Wandering the West
February 20, 2008
For years it’s been rising at the top of Deer Crest, near the upper terminal of the Jordanelle gondola. A couple of weeks ago I couldn’t resist the open-house banners. Dozens of other Deer Valley skiers also got sidetracked by the chance to see the SKI Magazine "Dream Home." It was a steal at under $20 million. The theater, the DJ booth, the indoor golf driving range and big HD TV screens wowed the crowd. So did all the marble, the washers and driers in nearly every closet, and the outside heated pool complete with waterfall.
All impressive, but Park City’s ultimate trophy home is located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast. To make a long story short, a rising mining entrepreneur, George Hearst, made some money, but not a fortune, by mining silver at the Comstock Lode on the eastern edge of the Sierras. As it played out, Hearst rode east to check out opportunities in a new mining camp called Park City. The rest is legend. After one look at a claim called the Ontario, he shelled out $27,000 to buy it outright, and proceeded to pull something like $20 million out of it (and that was back when you could buy a steak dinner on Main Street for 25 cents).
Hearst had just one child, William Randolph, who once dropped by dad’s Ontario Mine and rode the elevator cage to the bottom with some college chums. The story goes that the brakes on the cage failed and it plummeted 1,600 feet or so before the hoist operator got it stopped just short of disaster. Had he failed to stop it, Orson Welles never would have been able to draw from the younger Hearst’s life to make "Citizen Kane," often touted as the greatest movie ever made.
George picked up a minor San Francisco paper, the Examiner, as payment for a gambling debt. He wanted William to take over the Ontario, the Homestake in the Black Hills, and the Anaconda in Montana, but William wanted no part of digging dirt. He wanted the Examiner so he could put the dirt on page one. He built a media empire of three dozen newspapers. One in four Americans got their news from one of Hearst’s yellow journals, and they read his magazines, listened to his radio stations, and watched the 100 movies he produced.
But his greatest production was San Simeon. Early in life he’d traveled to Europe with his mother, Phoebe, and he wanted his own castle on a hill, jammed with European artistry. Pulling from a huge fortune built on mining and publishing, Hearst started building his castle on the family ranch near the small coastal village of San Simeon, just north of San Luis Obispo. He kept building from the 1920s until his death in 1951. In 1957 the Hearst family deeded the castle to the state of California and it is now Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument.
You can sign up for one of five tours of about two hours each. Even if you took all five you wouldn’t see Hearst’s entire castle. The tours are preceded by a big screen movie about Hearst’s life and trophy home. Tours end at the Roman Pool, a huge room covered floor to ceiling in one-inch blue and gold tiles and surrounded by marble statues like those out of the Roman Empire.
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Every room, every guesthouse is over the top, richly furnished in European art, tapestries and furniture purchased by the shipload on Hearst’s European buying trips. As much as there is in the castle, even more was stashed in warehouses on both coasts.
Hearst’s castle is surely America’s most over-the-top single-family home. It’s worth a half day of ogling when you’re along the wild and scenic Central Coast. And to think that the basis of the Hearst fortune that made it all possible came from the mine that’s on the right as you drive up Park City’s mine road toward Stein’s Lodge.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
San Francisco to Hearst Castle: 207 miles on scenic Highway 1
Los Angeles to Hearst Castle: 244 miles
Web site: http://www.hearstcastle.com
Insider tip: Reserve tours well ahead of time as they sell out quickly.