Sunset Unlimited

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Sunset Unlimited


Fish, Peter, Sunset


In the West of 1898, one gold rush died while another blazed. In Nevada, the last of the Comstock mines shut down, Comstock ore having built mansions and bought Senate seats from Nob Hill to Washington, D.C. In Seattle, word of a new strike along the Yukon lured boatloads of gold-hunters north to the Klondike. That year, Soapy Smith was shot dead in Skagway.

In the West of 1898, the world beyond the Rocky Mountains loomed remote and condescending. The president of the University of California would shortly grumble that the Eastern press paid scarce attention to his state except to record "an earthquake, a murder, or a birth of a two-headed calf." When the outside world intruded, it did so violently. The Spanish-American War began, and Teddy Roosevelt led his charge up Kettle- not San Juan - Hill. Most of his Rough Riders were Arizona and New Mexico cowboys, Teddy having learned the value of cowboy courage in his ranching days.

That year, the kingdom-turned-republic of Hawaii was formally annexed to the United States. In New Mexico, artists Bert Geer Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein, traveling south from Denver, suffered a broken wagon wheel in the mountains above Taos. They would stay and form the Taos Society of Artists: a century of superb art would result.

And in May of 1898 a new magazine appeared in San Francisco. Magazine is perhaps too polished a word for a 16-page pamphlet. Its cover, crepuscular mauve and black, showed the Golden Gate without the bridge that would be completed 39 years later. Its cost was 5 cents per copy or 50 cents a year. The magazine was named Sunset. It is still going strong today.

In 1998, nearly 1.5 million people buy Sunset. Our readership rises to more than 5 million when you count the neighbors and brothers-in-law each issue gets passed along to. We are generally considered the pioneering and still preeminent regional magazine in the United States. We publish books, including the Sunset Western Garden Book, which is seldom mentioned without being described as "the Bible of Western gardening." We are to many people as inseparable from the West as the Douglas fir, the navel orange, or the jackalope.

An empire is born

One hundred! We don't feel it. Some TV weatherman should be telling us to blow out the candles on our birthday cake. We're too busy. Still, a centennial requires that attention be paid. A hundred years of magazines does say something - not just about Sunset but also about our readers, and about the land, the American West, that Sunset serves.

A railroad gave us our name. The Sunset Limited was the premier train on the Southern Pacific Railroad's Sunset Route, which began in New Orleans, then loped across Texas and the New Mexico and Arizona territories to Los Angeles and north to San Francisco. Beginning in 1895 the Limited ran twice a week, each direction taking 75 hours, each hour a traveler's paradise, at least in the eyes of the Southern Pacific. As the baroque syntax of one advertisement phrased it, "Not luxury, but necessity, to those accustomed to refined surroundings, is the exquisite elegance manifest in every detail of the service and equipment of Sunset Limited."

Someone within the SP decided this elegant train required a magazine to accompany it, a magazine available onboard and at the station, a magazine that would promote the West. The magazine would help lure tourists onto the company's trains, entice guests to the railroad's resort, the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey. It might encourage these tourists to stay and buy land: the Southern Pacific was the largest single landowner in California and Nevada. "Publicity for the attractions and advantages of the Western Empire" was the new magazine's creed. If the West was not yet an empire, the Southern Pacific wanted it to become one.

It should also be noted that, in 1898, the Southern Pacific was one of the most despised institutions in the United States. …

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