by Melinda Pillsbury-Foster
The final section of the Southern Pacific's coastal railway - Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo - was finally completed in March, 1901. Finally, trains could roll unimpeded from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
This changed much about the character of Santa Barbara. Suddenly, it was possible for the wealthy to travel in the comfort of their private rail cars to a town which, to the Eastern privileged, was cloaked in perpetual summer.
Such travelers expect something extraordinary, and Milo Potter saw that they found it.
The Potter Hotel was build on the slight rise of Burton's Mound, providing a glorious view of the Pacific, just steps from the sand. Construction started on Sunday, January 19, 1902 and was completed exactly one year later, 1903.
The Mound been the site of a Chumash village. The last village Wot (Chief), was Yanonali. A street was named for him. The Mound passed to Lewis T. Burton, an otter hunter who bought it in 1860, selling to the Seaside Hotel Association, a group of local investors. Nothing was build until Miles Potter bought the land in December, 1901.
The result was glorious.
The Potter stood six-and-a-half stories high with 390 guest rooms. The main Potter dining room sat 700 in a town of 7,000 inhabitants. The Potter Farm in Goleta, provided suckling pigs, chickens, eggs and dairy products. Potter's Squab Ranch, also in Goleta, laid claim to being the largest in the world with "60,000 milk fed squabs" intended for the exclusive use of the Potter tables.
Potter had a touch for the business of catering to the wealthy, many staying for a month or more, spending the winter there. The Railway station was steps away and provided tracks where posh private cars could be kept secure.
The Potter changed Santa Barbara. The wealthy and famous came and many never left. The primacy of trains would soon be displaced by the automobile. The Potter Hotel exactly spanned the twenty years in which this shift took place.
And in 1906 the first circuit panorama camera was used to capture the magnitude of the Potter. The camera's inventor, Arthur C. Pillsbury, the previous April had recorded the death of San Francisco by earthquake and fire.
Potter sold the hotel in February of 1919. It burned, not to be rebuilt, on April 13, 1921. The Potter was gone – but its impact on Santa Barbara remained.