground was made with whale bones. There are also old pots that were used to cook whale blubber.

The Monterey Custom House  also has great historical significance by the fact that the United States flag was raised over it by Commodore John Drake Sloat on July 7,1846 claiming the territory for the U.S. as a result of the Mexican-American War. 

museums monterey california
Pacific House Museum
Pacific House Museum

The old Pacific House shown in an above photo is now the Pacific House Museum. Located on the Custom House Plaza, the Pacific House was built in 1835 by James McKinley. When Monterey was a busy seaport, the Pacific House served as a hotel and saloon.

When California became a state in 1850 and Monterey County was being organized, the county rented space in the Pacific House for a courtroom.

Today the Pacific House Museum actually contains two museums. On the second floor is the Monterey Museum of the American Indian. The first floor features exhibits regarding the time Monterey was the capital of Alta California under Spanish and Mexican rule.

The Monterey Custom House Plaza offers a great opportunity to learn about the rich history found in Monterey California.The entire Monterey Peninsula is a vacationers paradise with some of the most scenic views you'll find along California's coastline. While Monterey and nearby Carmel feature some of the finest restaurants, shopping and golf courses on the west coast, a visit to Custom House Plaza will tell you the complete story of how and why Monterey came into being.

Monterey is about a two hour drive south of San Francisco and a one hour and fifteen minute drive south of San Jose. 

(Article and photos copyright 2014 Western Trips)

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