Railroaded The Robber Barons prosecuted a malcontent in Monterey, and the outcome wasn't what they expected


Few people cared much for the fat-cat Robber Barons at the turn of the last century. Regular folks were sick of getting bullied by railroad men who seemed to own all the institutions and who flexed their power wherever they could. The antipathy against the rich was palpable.

And so it was in Monterey County, when Charles Crocker, the great railroad tycoon and developer, arrived to improve the situation in Monterey. He built a railroad into Monterey, and his Pacific Development Company developed Hotel Del Monte, the swankiest resort hotel on the West Coast, if not the world. The palatial inn was regarded as “Crocker’s Folly” because nobody thought people would want to spend their leisure in such the dank mud hole that was Monterey at the time.

But the place was a magnet for the rich and the famous. President Rutherford B. Hayes spent an evening there with his wife Lucy, and they gave it glowing reviews. And rather than folly, in retrospect Crocker could be considered the founding father of Monterey County’s hospitality industry.

After a dramatic fire swept through the inn late in the evening on April 2, 1887, the Pacific Improvement Company did what fat-cat Robber Barons became famous for. It threw its considerable resources into the prosecution of a chump, accusing a malcontent employee named E.T.M. Simmons of the arson.

The trial in Salinas was a sensation, attracting the attention of newspaper readers from Monterey to New York City. The legal drama ultimately turned on the prevailing populist attitudes against robber barons and greedy railroad men during the Gilded Age of Western expansion.

Voices of Monterey Bay’s latest installment of Where the Bodies Are Buried describes the fire, the court proceedings, and the surprising climax in a story that brought focused attention on Monterey County.

Where the Bodies Are Buried is an online subscription publication that focuses exclusively on the forgotten history of Monterey County. It is a fun, educational and unique way to support the operations and mission of Voices of Monterey Bay.

Photo: Charles Crocker, left, and E.T.M. Simmons, right. Illustration from Del Monte Forest promotional material

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About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

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