They had 11.9 million acres of California land for sale and few buyers. The West, after all, was just a vast cultural and educational wasteland inhabited by desperados, cacti and mud huts. In an effort to change this Eastern perception, the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to promote tourism. Tourists, they believed, were potential investors and migrants for California, plus they would ride the rails to get there, further fattening the coffers of the Big Four.

To that end, in 1898 the Passenger Department of the Southern Pacific Railroad created Sunset Magazine, named after the rail company’s premier line, the Sunset Limited, which operated between Los Angeles and New Orleans. Its goal: to promote travel and migration to the West.

Capitalizing on California’s environmental attractions and economic potential, the first issue in May 1898 featured Yosemite and exhorted its readers, “Only by actual experience can the splendor of Yosemite be realized.” The message was clear, “Jump on a train and head West, young man! (And when you get here, we have some property to show you).”

Promoting the Gold Coast

When Sunset solicited California communities for articles that extolled their virtues, city boosters in Santa Barbara and Montecito enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon. Between 1900 and 1914, 15 feature articles promoted Santa Barbara.

The first feature, “A Day’s Coaching at Santa Barbara,” by Edward Rainey, a local news reporter, claimed that Santa Barbara was the natural home of the horse lover. “Through the valleys there are innumerable and splendid highways, ever ready for the coacher and his party,” claimed Rainey. The best of these, the valley of El Montecito, was “dotted with the handsome country places of Eastern millionaires.”

Rainey wrote that Santa Barbara owned the most beautiful of coaching highways in Southern California, the famous Mountain Drive. “This splendid roadway, built by public-spirited citizens solely on account of its beauties,” he wrote, “passes the majestic old Santa Barbara Mission, makes a circuit through the Santa Ynez Mountains and then descends into the valleys (Montecito and Carpinteria) on the way back to the city.” (What Rainey doesn’t mention are the number of times private property owners in Montecito revoked the right of passage on this road due to poor stewardship on the part of tourists.)

Like hundreds of prior boosters, Rainey raved about Santa Barbara’s mild climate. The story goes that when an early California critic remarked that California had nothing to offer but climate, the response was, “That’s right, and we sell it, too – $10 an acre for the land; $490 an acre for the climate.” Sunset Magazine often exploited the climate factor in its advertising and promotional editorials.

Nathalie Anderson Sawyer, the wife of Edward H. Sawyer, who owned Hot Springs Hotel, did her bit for boosting Santa Barbara by writing a fictional letter entitled, “A Girl’s Visit to Santa Barbara.” She extolled the favorable climate and Montecito by saying, “With mountains behind and the sea at its feet, the valley lies with softly rolling hills dotted with the evergreen live oaks. The prevailing tone of the landscape is yellow, there being no rain, and one learns to love it.”

Cleverly woven into her story are details about opportunities for recreation: golf at the country club, swimming at the beach, picnics at Hot Springs, and polo games to watch or play. Camping at Santa Cruz Island provided opportunities for fishing, hiking, boating and boar hunting.

In 1904, Isabella G. Oakley wrote “Santa Barbara of Today,” in which she claimed that Santa Barbara “has become a lively city recognized as the most salubrious spot in the United States; a spot where the sun always shines and the wind never blows.” Following a poetic opus reveling in praise of the environs – ”the rugged range of the Santa Ynez, half naked, bold” – Isabella lists the new bathhouse, the new Potter Hotel, and the fruitful variety of agricultural pursuits. She claims good roads and water reservoirs, and she describes the multitude of outdoor recreational options. ”The buildings in town,” she writes, “are low, and neither hide the mountain skyline nor obscure the sunshine.”

We Got Culture and Cars

To overcome the Eastern impression that the West was a cultural vacuum, Sunset created regular columns such as “Books and Writers” and “Plays and Players.” In 1903 they reviewed “Roderick Taliaferro: a Story of Maximilian’s Empire,” by George Cram Cook, a Stanford University English instructor, as “a rattling good story of love and adventure. Through it mingle the clash of sabres, the whispers of Castilian-hot loves on white, clear nights, the religious doubts and questionings of a philosophical mind.” (High culture, indeed.)

The magazine became peppered with short poems and fictional stories by such noted Western authors as Jack London, Gertrude Atherton, Earl Stanley Gardner, Zane Grey and Santa Barbara’s own Stewart Edward White. Famous artists such as Maynard Dixon and Santa Barbara’s Ed Borein were employed to illustrate stories and provide covers. Sunset also promoted the art of photography by soliciting submissions for its column, “With the Camera.”

The owners of stately brownstones were not impressed by stories of brown mud houses, so in 1914 Sunset created a series called “Stately Homes of California” written by Porter Garnett. Among them were two estates in Montecito, George Owen Knapp’s Arcady and J.M. Gillespie’s El Fureides.

Porter wrote, “Montecito valley may be said, therefore, to be given over to fine residences and has become, by reason of these improvements, coupled with the great natural beauty of the place, one of the most charming and desirable residential spots in California.”

Of Arcady, besides the ”massive dignity and agreeable simplicity” of the main house and the majestic setting of the property, Garnett noted the music room with its organ loft and two large reproductions of Luca della Robbia’s “Cantoria” as a room of great distinction. Of El Fureides, Garnett noted the mingling of Renaissance, Gothic and Moorish design, the “luxuriant gardens from which rise the plumed crests of hundreds of palm trees,” and the terraced pools of the Persian garden.

As early as 1903, the Southern Pacific Railroad, through Sunset, promoted auto tourism of the state by recommending a four-day trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Such promotion seems contradictory to the welfare of a railroad, but then, there were all those acres of land to sell. In 1913, a new series called “Autobirds of Passage,” by Alexander Powell, chronicled a motor journey along the coast from Mexico to Alaska.

Upon reaching Santa Barbara, Powell and party were stopped by a cowboy wearing a rakishly tilted, high-crowned Stetson and a purple silk shirt. White angora chaps reached from his pistol-hung hips to his spurred heels. Mistaking the hombre for a bandit, Powell explained that he had no money because he’d just paid his garage bill. The highwayman turned out to be an actor working for the “Whirling Z,” a fictitious name for Flying A Studios, which settled in Santa Barbara from 1912 to 1919. “Culture” now included a new art form – motion pictures.

Deciding that they had achieved their goal in promoting the West, the Southern Pacific Railroad sold Sunset Magazine to its employees in 1914. The new owners continued the goal of making a magazine that combined literary and intellectual distinction with an outdoor emphasis and an orientation toward usefulness in daily living. As such, Sunset Magazine became a historical chronicle of the developing West. It both shaped and reflected the evolution of Western lifestyle and values. Dr. Kevin Starr, State Librarian of California, in his article “Sunset Magazine and the Phenomenon of the Far West” opines that the early Sunset helped its readers discover and define “the very psychological center of the region in which they were pursuing their lives.”

Comparisons of Sunset Magazine of 100 years ago with those of today reveal that while the details may have changed, the essence of Western life is remarkably the same.