County of San Luis Obispo
Town of San Luis Obispo
Town of San Luis Obispo II
Town of San Luis Obispo III
Moving Toward Civic Maturity
A Growing Municipality
Town and City Minutes: the 1870s
Legal and Legislative Developments
Preparing for the Railroad
San Luis Obispo Library
A President Comes to Visit
Another President Comes to Visit
California Polytechnic Institute
SAN LUIS OBISPO PIONEERS
Charles Henry Johnson
Samuel Adams Pollard
For any writer, the reverse is also a plaguing problem when bits and pieces of the past must be sacrificed in recognition of space/time limitations. Without exception, this has been a monthly dilemma for this writer over the past several years for each article in Journal Plus magazine. As in the movie industry where deleted scenes are relegated to the cutting room floor, any writer of history has many tales tucked away in the anonymity of notes.
So when this historian was asked to relate the history of our community for the benefit of the City staffs’ monthly newsletter, it quickly became the proverbial ball of yard. Starting with a tiny bit of remembrance, the need to pull more from the past while maintaining an authenticity borne of research and doing so in a fashion so as to promote readership proved rewarding and challenging. Too little information and the past seems trite or meaningless; too much information buries the reader underneath a mountain of minutia relished only by a few hearty souls who are determined (or required by job or studies) to plow through information.
Initially conceived as a year or two endeavor in 2013, at the end of the first year, the history hovered around 1870! Furthermore, taken as a whole, the episodic nature of the reporting created duplication of information and jumping back and forth through time as if history is some sort of atomic particle bouncing around the universe looking for a home. Hopefully, the following compilation and revision of the multi-year effort provides for better cohesion and adhesion.
What is intended is a popular history. The word popular is derived from the Latin popularis meaning of the people. As a local popular history, the attempt is to tie the community’s past more closely to those engaged in its present. As you read along, there are plentiful opportunities to wonder more about the community. . .especially its pioneers. Of course, much more could be added but this is simply the Introductory History of San Luis Obispo 101. For those who’d like to know more, generally there is more. . .much more. Throughout, there are resources for individuals to explore. For those who’ve had enough, simply skip some parts.
Enjoy your travel through history and do not hesitate to let me know if you have a question or two!
I hope you like the story.
Joseph A. Carotenuti
History has no beginning. Those interested in the past simply must pick a time or place or person and designate a “beginning.” So with the history of San Luis Obispo. . .the “beginning” is simply an arbitrary point in time. As such, there is never a definitive history, but only one that captures – hopefully, accurately – some of the past. The path to today begins in a dim past but we’ll be concentrating on the last 250 years.
Certainly, eons ago as the earth formed and groaned into great land and sea divides, this area remained recessed under water and in an unimaginable space of time, rose from the beneath the sea into the shape of land we now call home. Using the local peaks – the Nine Sisters – as its focus, an informative book, Mountains of Fire, by Sharon Lewis Dickerson provides a concise but considerable amount of information locked away in our ancient geology.
Who was eventually here – or when they came – will imagine the native populations and the unknown amount of time they spent roaming a more pristine world. Their life, hopes, and dreams can only be vaguely discerned from existing evidence. The evolution of America’s native population is primarily an archeological history supplemented by varied oral histories. However, for us, the Chumash are our geographical ancestors. As with all humans, they, too, had the dreams and nightmares of life. Certainly for us, the most important community building, the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, was primarily the work of their hands.
For most of our documented civic history, however, the records begin with ships’ logs as vessels – the colorful Manila galleons – sailed primarily south along the coast carrying treasures from the East to the ports in New Spain (Mexico). Nameless at the time, San Luis Obispo then was a place possibly seen from a distance, anonymously tucked away in the scenery viewed from the sea. There were some mariners – worthy of their own story – who braved reaching shore most likely looking for rest or treasure and not sightseeing. Unamuno, Cermeno, Vizcaino, and Cabrillo conjure up tales of sea adventures while the reality for the early mariners was one of adventure punctuated by the agonizing toll of scurvy. For us, however, the best and most pertinent records begin relatively recently in 1769. What was named “San Luis Obispo” wasn’t in this locale but nearer Santa Barbara. Back to top
It is best here to note the eighteenth-century trailblazers were referencing reports from the explorations of Sebastian Vizcaino (1548-1624). Originally designed to find a port for the Manila galleons sailing past the coast, his 1602-1603 voyage provided guidance for the mariners 167 years later! In an age obsessed with instant communication, it is difficult to imagine the circuitous route of information and decision-making in the Iberian Empire. Thus, once the decision was made to mount an expedition into the vast unexplored region of the north from New Spain, the speed for implementation was most unusual.
The results for us as a small part of a much larger undertaking provide a backdrop for the enterprising decades that followed the explorers. It began in Spain, was transferred to New Spain as part of the agenda of an extraordinary visitor-general, dictated to governmental servants, and implemented in courageous, sometime fatal, encounters in a strange land. Fortunately, the first expedition from the shores of San Diego (a Vizcaino name) to the south shore of San Francisco Bay (unknown at the time) was chronicled by several men but most notably by Franciscan Fra Juan Crespi. A meticulous note-taker and observer, he applied a name to just about everything in a journey of continuous new sights. His reference point was most often a saint’s feast day. Simply following orders from his religious superiors – and the military commander – Crespi’s journal is a fascinating and lengthy account presented in Dr. Alan K. Brown’s excellent and authoritative Descriptions of Distant Lands.
San Luis Obispo was a familiar name in the bureaucracy on the Iberian Peninsula as well as New Spain (Mexico), but it referenced and reverenced a 13th century French saint, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (1274-1297). We’ll discover how this now obscure Franciscan priest became the patron saint for the only community in the world bearing his name. It is noted that the cleric’s name appears in Crespi’s account some 100 miles south of the city.
As history buffs know, history not only has no beginning; it abhors a straight line. A man-made concept, going “straight” to point B from point A is a rarity. Thus, vast amounts of information are intertwined along the way and are slighted in studying “San Luis Obispo” as a saint to a place and shifts from the realm of the spiritual to that of the secular.
Suffice to note here, the decision was made to explore. . .and settle. . .some of the unknown land that belonged to the Crown. For this decision, Californians are indebted to its practically unknown political founder, Joseph de Galvez. A fascinating, often brutal, visitor-general (King Charles III’s personal representative), Galvez’s lengthy agenda included establishing Monterey (a Vizcaino name) as the new headquarters in Alta California. Galvez provided the means (often micromanaging) for the expeditionary forces to “conquer” both politically and spiritually the territory. An excellent (but rare) volume about the powerful politician’s activities in New Spain is Herbert Priestley’s Jose de Galvez: Visitor-General of New Spain: 1765-1771.
The pioneer expedition – popularly, but inaccurately, called the Sacred Expedition – was led by Captain Gaspar de Portola while the “spiritual conquest” was the responsibility of five Franciscan friars led by the legendary Padre – now Saint – Junipero Serra. Maynard Geiger, O.F.M: The Life and Times of Junipero Serra is an exceptionally well researched biography. The Monterey Expedition was a grueling adventure by land and sea. An incredible journey begun in Loreto on the Sea of Cortez (or California), by July 1769 on the shores of San Diego, California’s first pioneers buried the many dead, scrounged the countryside for food, and made plans to caravan north to Monterey to establish themselves on its shores.
While Portola and the remaining relatively healthy men went north on an unsuccessful six-month land expedition, Serra remained with the sick and dying and established his first Alta California mission. His first mission founding was in Baja California. Traveling along the coast north of today’s Santa Barbara, on August 19, 1769, Crespi, as both the chaplain and chronicler for the explorers, wrote of the location:
“We gave it the name San Luis Obispo (Saint Louis Bishop)
so that in time it shall become a good-sized shoreline mission.”
He was correct as to suitable location except the future mission in Santa Barbara wasn’t on the shoreline. While the name did not survive in its original location, many names of areas, geographical markers, streams, etc. from Crespi’s recording of this exhausting trek are still found on modern maps. Some designations survive from names given by the military men.
Traveling through the western portion of our county, the caravan was yet to meet its most difficult obstacles (the Santa Lucia range) including suffering greatly from illness as the intrepid explorers sought the “bay” of Monterey (which they did not recognize as the records used were over 160 years old) but managed to reach the south arm of San Francisco Bay. Within a year, yet another expedition found the elusive Monterey and with an appropriate ceremony was claimed for His Majesty, King Charles III and His Majesty, God, with the founding of the second mission San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey. It remained California’s capital for nearly three quarters of a century. Back to top
Fast forward to the summer of 1772. By then, four missions had been established: San Diego, Monterey (by then moved to Carmel), San Antonio and San Gabriel. Food was always a major issue and Lieutenant Pedro Fages, now leading the pioneers, remembered the bears at “la llano de los osos” (Bear Plain) along the coast from the previous expedition. The famous bear hunt (another story skipped!) found a small group of soldiers attempting to kill the mean beasts for food. As hunting was not particularly successful, the local natives provided sustenance in trade for what must have been fascinating trinkets. . .including clothing. Fortunately, notice was received of supply ships having arrived at San Diego. Fages – accompanied by Fra Serra – headed south.
This was Serra’s first land trip through the area. With little time to choose a site, he quickly performed his religious duties on September 1, 1772 close to the site of today’s structure. He left an enduring legacy for us all. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa became the fifth mission settlement. . .and eventually a pueblo, town and city. In 1772, there was a name. . .and little else.
A short digression here, as names used for mission settlements were not a haphazard or personal preference. Potential sites were named by the Viceroy in New Spain, undoubtedly conferencing with the Franciscan Superior in Mexico City. Every mission name is understandably religious but also overwhelmingly Franciscan. An informative reference is Saints of the California Missions by Norman Neuerburg.
Junipero Serra would return to the fifth mission six times before his death in 1784, but the day after its founding, the Mission was the responsibility of Padre Joseph Cavaller (1740-1789), five natives from Baja and two soldiers who bid farewell to Serra. Our community began with minimal supplies, great hopes and fervent prayers. What is considered the Mission Period in California history has been revisited (often inaccurately) in numerous publications. Suffice to note here, while much has been remembered about the missions, for locals, the one named after a 13th century French saint reminds us of our civic roots and obligations.
Thus, over the next 50 years, the spiritual center grew as neophytes (newly baptized) required food, clothing, education and the stuff of life as well as religious instruction and practice. In what was an increasingly complex mixture of the sacred and secular, the Mission era parallels the Spanish governance (or lack thereof) of the Alta region of New Spain. Records indicate births, baptisms, confirmations, marriages and deaths. Required to maintain production statistics, from wheat to garbanzo beans, sheep to horses, the Franciscan reports capture a growing enterprise where progress was measured more by the former set of records than the latter. Zephyrin Engelhart, O. F. M: Mission San Luis Obispo in the Valley of the Bears (1933) is the best foundational reading. Only for the serious student of mission history, his four volume Missions and Missionaries of California plus individual histories of each in California provides ample information. Back to top
Much of what is called local history was then dictated by others long distant from our valley. Politics and political power always change and Spain relinquished control of California (among other vast pieces of real estate) to new governance in Mexico in 1821. San Luis Obispo along with the rest of the fringe of the now Mexican empire began a quarter century of transformation…often chaotic, greatly unjust. . .but real. A sign of growing prominence, the mission settlement was declared a pueblo by the twenty-five-year-old Mexican Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado (1836-1842). His decree was not confirmed by the central government in Mexico City. Some 30 years later, this will become a critical factor in our civic heritage.
By the time California became a “Department” of Mexico, the 20 Spanish missions stretched from San Diego to San Rafael (the 21st in Solano was founded in 1823) and claimed some of the more productive land in the future state. In an agonizingly short period, the mission system was dismantled, natives mostly disbursed, and the land transferred to private ownership. Under the Spanish flag, the land was held by the padres in trust until the native population could form and supervise their own pueblos. There were few land grants while under Iberian control. Under Mexican rule, all land belonged to the civil authorities who dispersed it with amazing speed. Given the small population, relatively few owned most everything. As the land around the county missions was divided, the non-native population increased as did commerce.
During what is popularly known as the “rancho” period, families established themselves on vast stretches of the central coast. The evolving Dana Adobe and rancho in Nipomo provides a glimpse into this bucolic past. Within our modern city, a few adobes help visualize a community dedicated to agriculture and trade. As the “Boston” traders (any ship from the eastern seaboard) increased along the coast, some mariners decided to relocate in what was an exceptional change of weather along with an abundant supply of land. Easterners also brought a different economic outlook, experiences in governance and – especially – the ownership of land.
Mission history does not abruptly stop but continues in relative isolation from the rest of the settled world. Occasionally, a ship would drop anchor in Avila with goods and news from other places. However, the change of governments from Spain to Mexico brought a systemic transformation as the missions came to now provide for increasing non-natives and increased demands for the mission lands. Most of California’s large land grants – the ranchos – are from this era.
There is much romantic lore about the “rancho” period centered around the hacienda, lavish parties and the great “dons” of California history. Locally, the names Wilson, Dana, Price, and Branch are a few personages that recall this era. An outsider’s view (not particularly complimentary) is Richard Henry Dana, Jr’s Two Years Before the Mast. A distant relative of the local Dana family, his 1834 to 1836 journey from the east coast was published in 1840 and revised some 30 years later.
In summary, in a mere fifty years, much had transpired in what would become the Golden State. When the Spanish explorers first traveled through this area in the summer and fall of 1769, they had already experienced a grueling, deadly journey by land and sea to explore and settle the vast territory of Alta California. Within three years of its beginning in San Diego, five missions were established (the last here in 1772) with presidios in San Diego and Monterey. The most exciting event in these earliest years locally was the visits by Juan Bautista de Anza in 1774 and 1776. Intent on settling and fortifying the newly identified Bay of San Francisco, he led a remarkable caravan of pioneers resulting in the establishment of the sixth mission (1776) and today’s metropolis on the Bay. Many families from Anza’s extraordinary expedition are also familiar names in state history. This remarkable 1200-mile expedition is a National Historic Trail and we see local directional signs remembering the groundbreaking adventure.
The beginning of the end of rancho history began in 1846 when Commodore John D. Sloat raised the Union flag above the Custom House in Monterey on July 7. Few, including the distant settlement of San Luis Obispo, had any idea of the impact the simple ceremony (it was an act of war) would bring to the eventual state, to the central coast. . .and the Nation. Today’s California was born. Back to top
Shortly thereafter, a discovery in early 1848 along the banks of the American River produced changes of catastrophic proportions. The lure of gold unleashed a massive flood of mostly men to inundate and often drown the sparsely populated western edge of the nation. Centered in San Francisco, the small seaside community of about 1000 residents swelled to over 25,000 in just two years. Soon the port of the Bay City was lined with abandoned vessels as the captains and entire crews left for the gold fields. The central coast, one of the “cow counties,” helped supply the burgeoning population with food. Relatively isolated from the world of a few gold strikes and many more busts, the central coast benefitted from a new economy but also was plagued by violence during the decade of the 1850s unparalleled in all local history. With little – if any – assistance from the military, local residents formed a Vigilance Committee (1858) to stem the tide of violence and lawlessness. Somehow, there needed to be a semblance of order.
What was considered a military district before statehood – California was never a territory as were other sections of the expanding American empire – originally found mostly some residents and vast rancho properties owned by a few families in the county. The gold rush not only added wealth and disappointment, it produced an overlay of human activity mostly unregulated by any authority.
With the conclusion of the Mexican-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 – just nine days before John Marshall’s famous discovery of gold – California had yet again a new sovereign authority. It was a time of anxiety as well as riches as Californians waited and waited to be welcomed into the national fold. Back to top
Fortunately, the years between 1846 with the raising of the Stars and Stripes in Monterey to Statehood had spared San Luis Obispo much of the chaos and disorder of the north. While far from the formerly somnolent settlement along San Francisco Bay with its dazzling array of humanity intent on accumulating wealth, the central coast had few resources available for the governmental seismic shift. There was, however, plenty of land to raise crops and cattle.
As if scripted for a theatrical production, an entirely unexpected overlay of humanity had poured into the eventual state fueled by the allure and fascination with gold. Within a very short time, those who sought instant wealth – and even more who never found it – inundated whatever semblance of order existed in the vast territory. For a loosely organized area along the central coast, few had even a clue as to what to do to “insure domestic tranquility.”
Even before an attempt was made to form a constitution for an eventual state, governance was by the military. First as a “belligerent” in the Mexican-American War and then as a military protectorate of the United States formalized by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, there was little experience in forming civic protocols to replicate locally.
Recalling the 1849 State Constitution Convention (it was replaced 30 years later) provides a fascinating report of men originally from many parts of the nation meeting in Monterey debating just what kind of government and laws were to be provided for the new state. There were few Californios involved in the discussion and many required a translator. Locally, Henry Tefft from Nipomo (son-in-law of the legendary William G. Dana) was among the delegates. While distant from the central coast, the decisions in Monterey were also meant for San Luis Obispo and her neighbors.
Put yourself in their shoes. Your community is now part of a new nation, laws, traditions, customs and beliefs. Indeed, in their lifetimes, some among you have been citizens of three sovereign nations. Your obligation is to establish some form a local government in concert with the Nation’s laws (possibly only vaguely known). The fascinating blend of men who met in Monterey to hammer out a State Constitution led to September 9, 1850 when California became the 31st state of the Union. Set against an increasingly strident debate between “slave” and “free” states, the Compromise of 1850 allowed California a star on the American flag.
Against a backdrop of a few fortunes and many more frustrations, California was finally admitted into the Union four years after Sloat’s foray into Monterey. Previously mentioned, the debates in Congress over admission centered on slavery. With fifteen states in one or the other category, California would break the national “tie” and, thus, the delay in admission. However, the essential debate did not cease and provide a preview of the fissure in democracy and a decade later, the Civil War was the bloody result. A corollary study: while California was admitted to the Union as a “free” state, there were many who preferred and promoted admission as a “slave” state. They did not stop their campaign after admission.
Having attained Statehood, simply finding enough lodging for the legislators to determine state regulations had been a challenge. California’s capitol started in San Jose moved first to Vallejo, then Benicia, followed by Sacramento (twice) and San Francisco before settling in its current location. At least for our county, only one place became the center of governance. . .but only for the new County.
Even though there was a State Constitution, a designated county and county seat, locally there were few to somehow assume the reins of leadership, develop, pass and enforce laws, and – most importantly – pay for the machinery of government. Back to top
County of San Luis Obispo
The focus of governance in 1850 was on the County – not specific communities (with few exceptions such as the County/City of San Francisco). Legislation from the State directed much of the activities of the counties with an emphasis on the judiciary. A Court of Sessions was the final County authority, as the Board of Supervisors was not legislated into existence until 1852. Mariano Bonilla, an alcalde for San Luis Obispo, was the leader of the Court. As such, he functioned as the legislative, executive, and judiciary authority. While an unusual concept to Americans, before and after Statehood, an alcalde continued to regulate different population centers until municipal governance with separation of powers became prevalent.
The new State’s legislature had little time for the few settlements as the first laws passed addressed County issues (along with packing bags and documents to move to a new location). Local outposts depended on customs to address any community concerns. Among the State’s original 27 counties, the mission settlement became the county seat of justice. There was no contest for the designation; there were no other settlements of note. The 1850 Federal Census (taken in 1851 after Statehood) counted 336 souls in the new County. There were undoubtedly more but no census taker was going to brave the countryside – and various bandits – to find more.
For most residents, there undoubtedly seemed little – if any – difference between being a resident in the County as differed from the County seat. More than once, a popular thought must have been “Why do we need any more government (or expenses) since we already have the County bureaucracy?” There was no rush to establish the framework for local sovereignty. Thanks to Myron Angel’s History of San Luis Obispo County (1883) and his interviews of pioneer settlers, a vague recounting of these formative years is possible. Back to top
Town of San Luis Obispo
An early map compiled from his survey by William Rich Hutton (who moved on to become a premier engineer in the east with the Washington Bridge in New York as a landmark accomplishment) is referenced in many early documents. Unfortunately, the map has been lost or lies quietly buried somewhere in a County facility. Fortunately, the State legislators referenced this map’s boundaries in the few measures passed for the benefit of the County seat. A two-square mile rectangular area was completely engulfed in subsequent surveys and maps. Hutton also left a gift for posterity as he enjoyed sketching as he traveled. His are some of the earliest images of California available to us.
The question of municipal boundaries must have been part of the community’s issues as the earliest preserved correspondence is an 1864 letter to the legendary Charles H. Johnson from the Federal Surveyor’s office in San Francisco acknowledging a willingness to survey the town. . .but for a fee. There is no indication it was accepted locally. It was a wise decision as in 1867, the Federal government ordered a survey of the State. A result was a legal description of San Luis Obispo. . .leading to some critical municipal issues discussed later.
As background, before Statehood, San Luis Obispo had grown from a mission station to a crossroads for any travel along the coast. Its geographical location contributed greatly to its prosperity. As previously mentioned, initially known as “Boston” traders (regardless their point of origin), a few mariners stayed, married local ladies and were awarded grants of land. A new cultural mix was reflected in both commerce and the economy. Commerce in hides and tallow and then crops had brought an emerging population to the central coast that needed a place to rest and eat before continuing any travel. There was need to care for horses and wagons and other conveniences of rural America. Lawyers, doctors, surveyors, dentists and other professional pursuits were inevitable as the lure of San Francisco sent some looking for a less chaotic existence. Governance was more closely associated with ranch life rather than the broader community. As individuals became responsible for the community or county, such civic service was in addition to other personal pursuits. . .and not a major one as seen today.
Despite the remoteness in the vast state, many pioneers – by design or accident – remained to contribute to the evolution of governance along the central coast. Propelled by the need to support themselves and family (a shared goal today), a few stepped beyond personal gain in service to others. For the County, an interesting pictorial display of the Supervisors outside their Chambers pays tribute to those elected officials who served the larger community. No such display recognizes local elected leaders.
While there was a Town, it was also the County Seat whose administrative center was in the “building adjoining the Church” and today is known as the convento wing facing Mission Plaza and included a jail. County affairs would soon move to Captain William G. Dana’s Casa Grande (built along today’s Court Street) until the first courthouse was built in 1873 on the site of the current judicial center. There was no Town Hall – and would not be one – until a few years later. Officials met in any convenient spot, and – once built – in the County building.
Ranchos still occupied great expanses of the county but functioned with a minimal number of families and vaqueros. Towns, on the other hand, thrive through businesses that require patrons. A great theme in these pioneer municipal years is increasing the population who would then require more goods and services. They also would enlarge the tax base and revenue. For a county located south of the economic center of the State. . .San Francisco. . .luring residents was not an easy task.
Surrounding the economic imperatives – then and now – was an orderly and stable municipal government. With the State prescribing many of the statutes for municipalities, minimal attention was given to the evolution of the community. In this writer’s History of San Luis Obispo 1850 to 1876, the major incorporations of the town are more fully detailed, but suffice to write here, there were several major pieces of legislation before cityhood in 1876.
While the State provided legislation for towns to become incorporated in March 1850, it was the responsibility of the local residents to comply with the law’s requirements. As the County seat had its own governance, there were few interested or able to comply with the state requisites. Various re-incorporations until cityhood all changed the community’s administration and taxing authority (a critical consideration). Eventually, we’ll explore some of the ramifications of the first federal survey (1867) requiring the small town to purchase itself from Washington, D.C.!
To complicate matters, early leadership believed San Luis Obispo was a Mexican pueblo (as was San Francisco). As such, the settlement boundaries would be much more extensive than any Federal designations. The belief was based on correct information that Mexican Governor Alvarado had declared the settlement as such. Unfortunately, unknown locally, the designation was never approved by the central authorities in Mexico City.
Thus, years of failed attempts to convince the Federal Land Commission of pueblo status terminated on February 19, 1856 with the brief legislative act declaring the community a town. It is this date that San Luis Obispo is legislatively declared to exist in a County of about 1500 and a State approaching 380,000.
The major requirement in this legislation was the annual election of three men as a Board of Trustees (one chosen as president) who served without compensation. Additionally, without voter approval (2/3 majority), the Board could not contract for debt in excess of $500. Any other decisions were to comply with the original 1850 Act.
This legislation was repealed two years later. Since no new legislative act was substituted, the “Town of San Luis Obispo” ceased to exist until the citizenry decided to return to the 1850 legislation and form their own official community. In yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of municipal identity, it required another legislative act to change the complexion and intensity of governance while the Nation was involved in a punishing Civil War. Back to top
Town of San Luis Obispo II
Here’s what one early visitor wrote describing his impressions of the newly designated town. While those of Henry Miller are not the first recorded impressions, he also added invaluable sketches of what he saw during his travels. Beginning his adventure in the north in early 1856 and arriving here in late June, he wrote:
“Early in the morning I arrived at the Mission, which is
metamorphosed into a little town at present of about 150 houses,
inhabited principally by natives and Mexicans; however quite a
number of Americans have also settled here.”
As the population continued to expand in the former mission settlement, merchants also grew to service the growing needs of a slowly expanding population. The first newly-built store (at least according to available records) opened in an adobe structure at the corner of Chorro and Monterey Streets by two enterprising young men: William Beebee and Samuel Adams Pollard. The grand opening brought the landed gentry and was remembered for years afterwards as a stellar event. More than simply another store, it represented the beginning of commercial development (aka “progress”) to the secluded valley. Both men (worthy of further discussion) continued to contribute significantly to local history. Beebee Street remembers the first, but Pollard’s extraordinary career is (unfortunately) all but forgotten.
About the same time, an important recollection has been saved through the generations. Charged with establishing post offices in the 31st state, J. Ross Browne has left a legacy of his 1849 travels in A Dangerous Journey ending in a lengthy chapter in San Luis Obispo. The former secretary to the California Constitutional Convention records a settlement of mixed elegance and brutality where a dance leads to deaths.
Another prominent resident was attorney William J. Graves who married into the prominent Pico family. The local Picos were related to the famous Mexican governor, Pio Pico. Serving in two terms the State Assembly (1853-1856 and 1857 to 1868) as well as on the bench, Graves was the revenue master in Avila. In the latter capacity, he met one of the most prominent men ever to live in the County. . .Charles Henry Johnson. Both will continue to contribute to the evolution of the community until their deaths in 1884 and 1915, respectively.
Along with a few other residents, governance resembles a loose association of men working to follow State mandates but earnestly seeking ways to avoid expenses while conducting community and personal business. Through the 1850s, however, the emphasis is more centered on personal safety and not community enrichment. Nonetheless, the first decade of statehood was not solely a time for vigilantes, but of voters who wanted a safe, progressive state and community. . .a place for families and stability and progress.
Piecing together the history of these pioneer years requires diligence and doggedness as the earliest resources include land petition from 1859, the first preserved letter from 1864, the first newspaper from 1868, and the municipal Minutes from 1870. Certainly, some “guesstimates” are inevitable. Thus, while all history is an approximation, adherence to accuracy is essential. From these various sources and an occasional reminiscence by a pioneer, the evolution of the community begins to take a more definite form.
It is useful to note for those attempting to form a municipality, there had been progress. Those here in the mid-19th century had been citizens of Spain, Mexico, and now the United States. Within a half-century, some remembered the mission outposts being unwillingly transformed from spiritual and agricultural centers to near deserted outposts (some truly deserted) in the new State. As for the new State, its advent was heralded by a societal cataclysmic upheaval centered around one word. . .GOLD. As with any massive increase in population, both saints and sinners (the latter get the most publicity) spread from the gold fields to infiltrate the small compounds of residents becoming both a bane and a blessing to progress.
Thus, an embryonic beginning of the place we know today was – indeed – a brave leap forward. The first incorporation in 1856 was followed by another two years later. Now the elected trustees were permitted to place assessments of one percent per $100 valuation on virtually anything. . .including personal libraries. Progress requires revenue. Back to top
Town of San Luis Obispo III
While wanting their version of the “American dream,” the citizenry paid little attention to municipal organization. A generally lackluster approach to governance was summarized in 1883 in Myron Angel’s seminal History of San Luis Obispo County:
“Ordinances were passed to provide for maintaining order, naming streets, keeping them clean and in repair, licensing businesses, and other purposes. There appears to have been but little attention to the incorporation, and it nearly died.”
Lacking official documents, there are existing references naming Charles H. Johnson as the president or chairman of the town trustees and Thomas H. Bouton as Clerk. At times an elected position, the City Clerk is the oldest administrative position in our City’s history. No complete ordinance from this era has been found but some titles survive and denote official interest in dogs, disorderly conduct, a poll tax and haystacks among others. More on ordinances is detailed below.
Communities are much more than rules, regulations and increasing taxes to support the laws but require those entrusted with their compliance. As progress made its way into the valley, the orderly conduct of business required not only the election of trustees but (most often) the appointment of “staff” to implement decisions.
It is difficult to even imagine any civic organization being guided solely by elected officials. The complexities of life – let alone legal requirements – dictate a cadre of appointed positions…and increased expenditures. Locally, in the 1850s and 60s, there was little enthusiasm for either staff or increased expenditures. Initially, there is little evidence of salaried positions in either County or Town government. Compensation was often derived from fees with licensing being the most popular. Again, few responsibilities were considered full-time and income supplemental to other duties.
The lone city Marshal was also the Collector of Licenses (and also taxes) for which he received a fee per transaction. Of course, this became a highly desirable job and resulted in an almost yearly change in personnel. There were also calls by the trustees that the Marshal’s books be submitted for auditing…on more than one occasion. Not all was well. Fortunately, the Marshal’s Ledger from 1894 has survived the abuse of time and details some of the economic drama of the times. It would not be until 1911 that the Marshal disappeared with the creation of a new city and new positions including the Chief of Police.
Actually, the Marshal was ex-officio chief of police when there was more than one man on the force. The Marshal then became responsible for any subordinates as chief of the police. There will be more on the evolution of the police at a later date.
Municipalities need rules. Today’s laws from the legal bureaucracy result in overwhelmingly complex paragraphs and references to other legal ruling presenting a daunting challenge to the most erudite attorney. Not so for the early community. Preserved in the City Archives are some very old ordinances and resolutions. While only titles of the earliest ones have survived the uneven hand of time, a few complete regulations begin in 1859. We’ll look a bit closer at these further along in this narrative.
With the various incorporations culminating in cityhood, San Luis Obispo had grown in population (along with the attendant problems) and gained experience in municipal governance. By 1870, along with the rest of the nation, it undoubtedly had shared the horror of the Civil War even if news was dated by the time it reached the west coast. A president had been assassinated, his successor impeached, and the Goddess of Progress – the railroad – had extended her touch to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Twenty years after statehood, the rural hamlet had developed its major civic pillars. There were schools, municipal ordinances and resolutions, newspapers – even the telegraph system. Laws were made and some broken, taxes levied and the business and busy-ness of life rolled through the County Seat. Much needed to be done – and was done – as progress for its residents and community continued to confront and challenge the place called San Luis Obispo. Back to top
Moving Toward Civic Maturity
We are all beneficiaries of the past. We had no choice . . . we inherited it at birth . . . even if we don’t know, let alone understand, it. Indeed, too many are unaware that we are better prepared for what is deemed the present if we know some of the past. As if looking into a mirror, we will note we resemble – vaguely or strongly – our progenitors.
Unfortunately, in attempting to decipher the past, it too often becomes a blur of people, places and events seen through the window of life’s speeding train. Yes, there was something there but its definitions were vague. Let’s take this opportunity to slow down and sharpen some of the details to help focus attention and understanding.
So far, we have had a short review of the evolution of the modern City of San Luis Obispo from a time when the name referred to a 13th century French saint to a secular establishment in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century. To begin understanding – let alone appreciating – the enormity and opportunities of the past requires time. Previously, we wrote: “There is never a definitive history, but only one that captures – hopefully, accurately – some of the past.” Truthfully, it really hasn’t been “the” history of the City but “a” history – underscoring that all history is a selective process. There is always more to tell. For instance, to the casual visitor, San Luis Obispo may be an increasingly pricy downtown shopping/dining district while the same space becomes increasingly congested during the weekly Farmer’s Market. Yet, some of our oldest structures aren’t far away from the crowds.
For our college students, the Cal Poly campus and immediate environs is its own community with many forays into downtown at night when most businesses and offices are closed. Yet, the same campus masks its past while few – students or staff – notice it. Residents tend to see local history as the day they arrived to live (or were born) within the expanding city limits. Yet, many live in some of our oldest homes, walking through rooms once occupied by the community’s pioneers. For some reading this, it’s a job site with few aware of their predecessors over the last century and a half. Only for an historian is San Luis Obispo replete with “ghosts” of the municipal past roaming the highways and byways of the community. Some are most articulate and friendly; others more reserved and require repeated contacts to elicit information. Whatever their disposition, they are intriguing guides worthy of further study.
Given the resources available to capture the time before anyone’s memory, there will always be more to add. Additionally, much of the material has also been recounted in the pages of a county treasure Journal Plus magazine. I don’t think it’s plagiarism to use your own words. If so, then I guess I owe myself an apology. In any case, the following are additional glimpses of San Luis Obispo. To briefly review: With the advent of statehood on September 9, 1850, San Luis Obispo was legislatively considered primarily a county – one of the original 27 compared to today’s 58 – with an obscure settlement of the same name as the major center of population. County population was determined by the 1850 Federal Census (actually taken in the winter and spring of 1851) and numbered 336 residents. You can be assured there were more living in the county at the time but given the local violence and time allotted for census taking, no official was going to venture too far along dangerous paths. Nonetheless, California was a small place. The same census counted a bit more than 92,000 in the entire state.
The years from 1850 to 1870 provide some information about the County Seat but there are limited local documents to flesh out what must have happened as the forces of law and order and “respectability” determined the future. With minimal State assistance and no organized police force, San Luis Obispo – as so often happens in its history – imitated the powerful city to the north: San Francisco. That community’s Vigilance Committees (there were two) provided the background for the one formed locally. In the words of an early Catholic seminarian to the Bay City in 1851:
“What a port!” What a town! What a population! French, English, Germans, Italians, Mexicans, Americans, Indians, Canacs (Canadians), and even Chinese, white, black, yellow, brown, Christian, pagan, Protestants, atheists, brigands, thieves, convicts, firebrands, assassins, little gold, much bad; behold the population of San Francisco, the new Babylon teeming with crime, confusion and frightful vice.”
To a much smaller extent, the same remarks for the “new Babylon” applied locally. This community’s Vigilance Committee will be detailed in a future installment, but suffice to note here that there wasn’t an alternative to seek. Either crime was confronted or crime and the criminal would determine the future.
Given the lack of experience in civic organization and the frontier nature of establishing bureaucracies, much needs to be deciphered from state legislation. With an emphasis on governance through county organizations, there was little attention to smaller locales. If asked in 1850, legislatively, San Francisco was California’s leading city with some attention paid to a few other communities. Indeed, the quest for a permanent state capital reflects the paucity of even having suitable lodgings for legislators. Among minimal state attention to the local community, re-incorporation in 1863 of the rural settlement brought increasing flexibility with taxation as well as duties to the community leaders.
Among the changes provided by the new legislation, the Board of Trustees was limited to a yearly election of five men (women didn’t vote until 1911) with one dollar a year compensation. They could appoint only a clerk, a marshal, an assessor (as there was a municipal property tax along with revenues collected by the county and state), and a treasurer. Eventually the marshal will also be the tax-collector and license chief as this was another major source of income. Additionally, the clerk will also be assigned assessor duties.
Debt was to be avoided and expenditures could only be made if there was money in the “treasury.” The trustees examined every bill, paid some, reduced others, and denied a few. An annual tax was limited to 1/8% of $100 of assessed value including both real and personal property. Public safety and, especially, fire ordinances were key municipal powers. Fire protection discussed below was the duty of volunteers…still practiced in many California communities.
For a local search of the past, there are bits and pieces of the pioneer civic years but none in some organized fashion that captures the earliest municipal drama. This writer’s San Luis Obispo: 1850 – 1870 is the only (thus far) compendium of the major legislative steps leading to the birth of the City. I will leave it to the reader to review these pioneering years as what follows concentrates primarily on subsequent information especially during the formative decade of the 1870s.
For a local search of the past, there are bits and pieces of the pioneer civic years but none in some organized fashion that captures the earliest municipal drama. This writer’s San Luis Obispo: 1850 – 1870 is the only (thus far) compendium of the major legislative steps leading to the birth of the City. I will leave it to the reader to review these pioneering years as what follows concentrates primarily on subsequent information.
It is recalled that there was minimal separation of civic duties between the Town as a municipality and the Town as the County Seat of Justice. Informal sources of information undoubtedly included conversations in the many saloons (water quality was questionable) as well as social gatherings among the small populous. The first newspaper, The Pioneer (1868), followed the next year by the Tribune tells us more about town businesses through advertising than civic news. Local items of interest refer to Charles H. Johnson as the chairman or president of the Board of Trustees. There would not be an elected mayor for many years…and then only briefly. Other leaders included the legendary Walter Murray, John J. Simmler, Abraham Blockman, Silas Call, and Patrick Dunn. The clerk was Thomas Bouton who would go on as the County Clerk. John J. Schiefferly was Marshal for the 1000 residents in a County of less than 5000 population in a sparsely settled State of 570,000 according to the 1870 Federal Census.
The next decade was critical in the municipal formation of the community with more documentation to record municipal efforts. Back to top
A Growing Municipality
By 1870, further legislation specified 1/3 of street expenses were the responsibility of the Town while 2/3 was the property owner’s responsibility. In other words, if you built a home or business and wanted more than a horse or wagon path, you were responsible for granting access across your property and paying a share of labor and expenses. Property lines did not provide for easements and, thus, ownership extended to the middle of any passageway…actual or proposed. A key municipal issue, the dirt and gravel roadways made early travel rigorous and if in the rain, a quagmire…as well as producing some of the “quaint” intersections in the modern city as roads were placed as needed and not by plan. The early City maps with neat rectangles bounded by streets are most often dreams of what might be someday.
Nonetheless, in a Vast Pastoral Domain, two publications are similar in describing San Luis Obispo. The first published in 1871 in the Overland Monthly by Josephine Clifford is a visitor’s guide of the area. Commented Clifford: the community was a “stirring, bustling place, full of life and a great deal too small for the amount of business transacted in it.” Anyone from San Francisco “would hardly believe…how well the merchants have succeeded” in duplicating metropolis business. Many of the merchants, indeed, had learned their trade in San Francisco. The feat of a “bustling” place for business is further heightened when the mode to bring goods into the community were limited by shipping through Avila and/or overland by wagon.
The second – much lengthier account – attempts to lure prospective residents to the central coast. Commerce (aka prosperity) needs people. Written by attorney De Guy Cooper, Resources of San Luis Obispo County (1875), addresses a variety of points of interest interspersed with some grandiose predictions:
“Like the sleeping giant, San Luis Obispo County has been reposing in the consciousness of her strength and power to arouse when the time should come, and to assume among the political divisions of the State, and in the busy world, the position and rank to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle her.”
Cooper was certainly an early “booster” for the evolving county and community. He declared the 3160 square mile, 2,022,400 acre County “wears a look of cheerfulness and prosperity (and) within five years San Luis Obispo County will compare favorably, in point of wealth and population, with any county in the State.” A bit optimistic for 1875, the community had entered into an important municipal phase as prosperity included both personal and collective wealth. Furthermore, Cooper continues, “the climate is most delightful” for the few residents within the corporate limits of four square miles. By the mid-1870s, the town had doubled in size from its original boundaries of two square miles. How and why the mission settlement eventually had to purchase itself from the Federal government will be discussed below.
Another major development in the 1870s for the area was the opening of the narrow-gauge railroad from the harbor in Avila to San Luis Obispo and eventually into the Santa Maria Valley. Being able to transport goods and people by rail from the coast was a vast improvement over the use of horse drawn transport. Possibly difficult to imagine today, the railroad had a near mystical lure for those interested in “Progress.” Discussed later, it was nearly a quarter century before the Southern Pacific arrived in town…and produced a major change in the character and complexity to both the community and county.
As for governance, the county courthouse opened in May of 1873 moving its operations from William G. Dana’s Casa Grande located at Court and Monterey Streets after a start in the Mission’s convent wing. The Town still had no municipal headquarters as the first City Hall was built in 1879 and served the slowly growing community for about three-quarters of a century. Nonetheless, another milestone beginning in 1870 are the preserved City Minutes housed in the Clerk’s office. In often elegant handwritten script, the clerk traces the official transactions of community decisions and business. At first, governance was casual at best…and often neglectful. Back to top
Town and City Minutes: the 1870s
A dependable source of any community’s legal legacy are the minutes of its governing body. While today’s technology captures every word, in times past, the Clerk practiced much more leeway as to what was recorded for posterity. Thus far, none have been found (although assuredly kept) until May 4, 1870. Using the newspaper as a resource from 1868, previous officials included Charles H. Johnson as the chairman detailed above along with other civic pioneers.
However, from 1870, local history becomes increasingly documented…and makes the swim through the historical canal even thicker! With microfilmed copies of the newspaper a challenge to the eyesight (see below), slightly easier is following the evolution of the community through hand-written (and preserved) official municipal Minutes found in the City vault. Among other tasks, the City Clerk is also the City Archivist. Elegant penmanship along with some scrawl provides a journey through the issues of importance in the small settlement.
There was an election and the first meeting of the then-Board of Trustees was called to order on a
Wednesday night. Since there was no City Hall, we can only assume a location in a business or someone’s home. The elected officials included Dr. William W. Hays, the “physician and surgeon” according to his advertisements who was selected chairman by his peers. Other politicos included Henry Francis (owner of a livery stable) and Lazare Landeker, an inventor and merchant who would move to Ukiah only to be murdered by an employee in 1879. Others included Horatio B. Palmer (an owner of the flour mill) and former community assessor, John J. Simmler, an immigrant from Germany who went on to become postmaster (1874 to 1890), justice of the peace, and a banker in Cayucos. Charles W. Dana, the eldest son of William Goodwin Dana of Nipomo fame, was appointed City Clerk. He will eventually become the sixth mayor in 1881. Throughout this narrative, we’ll meet some of the pioneers who added civic duties to their personal and business lives. Each deserves a more detailed biography which will, hopefully, find its way into these pages as time and space permits.
Besides attending official meetings, Trustees served on at least one of three committees: Finance, Streets, and Lands. Long before “mission statements” became popular, the consistent issue was finding enough money to pay for community needs. In this, there has been no change. The State permitted the sale of revenue bonds and must have been the major source of income in addition to property taxes (a community assessor, eventually a role of the City Clerk, was an early appointment) and various license fees.
George W. Barnes was appointed Marshal as well as Tax Collector for one year. Seemingly, he was paid from a percentage of collected taxes. He also was the sole appointed staff member as any community project not undertaken by the elected representatives was assigned to him for completion. The treasurer was an imposter posing as a dentist: William J. Marcus.
The Trustees received requests for two town lots from Rafael Valencia and Juan Castro (more on this critical issue later), addressed several ordinances including a $5 license fee for any “opera or concert performances” and “caravan menageries.” In the next year, the group would meet 23 times and, unlike other Boards of Trustees, never adjourned for lack of a quorum.
Rudimentary compared to more modern near-epic length meetings, the first preserved Minutes are a small preview of much yet to come. Fortunately, they have been digitalized and are available on the City’s webpage.
While elected to office for one year only, the same slate of leaders served in 1871 along with a new Marshal, John P. Lewelling, Treasurer Nathan Goldtree, and Assessor Charles Mauk while Tax Collector Barnes continued in the same office. Interestingly, those elected continued responsibility for the key areas of finance, streets, and lands. They will organize themselves as such for another 40 years.
A key duty for an official addressing street issues was the increasingly demanding requirements for the addition of residences and businesses radiating from the core area around the Mission. The council members were expected to actually oversee street direction, width, costs, etc. Given some of the today’s rather eclectic roadways, it is obvious most officials were unfamiliar with the development of community roadways. The pace of municipal business increased as the residents were notified that while they could buy, sell, build and use property, there was a strong possibility they were not legally entitled to do so. As we shall see, property assurances ultimately would take authorization from the President.
A municipal history could be written just from a review of the preserved Minutes. Often overlooked in modern remembrances, the official documents from the past record both the trivial and substantial issues brought before the elected officials. It shouldn’t be a surprise that many of the same basic community concerns still dominate city business, although fondness for lengthy reports and exhortations occupy much of the official documentation. While most often neutral in their recordation, some of the community passion in support or opposition of a particular issue is reflected in the local newspapers of the time. As such, both minutes and newspapers provide a reasonable reflection of the times.
In a tribute to the past, every elected and appointed official gleamed primarily from the City Minutes from 1870 to well after the turn of the century is available from this writer. Back to top
Legal and Legislative Developments
History never travels alone. No matter the era, issue or activity, history most often is a crowded – too often confusing – conglomeration of persons, groups, and events influencing each other to a greater or lesser extent. Thus, relating history…hopefully with a semblance of continuity, let alone accuracy…simply requires paying attention to some of the key personalities and events and ignoring others.
So, as San Luis Obispo struggled into a maturing community, the rest of California, America and the world also continued in its development. For the relatively new Nation, a celebration of its independence is captured in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in (of course) Philadelphia. Other celebrations called “expositions” paraded much of the Nation before the world. Even a small town in California barely a quarter century old had a landmark date as on March 20, 1876, San Luis Obispo was finally declared a “city” of the “sixth class” by the State Legislature. There had been no particular achievement as the Legislature decided it was necessary to categorize into six categories the ballooning number of communities. Each class had its own rights and responsibilities. We were the last category having attained a population of at least 3000. By then, the residents had already celebrated their own centennial. As it happened, the first centennial celebration was on the wrong day as detailed later. No matter…as one hundred years later, the bicentennial celebration was purposefully started a year early.
In the critical decade of the 1870s, there were more fundamental issues pressing themselves on the civic conscience than celebrations. One was who had legal ownership of what? Back to top
As the Town and then City of San Luis Obispo addressed its formative years, ownership of land became a key concern. Early Minutes are filled with requests and petitions for town lots as the community’s leaders were also empowered to grant ownership of land. Those here planned on staying here. Was it Mark Twain who reported land as a most valuable of assets as there was no more being made?!
So vital were the signs of permanence that the civic legend and European born Walter Murray (1826-1875) – who among his many accomplishments served on the community board of trustees before 1870 – wrote at one time of the improvements:
“We have not yet attained to metropolitan proportions, but we can claim with truth the town has been steadily growing since its first inception, that its houses have been always occupied…and that its rate of growth was never so rapid as during the past twelve months.”
The pioneer residents encouraged increased populations to promote the business and social lifeline of the community. There was no concept of a future plagued by today’s increasingly congested municipality. At issue was how to lure prospective residents into the county and city. Little did Murray realize that – legally – there was no such place as San Luis Obispo. Nonetheless, you still had to petition town authorities to obtain a legal title to land you undoubtedly thought you owned and the authorities believed they had the authority to grant.
At the time, we were a microcosm of a world dilemma as entire nations would battle each other to establish property rights. History is replete with individuals and countries warring over the control of each other’s territory. A recurring theme throughout world history has been the control of land. At the end of the day, those who struggle don’t survive; land does. Fortunately, we came to a peaceful resolution.
Locally the path to “clear title” to property was an evolutionary process since without regulations, “ownership rights” can become a nightmare of gigantic proportions. Today, extensive bureaucratic organizations exist to insure such rights do not become ensnared in a quagmire of legal challenges. This seemingly strange situation of uncertainty had a convoluted evolution beginning with the peace Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) after the Mexican-American War. Familiar to most history buffs, huge tracts of land (ranchos) often required years to validate as to ownership as the federal government owned most everything. However, fledging communities with much smaller land holdings required a series of legislative acts in order to assure their validity.
Thus, the Federal survey in 1867 of the new State of California simply decided the boundaries of communities. Six hundred acres was the usual allotment. At issue were the parcels owned by individuals within the boundaries of any newly defined community. If the land under any holding belonged to the federal government, who also decided the town boundaries, how could you legally own your property? The answer was you needed to purchase what you thought you owned! This duty started with the corporate community.
The initial step was transferring Federal ownership of the town to a municipal corporation that assumed governance of the locality. The transfer replaced the original 1850 survey and map of William Rich Hutton with the new Federal one. Long after being declared a town, on October 5, 1871, a Federal Patent signed by President Ulysses S. Grant was issued for the Town of San Luis Obispo in the name of Charles H. Johnson as trustee. At the time, Johnson was not a town official although he had been until 1870. Undoubtedly the original application was made with his signature and the federal authorities simply ordered the transfer without checking if he was legally authorized to receive it.
At $1.25 an acre, the cost to purchase 552.65 acres was $690.82. Indeed, a mighty sum for the day. Already, approximately 50 acres had been granted to the first Catholic Bishop under American rule Joseph Sadoc Alemany for mission lands. Here, acreage consisted of property in what is mostly today’s downtown. Once the town was established by being sold to itself by the federal government, establishing individual ownership to parcels within the community required another legal procedure. The guideline was a March 23, 1868 “Act to Settle the Title to Lands” for new communities passed by the State legislature. The process is detailed below.
It would be erroneous to think there was no local attention to ownership rights before the Federal survey. Let’s step back a few years to review the nascent settlement attempts at civic legitimacy.
The question as to just what were the boundaries of the settlement was not new. The earliest preserved correspondence treasured in the City vault is from the U. S. Surveyor General’s office in San Francisco responding to an inquiry by Charles H. Johnson who requested a survey of the town in 1864. The federal official confirmed he would be agreeable to a survey…but the community would have to pay for the service. Given the finances of the time, the offer was not accepted. Three years later, the first survey was completed at the expense of the federal government. This proved to be an epoch-making event for the community.
San Luis Obispo already had its own definition as to its municipal limits. Previous State legislation used a survey and map by William Rich Hutton as the official boundaries of the town. To date, this map has not been found but using the metes and bounds description repeated in various legislative acts, the town was two miles in a rectangular shape. Using today’s map, the town boundaries encompassed part of the city’s northern community.
Rich had a short career here but went on to become a premier engineer in the East…most notably for the Washington Bridge in New York City. Additional contributions to our community, even more important than his map, are some of the earliest surviving sketches of the area. Beyond this community, Rich also mapped some surrounding ranchos. Back to top
As for obtaining ownership of property within the Town limits, the earliest preserved petition (1859) in the City’s archives is for a lot located at Monterey and Court Streets. At the time, county business was conducted there in the Casa Grande constructed by Nipomo’s William Goodwin Dana. Part of the structure was sold to the County while pioneer attorney William J. Graves seems to have his home and office in the remaining portion. Previously, County business was conducted from the convent wing of the Mission that today faces Mission Plaza.
These surviving petitions are an invaluable source of information as to the various street names, owners, and lot orientation in the early community. Owners were required to provide a description of the property (sometimes accompanied by a map), payment of a fee (of course), action by the governing board, and a Certificate of Purchase. If there was no challenge to the request within six months, ownership was affirmed and a deed was available for a fee of $2.50.
These petitions represent more than simply another municipal requirement and reflect the business of running a community that declared a Town in 1856 was conforming its civic posture to more closely align federal and state guidelines. Who legally owns what is a universal imperative in the civilized world. History is filled with the recurring devastation as combatants war with each other – from tribal to world conflicts – over control of territory. While today, extensive bureaucratic organizations exist to insure such rights do not become ensnared in a quagmire of legal challenges, locally the process was both evolutionary and peaceful.
This vital legal requirement also reflects a community dedicated to improving the life of both the civic evolution and those living within the town boundaries. It had been a slow process as those responsible for the town had to depend on the state legislature to provide direction. Many of the leading citizens of the state had been born elsewhere with longer traditions and procedures for protecting legitimate property issues. They were aware that an orderly process for assuring “ownership rights” within the new state was essential. However, the idea that the community must grow and flourish needed no encouragement from Sacramento.
The documents preserved in the Clerk’s Office (and in desperate need of professional preservation) present some 325 separate petitions with a fascinating array of facts about the community included as part of the required filing process.
A compilation of the petitions provides various bits of information…possibly some about property under your residence. Initial information included the date of the property’s description and its presentation to the governing board (at the time referred to as the Board of Trustees). Most descriptions were prepared by surveyors Robert R. Harris or Hubert C. Ward. After the town’s purchase, a community map in 1874 by Harris and Ward became the official standard.
Two compilations are currently available: one by date of presentation and one by the petitioner’s last name. An auxiliary benefit from the petitions are meeting dates of the community’s leaders when the petitions were presented for action as no official Minutes have been found before May 4, 1870. It should be noted here that there are indications that the preserved documents are not an exhaustive list of applications but simply those having survived through the uneven care of time.
Penmanship occasionally obscures correct spelling of surnames…let alone differing versions by the surveyor and clerk. Some are signed with a mark verified as valid by another…quite often an attorney. There are a few women petitioners. Initially, a petition accompanying the property description was handwritten but beginning in 1870, a preprinted form was available. Some indicate when the petitioner (or ancestors) first “settled upon” the requested property and are another resource for genealogists.
Today, maps are underappreciated unless you’re planning a trip to a new location or trying to navigate through a strange community or work as a surveyor. Yet, mapping was an early imperative for those searching for new lands and unknown riches. Beautifully illustrated, filled with mysterious signs and images, these are really works of art and imagination. For centuries and today, some of the most intriguing mapping looks upward into the heavens.
There were no such illustrations or celestial visions for our community. The rudimentary maps in the Clerk’s office accompanying petitions for town lots are not nearly as beautiful but fascinating in their depiction of the community’s suburban – and sometimes rural – character in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The small maps – generally of a town or city block – are drawn on fragile vellum or trace paper. Some indicate where a dwelling or structure of some sort exists and one even notes a “sepulcher.” A noticeable feature is the rectangular alignment of streets which at the time were more often an expectation than a reality. In a few, a small square indicates some sort of structure still existed in the obviously proposed street. Several petitions for larger acreage show a lot boundary as the “town limits.”
Many of the descriptions are rudimentary metes and bounds narratives with some referencing a neighbor’s property line, a tree, fence, the Arroyo (San Luis Creek) and such. Blocks (about 3 acres) and most often containing six lot numbers are currently recorded on a spreadsheet. Using the petitioner’s last name, a few residents are shown to own multiple properties. Many requests have no block and/or lot designations.
A recurring statement was a note of improvements or promise of improvements on vacant land and occupancy/farming by the petitioner. Clearly, property was intended for residents. If improvements were made (usually a dwelling and/or “a substantial board fence”), there is an estimate of cost. Accuracy of such improvement costs may have been modest so as to maintain a low tax assessment. A few were initially rejected as there were no improvements on the requested land or another had already received a Certificate of Purchase.
Of course, nothing was free (then or now). Fees depended upon the size of the request with $5 for properties under ½ acre; $10 up to two acres; from 2 to 5 acres were assessed $15. Any parcel beyond five acres was in the $20-plus category. A few special assessments below $5 are usually associated with transfers within families.
If approved by the governing board, proof of ownership was a Certificate of Purchase. The clerk made a note on the petition and/or issued the separate document with the town/city seal. This proof of ownership included a caveat of a deed being available for an additional $2.50.
If a deed was issued, notice of such usually was written on the Certificate and/or original petition. A deed was available after a six-month wait for any adverse claim. Thus, modern property searches relying solely on the recordation date (an optional practice at the time) do not necessarily provide proof as to the date of acquisition.
The orderly transfer of property rights was but one of many issues large and small to occupy the official civic agenda. There is never an end to the drama, pettiness, and sometimes malevolent intent in politics but for the small community, holding an office was not a career but a duty and the less time spent regulating, the better. While assuring ownership rights was a vital municipal duty, the community leaders also had other pressing issues. Back to top
History is freely defined quite often by the reader. Battles, conquests, judicial rulings (or for some, mis-rulings), leaders, the bad and the bold fascinate different audiences. For local historians, the essence of municipal history is reflected in the thinking and principles distilled in the ordinances and resolutions of any particular era. From its laws, the community’s official issues are reflected with varying degrees of logic and reason. For much of our early history (as well as today), a major imperative was to increase revenue to match expenses. There were social issues but the early municipal attitude seems more comfortable with individuals coping with the times rather than the government attempting to cope for the individual. Debt was not embraced and, thus, the expectations were that income preceded expenditures.
Thus, an interesting history of the community would be to read the various Ordinances and Resolutions preserved in the City archives as to what topics required official actions. These became the rule of law unless eliminated or abridged by the courts…or municipal action. Contrary to some municipal thinking, local directives are also still obligated to follow state and federal directives.
Most issues continue to be addressed by today’s City Council: tax rates, water and sewer issues, public safety, and rules to promote an orderly society. Of course, as the community grew and matured, so did its regulations. What is today’s Municipal Code is the latest progenitor with ancestral roots.
Remembering the past would be a much easier challenge if everything was reduced to simply giving a year and relating major events and people. It also would be unbearably tedious. While daily lives are just that – minute by minute, hour by hour – it would be a rare individual, indeed, who had the time and fortitude to read about the drone of daily life. Readers want someone to summarize so the story of life moves along at a brisker pace than reality. Given the pervasiveness of various technologies, you have a limited amount of time to gallop from start to finish with any tale.
The attempt here then will be to look briefly at the multiple early laws our civic ancestors found important enough to memorialize in Ordinance Books, let alone the even more copious Resolution Ledgers. Minute Books rarely elaborate beyond the dictates of legal requirements for reporting laws. Sometimes the local press might provide some hints as to why certain ordinances/resolutions were necessary, but the press of the time was not given to lengthy dissertations about the genesis of new laws, let alone their necessity or validity. While most may be self-explanatory, there are some with (at least) intriguing titles.
Series I: No document has been found containing any of these first laws. However, reviewing just the available titles of ordinances and resolutions provides some hints as to the issues of governance. The first series of ordinances date from February 1 to March 20, 1858 (we are now in the seventh “New Series”) and address having Regular Meetings, the Bonds of Officers, the Publication of Ordinances, Dogs, Fines, the Cleaning of Streets, Disorderly Conduct and a Poll Tax. You find the descendants of most all these regulations in a modern version of city laws.
Series II: (the first designated as NS or New Series) lasted barely three weeks from September to October 1858, repealed older ordinances, reiterated some included in Series I and added Nuisances, firearms, and the marshal’s fees (one of the few better paying public employment opportunities locally). In total, seven ordinances are in this series.
Series III: A few ordinances – other than the titles – have survived over 150 years. From May 1859 to December of the following year, the 18 titles reflect a growing complexity to municipal governance. Including most of the previous ordinances, new ones address the Names of Streets, Officers’ fees and salary, the Town Seal, Revenue for Support of Town, Town Licenses, Title to Lands in Town, Bounding Spring Lane, Granting lands to John Wilson, Concerning Grants of Land, Pay of Town Clerk, and Hay Stacks. A few are detailed below.
In the preserved records, there is a three-year gap until 1863 when Series III resumed and continued until 1872 for a total of 34 ordinances. While every official action is a window into the community’s civic past, only eight extant ordinances have survived to enlighten the present. The first preserved ordinance in the City Clerk’s Archives is Ordinance No. 2 from this series dated May 9, 1859 and addressed the Naming of Streets.
The ordinance is not really about street naming but the envisioned layout of the municipal roadways. Measuring most streets (15 feet wide) often started at a “fence” near somebody’s lot and went to another geographic location such as the “creek.” The only street name “Mission” was changed to “Monterey.”
Ordinance 14 “Granting Lands to John Wilson” would require an extensive background briefing as Wilson was one of the wealthiest (if not THE wealthiest) men in our early city and county history. Given the turmoil of the times as the Federal Land Commission attempted to decipher some old – and some rather primitive land records – it would seem Wilson wanted to be assured he owned certain land and had enough influence to have the civic leaders agree with him. A biography of the man must wait for a later installment, but Wilson had already been denied ownership of the Mission he had been granted by the last Mexican governor, Pio Pico.
Animal regulations (Ordinance 28) warned of roaming animals without proper licenses (yes, dogs were required to have tags and – political correctness aside – tags for female dogs cost more than males.) The Pound Master was an early civic appointment.
Ordinance 24: Undoubtedly repeating earlier strictures, required owners to pile or rake trash in the middle of the street for pick-up…often by the men in jail at the time. This was fair as the adjacent lot owners’ property lines met in the center of any “street” that was dirt (if that).
Series IV: With yet another reincorporation of the Town of San Luis Obispo (1872), NS 4 continued for four years and repeated the pattern of abolishing and then reissuing the same laws. In all, 19 ordinances are included in this series with a few detailed below.
Holding their first meeting a week earlier, on May 14, 1872, the newly elected Trustees began the new series by amending Ordinance 1 through 7 of the previous series. Indeed, possibly confused by the number of laws already on the books, ten months later, the Council directed that all ordinances from May 4, 1870 were to be abstracted and given to Judge McDowell R. Venable to be revised and corrected. A few of the ordinances in this series have been found and preserved.
Ordinance 8 passed on July 11, 1873 addressed “Public Safety.” It basically warned everyone not to ride or drive on sidewalks. While not many, the wooden walks were for people. If convicted of the offense, fines ranged from 5 to 15 dollars or 5 to 15 days in jail or both.
Dogs maintained their municipal primacy in Ordinance 11 (October 31, 1873) as each was required to have a license ($2.50). Any animal found wandering without an identifying “metallic plate” had 48 hours to live. Since the Marshal issued the license, he kept 25% of the fee. If he needed to first capture the animal, he kept the entire fee if an owner claimed the animal and purchased a license for before the execution date.
A most unusual ordinance was #12 passed on December 8, 1873 concerned itself in part with morals. Undoubtedly quaint to some today, the law forbade being “naked, or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” Apparel could neither be “lewd” nor “indecent.” Fining ($100) “Profane language, words or epitaphs” would certainly enrich municipal coffers if the law today. Of course, public drunkenness (the most often reported offense) was not tolerated nor “any disorderly house or house of ill-fame.” Lastly, everyone was warned to not allow “hogs, goats, or cattle” to roam around town.
Surprisingly modern, Ordinance 16 protected trees from being used to hitch animals. It was also forbidden to “cut, mark, hew (or) hack” one. Most urgent for the times was an often repeated order to decrease fire hazards. This time, Ordinance 19 required yearly cleaning of chimneys. A Board of Fire Wardens could issue citations to offenders.
Inevitably, when Governor William Irvin signed “An Act to incorporate the City of San Luis Obispo” on March 4, 1876, a new series was born. At this point, most everyone (with the possible exception of lawyers) has had enough about laws for a while. We’ll look at some of these in future episodes. Let’s take some time to explore an historian’s favorite resource as well as a major cause for their headaches!
So far, we’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at some of the legal and legislative foundations for San Luis Obispo. Much has been changed while some remains ingrained in the sinews of the city. While this may be disconcerting for some since – for them – a history should address those who were here before our time. The “daring-do” of the saga of life, the saints and the sinners, who occupy a period of time and then exit the stage provide the human dimension to time’s legends. Indeed, to the pioneers we owe either praise and/or condemnation as we dispassionately judge what was. There are many, of course, who simply pass anonymously across the pages of time. Hopefully, some can be memorialized on these pages (although many have been in past issues of Journal Plus magazine) once we leave this somewhat vague chronology of the documents of the community’s evolution and have time to look at some of the principal actors of the civic drama.
At this point, let’s take a look at an invaluable source of information…the local press. Back to top
A key source of information until relatively recently, newspapers provide printed verification as to the interests and events of any era. Often, insights are gleamed through what is not deemed worthy of print. After all, in a small settlement, why do you need information from a third source when you can just ask your friends and neighbors? Dull by most contemporary journalistic standards, yesterday’s press (usually defined as the owner/editor/writer) was more candid as to the journalist’s views and less obtuse in his opinions. That said, when did the county newspapers begin and just what was of interest or importance to our civic ancestors?
The county’s first newspaper – The San Luis Obispo Pioneer – billed itself as an independent reporter of the news. Edited by Rome G. Vickers, at $5 a year – “invariably paid in advance” – the four page, six column weekly needed subscribers and advertisers to survive. Expenses for Vickers included subscriptions to other newspapers as much of the Pioneer’s news was old news gleamed from other sources – mostly from the San Francisco press. After all, in a very small town, most “news” was oral.
Almost a century since the first bell rang and Padre Junipero Serra proclaimed the establishment of the fifth mission (1772) in what he termed the “ladder” of spiritual centers, the now “progressive” civic community had a municipal voice. With the first issue on January 4, 1868, owner/editor/reporter Vickers provided a mirror reflecting local interests and news (or, at least, his version). Fortunate for us, the paper is available on microfilm at the local library but requires excellent vision (and persistence) to read.
First, Vickers wanted to assure his readers his newspaper was not a partisan publication but “devoted mainly to the interests and advancement of San Luis Obispo County.” This proved to be a mistake because the potential readers in the county were partisan in their political views. Having recently emerged from the national nightmare of the Civil War, the Nation was recovering from the devastation of the terrible conflict. As with all politics, views ranged and raged across the landscape. The Pioneer promised to stay above any partisan fray.
There was dated national and international news with plenty of space devoted to advertisements to defray printing costs including some wildly extravagant medicinal claims that are a treat to read in themselves. Their message finds descendants in today’s media liberally advertised on television and other media. News of the small community and County seat is sparse. Seemingly, there was no need for much local fare as neighbors simply passed on any item of interest. After all, the population probably wasn’t more than a thousand residents…and many didn’t read or understand English.
If they wanted to know who was building what, they talked with the builder (most likely in one of the many saloons). The Marshal (or County Sheriff) had the latest crime information (usually a drunk) while everyone knew about the latest fire since most able-bodied men joined in the fire brigades as needed. Those consigned to eternity (including those buried in the rural countryside or backyard) were mostly friends and neighbors. Besides Catholics attending the Mission, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians could remember their deceased brethren. If there were any atheists, they remained at home…and quiet.
Contrary to his initial promise, it wasn’t long before Vickers declared the Pioneer staunchly Democratic. It seemed being non-partisan received little support or revenue. Energetically promoting its new partisan position, a noteworthy August edition chastised the reigning Washington politicos:
Taxes! Taxes! Nothing but taxes.
Taxes upon all that man can eat,
Taxed on our flour and taxed on our meat.
Taxed upon all that covers his back,
From his cotton shirt to his broadcloth back
With the addition of the Sacramento solons and local revenue seekers, it seems some history simply doesn’t change!
Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before community information received a boost from another town newspaper. While Vickers vigorously promoted a Democrat for president in the national election (Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, won), his major and unintended accomplishment was instigating the inauguration of the second newspaper – avowedly and staunchly Republican – the Tribune. The first issue is dated August 7, 1869 by owner Horatio S. Rembaugh and Company. The “Company” was the prominent early legend Walter Murray.
The Tribune’s early pages, some bilingual, relished in the subtle and not-so-subtle journalistic battle between the two competitors. Some lively reading is reminiscent of today’s grocery store tabloids (without the images…lurid and otherwise). Among other issues, the experienced and literate Murray was sure to notify Tribune readers of Vickers’ editorial and grammatical shortcomings.
Given the new and energetic competition, soon after, Vickers simply stopped publishing and headed for other potentially promising journalistic opportunities. The Pioneer deserves an honored place in municipal history as promoting a local constituency for news. Filled with wild claims for all sorts of medicinal quackery, a hodge-podge of fiction, non-fiction, and near fiction, the paper opened the literary gateway for public news. Even Myron Angel (who would become the owner/editor of the Tribune) lauds the few editions as “valuable records of the past.” The advent – and survival – of the Tribune was to have several competitors in the ensuing years.
Reserved for a later time, the community did more than read about others and decided it was time to promote itself in celebration as the centennial of its cityhood neared in 1876.
We’ll leave the residents planning and (mis)planning the celebration and look back at another essential municipal function. Back to top
Communities and residents are a complex organization involving an ever-expanding array of expectations…and expenses. For its early history, leaders in San Luis Obispo were wary of any activity that involved community funds. The reasoning was those who benefitted from the community efforts should also carry the expense. What about general community benefits especially those designated “safety?” While celebrating “Pride of Place” (an unknown term) during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, just what was the collective fear (or fears) of the emerging San Luis Obispo community?
As to its ancestry, San Luis Obispo began as a religious settlement in 1772 clustered around a mission named for a 13th century French saint. Any issue of “safety” most often involved individual’s behavior or the occasional mischievous forays of natives from the “tules” that was defined as anywhere to the east. In a remarkable century of California history, the settlement evolved into a secular municipality under the flags of Spain, Mexico and the United States. Its evolution both as a home for residents and a community for commerce required civic attention to multiple issues…not the least of which was ever-growing concerns about safety. Among its many virtues, humans can display some horrendous abilities.
First a settlement, then officially a Town, various attempts were made to address safety mostly with little, if any, expense. Quite often, the cost of a sturdy rope or ammunition proved to be the most economical avenue. With the 1850s, one of the most violent in all the State’s history, personal protection was paramount as both the County and community of the same name had few resources – including depth of leadership – to protect the public. Little, if any assistance, could be expected from any state agency. From a Vigilance Committee (1858) to a Town Marshal, the “police” eventually would become a community fixture, but addressed less violent human expressions than found at mid-century.
The major infraction was public (and undoubtedly a great deal of private) drunkenness. While many enjoyed the companionship of alcohol, most were also aware of the dangers of drinking water. The Marshal had little help and the drunk was often escorted home by a friend…or the Marshal. There was a jail but having prisoners cost money to feed and sometimes clothe. “Ironing prisoners”- custom-made leg irons – by a blacksmith was not free. Sometimes the San Luis Creek, the main sewer, needed cleaning so the Marshal ensured an extra batch of inmates was available to work and earn their keep. Guns were plentiful and, thus, while never ignored, crime became a more recessive issue. We’ll revisit this below.
We’ve read previously that the major community issue – revenue – was addressed by the governing bodies by simply refusing to create debt unless payment was guaranteed. If the “treasury” were low, it was not uncommon to reduce and/or delay payment – if any – until there were sufficient funds in the “treasury.”
What then was the paramount danger in most adult minds when they looked – as a municipality – into the future if not paying for improvements and services? Certainly, less complicated than today’s psyche and inexhaustible fascination with “issues,” what did the folks fear most?
In a word…FIRE! Back to top
No, the dread of fire took top billing in the collective nightmare of the Town. When the fire bell clanged atop its perch on City Hall or yells of panic were heard, everyone knew potential disaster was a real possibility. Structures constructed primarily of wood with open fires for heating and cooking, a breeze blowing some embers from a fireplace or an accident with a kerosene lamp could easily become a calamity. Much of the town burned in a disturbing ritual that both fascinated the public and brought fear to survivors’ hearts. Today or tonight was a neighbor’s turn – but tomorrow could be me! To the north, the great metropolis of San Francisco had a parade of destructive fires, the last accompanied by the Great Earthquake of 1906. If there; certainly here.
Fire respected no one and if unchecked consumed most everything with an abandon of horrifying proportions. The “fiend” (sometimes with human help) burned everything…homes, stores, hotels, stables, fields, rarely people…even the firehouse bell tower.
In some misguided historical vignettes, there are reports of a great fire that destroyed the Mission around 1776. However, THAT fire was not in THIS church but in a crude structure of poles, brush, and mud with dry tule roofs…easy pickings for a flaming arrow or two. The worst fire in the current structure was in 1920…but that will be another story.
Building along the San Luis Creek, Monterey and Higuera Streets provided easy access for refuge and sewage but also water (unless there was little) for the bucket brigades hastily assembled to dowse a blaze…too often without success. Failure to have a ready water supply (then and now) doomed structures. Escaping with one’s life and possibly a few pieces of furniture and memories was a positive result. Fire was accustomed to winning.
So, a strong community need must be addressed by a strong community response. Right?
Not quite. The idea of organizing a municipal response was slow to materialize…but it did happen. Then and now in some communities, fire suppression was the duty of volunteers.
When the fire “fiend” attacked, neighbors helping neighbors was the main line of defense…and was delivered at no municipal expense. Those in the community were expected to take care of the community and use elected officials (and limited public funds) as a last resort. There was a strong belief that government only became involved when individuals, either alone or together, were unable to address an issue. The organization of any fire suppression plan was basically a private affair among the public. Their homes and businesses…their problem.
Records indicate an organizational meeting was held in August 1870 by a group of citizens to raise money for a fire company. With no reliable source of water and no funds, from organization to action was a protracted affair.
Passing an ordinance banning fireworks within the Town limits (the ancestor for more modern laws) and signing a contract for a water supply with the recently formed San Luis Water Company in the early 1870s were initial responses by officials. For a subsidy of $2500, the Town would be furnished with a sufficient supply of water for firefighting purposes for 25 years. Ten fire hydrants would also be furnished and placed in key locations.
When on March 18, 1874, some 20 men formed Fire Company #1 and petitioned for an appropriation from the town’s Board of Trustees, they were refused. The citizenry was expected to raise any needed funds. This did not stop the volunteers as they campaigned for funds by various means, including hosting a traveling entertainment group, a picnic and a firemen’s dance. Added to these coffers were individual donations which quickly amounted to enough to provide a hand drawn two-wheel hose cart, 500 feet of “good quality” fire hose and other necessary appliances that were purchased in San Francisco.
Hinting at a larger structure to come, a $200 hose cart house to store the fire apparatus and equipment was located on Morro Street between Monterey and Palm Streets. The first official fire station would wait for a few more years.
Although Fire Company No. 1 ceased operations in July 1876, it was immediately succeeded by another volunteer group, The Goodwill Hose Company No. 2 with Edwin Sanborn as the company foreman. Forty of the new company’s 50 members were former members of Company No. 1. When declared a city in 1876, San Luis Obispo began a more serious consideration for a municipal organization to fend off the “fiend.”
Fire “service” was still primarily a citizen’s, not a municipal, responsibility. Without even an official home, “city hall” involvement in most anything was quite limited. By the mid-1870s, momentum to become a more “progressive” community resulted in constructing the first city hall – we are now in the second – and space for some fire equipment at the street level.
The building once located on the site of the current 867 Higuera Street is often misidentified as being a fire station when in reality it was City Hall with space on the ground floor for fire apparatus. It’s understandable as to the misidentification as images of the polished engines, sturdy horses and proud men – the “laddies” – in uniform in front of the structure were sure to be present for the Fourth of July parade…a fire service project.
Volunteers above could slide down a pole (after 1894) to any equipment while horses were led into suspended harnesses to save time. Unfortunately, fire maintains its own speed and too often whoever heard the fire bell might run alongside the brigade and all would watch a structure burn to the ground.
In an important decision, when Good Will Fire Co. #2 petitioned to be a separate entity, the Town Trustees required them to be a part of the virtually non-existent Fire Department.
April 29, 1878 is arguably the beginning of a civic fire department with the appointment of Henry Gimbal as Chief Engineer with Jacob Staiger and Frank McHenry as First and Second Assistants. There was no separate department budget and the City needed to approve every expense. Both fires and ways to prevent them grew as the Rescue Hook and Ladder Company #1 asked to be admitted as “a Company of the Department.”
Fires were not civic celebrations but dangerous and destructive. Yet, the fascination and excitement bring a catastrophe face to face with any community’s finest. Hopefully, we can pause long enough to hear the hoof beats, the men running amid the shouts and cries of so many fires so many years ago. We might also sympathize with the heartbreak and anguish of those who lost most everything. Restored early equipment are treasured mementos of the past, but, sadly, the forgotten volunteers are the civic heroes and ancestors for those we know today.
As with all things municipal, the thread of the present connects to the past. While the topic first discussed is the ever-present danger from fire, the past was not immune to a broader definition of “public safety.” San Luis Obispo was integrating itself into the larger state and national panorama. While communities – as well as individuals – seek to be unique, there was a common issue regardless the time or location. If there were rewards for being more than a crossroads to somewhere else, so where the responsibilities. In addition to the expected rules and regulations…and taxes, fire was not the only imperative concern. To varying degrees, there was the growing need to curb the activities of those who ignored…or forgot…the laws. This, too, continues to today. Laws change but some human nature is, lamentably, fairly unchanging. Back to top
For many today, public safety is synonymous with police services. As we’ve read in previous sections, for San Luis Obispo, safety meant fire protection and suppression. However, there was some acknowledgement that some people simply refused to follow the rules.
Walter Murray, founder/editor of the Tribune, lawyer, District Attorney and judge reflected on the rampant crime in the area in 1853 when he first arrived in the small village:
“…scarcely a month passed without the disappearance of some traveler, or the finding of dead bodies or skeletons on the roads leading out north or south from here. Many a cattle-dealer from the upper country has come south to invest, and never returned.”
Dead men tell no tales!
When Henry Miller began his travels from the north, sketching and recording his progress in 1856, he stumbled upon a sight most would rather never see. Continuing toward the central coast, he was riding his mule near “the River Nacimiento, which at present is not running but forms pools of fine clear water in its sandy bed.” After watering his mule, he left the trail to find a safe spot for the night. He had learned that his best chance for survival was to bed down away from trails. When getting to a clump of dark trees, a horrible spectacle met my eye.
“I saw part of a human skeleton bound to a tree; part of the bones had fallen to the ground, the flesh had all gone and only some dried skin was remaining. The skull laid on the ground, cleft in two towards the left temple.”
Miller did not camp but continued to trudge toward San Miguel.
In the heyday of violence, a Vigilance Committee was formed (1858) to dispense justice. The roster of members is a veritable “Who’s Who” of the pioneer settlers of the valley. More than one posse (including one with future Governor Romualdo Pacheco) pursued the villainous. If captured, a tree limb and a rope quite often ended any issue of guilt. One incident recorded the vigilantes going to the jail to extract a confession from a desperado. At the end, he was left swinging from a rope inside his cell. Local records are vague as to the desperate distribution of justice. There seems no pride in resorting to a criminal act to stop another’s criminal activity, but personal safety became a personal…and imperative response.
From a lone Marshal to today’s force, law and order was (and is) essential in any well-ordered society. In a smaller community (maybe 1000 residents in 1870), combined with the County’s sheriff and constables let alone what today is called street justice, after the 1850s, there were laws broken and desperados afoot, but early ordinances give a few hints of a community’s expectations of its citizenry.
Unfortunately, only the title has survived of Ordinance 8 “Disorderly Conduct” passed on February 23, 1858. Thus far, it’s the earliest documentation that, indeed, behavior was a civic issue. However, by the fall, a new series of Ordinances was passed – all on September 24, 1858 including one for Disorderly Conduct but also ones addressing Nuisances, Firearms, and dog licenses which was a duty of those enforcing laws to issue. “Those enforcing the laws” was a lone marshal whose fees are set forth in an ordinance the next month. Unfortunately, there are no copies of these ordinances either. Nonetheless, it is a reasonable assumption that similar ordinance language was used with any date change. Governance appears rather casual except in cases of raising revenue.
Finally, Ordinance 9 from 1859 has been preserved in the City vaults and defines instances of disorderly conduct. Basically, the language is what would be expected as everyone was warned not to disturb the “peace and quiet” of their neighbors with “tumultuous and offensive conduct.” (It seems “loud parties” are not the invention of college students!) If found guilty (the marshal’s arrest was enough), fines ranged from $5 to $100. There are several court records indicating that an alternative to fines (or jail) was for the culprit to leave town. Few refused the offer to go elsewhere. The choice to relocate would indicate the offenders were not established residents of the town. Then, as now but by different names, part of the community seemed composed of drifters…only today, there is no court choice to simply suggest the offender “move on.”
If there was any concern with a transient population, it was only certain transients as the city became ever ready to welcome many who marked the community as a stopping point on a journey to elsewhere. As time passed, more simply stayed as residents. The advent of the railroad puffing its way into town brought increased commerce along with issues of peace.
Community life for most all residents was not living either in hopes for the future or fear in the present. The daily drone of necessary activities sustain life…but provide little enticement to be considered worthy of recording. Thus, most of the past is lost as those involved in the drama of the times simply perceived their lives and activities much too mundane to remember.
However, not so for the corporate community who decided to celebrate an accomplishment. That the dates to celebrate were not quite accurate was irrelevant…a centennial is a centennial! Back to top
We’ve read some about the rustic community attempting to survive both natural and human adversities with the meager resources at its disposal. Perhaps the most striking difference with today’s community (as well as state and federal partners) was its reliance on individual efforts to lead in addressing the challenges of life. The idea that as a unit of governance problems could be solved as opposed to individual efforts was still an emerging societal force. Certainly, calamities – such as fire – called upon everyone’s efforts…yet few were obligated to respond directly. Today, the use of tax revenues assures wider participation in what are deemed necessary enterprises.
The small settlement of San Luis Obispo was not helpless or hopeless while waiting for the politicians in Sacramento to legally define the ability of the community to direct its future. Life continued regardless the real and perceived threats to personal and corporate existence. Indeed, other critical issues occupied the times besides the major realignment of property ownership as has been reviewed previously. The new Town of San Luis Obispo continued to pursue the often-mundane responsibilities of daily life and civic business. Not everything, however, fell prey to the ordinary.
Certainly, a major example of civic pride was the celebration of the Town’s centennial. The problem was deciding just when San Luis Obispo was founded?
There are several choices as to an anniversary/birthday date for the community. Thus far, no official record has been found nor any signage at the City’s entrance informing drivers and pedestrians as to the City’s founding date as is popular elsewhere. What was known from existing records was a mission was founded on September 1, 1772…mostly in name (and prayers and hopes for its continued existence). Even with the accurate date, one hundred years later in 1872, there were two centennial celebrations – neither quite accurate: one for a saint and one for the rest of the community.
A major celebration was planned for Monday, August 19 called San Luis Day and was to be “conjointly celebrated with the citizens of the Town” and the Mission. Father Peter Sastre (1865-1872), the pastor, chose the feast day of St. Louis who died on that day in 1297 at 23 years old; not the mission’s founding date.
By Sunday, the influx of visitors astonished the newspaper’s editor. He wondered if all the arrivals assumed the small crossroads “could distend itself ad libitum, so as to provide accommodations to all those who sought it.” There were pitifully few places to lodge in the community. Interestingly, a history of various attempts to accommodate guests in the community will become more imperative as seen later with the arrival (or hoped-for arrival) of the railroad.
The August 18 Sunday service in the Mission was conducted in English followed the next day by another Mass with a sermon – this time in Spanish. While there had been talk of a procession, none was held and the “usual attempts at bull fighting” in the community plaza near Monterey and Court Streets was a “fiasco” …much to the pleasure of some.
Unfortunately, the specially invited guests from San Francisco were not present. It seems the steamship owners were unwilling to disembark without a certain amount of fare paying passengers and – once underway – were planning to stop in San Diego before docking in Avila. The length of the trip was prohibitive for the guests who remained home.
Charles H. Johnson had prepared an “oration” entitled “The Establishment of Missions in California” for the guests. Instead, the centennial celebration continued when he delivered the speech on September 3 closer to the “real date” of the Mission’s founding. As a corollary benefit for the San Luis Obispo Library Association, the admission fee was fifty cents. Over 7000 words are devoted only slightly to the mission’s founding but encompasses a mini-history of the great movements of mankind from the Egyptians to the Greeks to the Romans to the Iberian empires. To Johnson, the pageant of the past simply complemented the Spanish expedition in 1769 characterized as the “patriarchal age” of California. His history was considered important and popular enough to be published in a sixteen-page booklet. One hundred years later, a bicentennial tribute will be more elaborate and take considerably longer.
Historical recognition of its founding was sufficient to draw civic enthusiasm from the residents who numbered around 2500. What many really wanted was to celebrate their achievements with the clanging not of church bells but from one atop a train. Back to top
Any community – as in any life – there are special moments and events that remember both the life and its progress. The birth of a child, marriage, winning the lottery, saying a final farewell to a loved one remain ingrained as long as memory and celebration allow for recollection.
For the emerging municipality along the central coast, having passed through its infancy from settlement to county seat to town and city hood in 1876, with its expanding responsibilities to its nation, state and residents, the coming of the railroad was a palpable signal the community was better connected (but not completely) to the rest of the world. Progress – and civic authenticity – was being carried along with people and goods.
The dream began when the rails from east and west met at Promontory Point in northern Utah. On May 10, 1869, the driving of the Golden Spike to memorialize the rail’s completion truly united the vast country beyond the pioneer trails. It would be almost a quarter century before the latest gift of travel would reach San Luis Obispo. For local residents, the narrow-gauge railroad originating from today’s Avila was a tempting preview of the greatness to come. In the 1880’s and 1890s, while the community went about its daily routines and lives, surely, most thought, there was Progress Around the Bend aka The Railroad. The local press made sure any information – including rumors, innuendos, opinions and facts – were amply reported in its pages.
The sound of the lonely whistle in the distance, the night call of progress, the bell of arrival at the station carried an enormous message of hope and refreshment to those who waited – patiently – at the altar of improvement for the mighty steam driven bride to make her way into the heart of the community.
If the cost of waiting had been high, the challenges of arrival would be even more demanding. Thanks to the tireless efforts of so many, especially Robert E. Jack (well-worth visiting the family’s city home) and Chauncey Hatch Phillips, the future arrived on May 5, 1894. It was as if the gods of progress had finally decided to award the efforts of the community to establish itself as a reputable, law-biding place with proper laws and services welcoming a new avenue of growth and expansion. Finally, the future had arrived in the city. Loren Nicholson’s Rails Across the Ranchos captures the mood and expectations, let alone the excitement, of waiting for the train.
The wait was mostly economic as the railroad czars, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford were in the business of making money. Possibly a bit crass to today’s sensitivities, the economic well-being of individuals was of paramount importance coupled with the realities of the majority of citizens who struggled to make ends meet. If the men (and others in different enterprises) were the barons of the country, their lifestyles needed to reflect the grandeur and opulence of their non-hereditary titles.
Nonetheless, as the railroad spread its iron web across the State, the central coast was not forgotten as much as ignored as the cost to bring a locomotive to town was enormous. An essential question was not if the investment was to prove profitable…but how long before there would be a profit?
Thus, from the north and south the railroad inched its way toward the center. At Santa Barbara to the south and Salinas to the north, luring the rails toward the central coast was an epic adventure almost ending in 1894, but needed another seven years to truly finish the slow-moving race. Back to top
A little background will help to understand the dynamics that would eventually lead to capturing the prize. For us locally, the formation of the West Coast Land Company (WCLC) discussed below was based on the premise that first you promised prosperity and then they (the railroad) would come. Who would refuse attending a splendid banquet as the guest of honor?
After all, the Goddess of Tomorrow had already reached Soledad (early 1870s); the eastern route was completed between San Francisco and Los Angeles (1876) and ten years later San Miguel (a mere 45 miles north) became the new terminus. Within weeks, it even reached El Paso de Robles Resort Hotel ten miles further south. While any hamlet along its route has its own history, the county seat was near the last to record the day the train arrived to culminate (almost) the community’s iron connection to the rest of the Nation and world.
What better way to proclaim prosperity than to build a town with a church, school, stores, a park and saloons. Once built, let’s be sure to have farms nearby needing trains to transport products and people – lots of both. Those who did not farm would want to own smaller parcels, even lots to build homes and barns and raise families. It seemed inevitable that once so close to the County Seat, the final link would not be long in completing the demanding construction challenged by the Cuesta Pass. A booming population increasingly would need goods and services and the convenience of travel by rail. Why not honor one of the railroad emperors and name the new settlement Crocker!?
It almost worked.
Well, it did work but not according to local plans or timetables. One of the luxuries of history is while reviewing the past, the future of the times is readily available. Whenever the history of this community travels back to the discouragement to the late 1880s and early 1890s, it also knows the joy when on that most celebrated day, the first locomotive literally rounded the bend into the town. Preceded by the bravado of a whistle, the clang was a hymn along with the bellowing steam offered to PROGRESS. The day was a tribute for expectations long planned and prayed for with the conscientious effort of community leaders and residents. If they recalled the immediate, difficult past, it must have receded amid the tumultuous festivities.
While the jubilant residents may have understandably chosen to forget much of the past to bring the giant iron beast into town, history is not afforded the luxury. Whenever you pull a thread connected to the past, what presents itself is often a surprise. While it’s best to consciously consider any plan in an attempt to remember yesterday, it’s also best to remain flexible in the pursuit. Thus, to lure the railroad into San Luis Obispo, another community – indeed, a planned community – was developed to the north. This community owes its railroad history to a much smaller one over Cuesta Pass.
So, the civic ancestor of the local rails was conceived, developed, heavily publicized, and settled as both a sign that there was growth in the area and that the railroad was needed to accommodate a new commerce. Of course, any investment in such commerce needed to promise to be a profitable one. While initially named Crocker to honor the railroad tycoon, the settlement’s name was soon changed to honor the railroad mogul’s grandson, Templeton.
To convince the railroad barons of the necessity and profitability of moving the rails south, a syndicate of prominent and wealthy men formed the West Coast Land Company (WCLC) and purchased thousands of acres south of Paso Robles but north of Santa Margarita, divided the land into farm sites and carved a small community conveniently located along the eventual rail line. To this day, the locomotives lumber across the landscape and few in Templeton are immune to the daily notice(s) of the train passing along the iron ribbons. One only wonders how many are aware today’s whistle is an echo of one first sounded decades ago?
The decision to develop the area as a lure for the railroad was neither whimsical nor capricious. Business people know to be successful, profit is a necessary part (if not the only part) of the equation. Nor was the company ignorant of politics in its development. The WCLC’s chief officers included former governor George C. Perkins (1880-83), who would go on to long serve in the Washington, D. C. as senator from 1893 to 1915; John L. Howard, a principal of the Pacific Coast Railway Company, long familiar locally as bringing ships into Avila as well as operating the narrow-gauge railway from the wharf to the San Luis Obispo and beyond principally to the south; Isaac Goldtree, a wealthy local businessman, and Robert E. Jack (his home is a community landmark). An essential officer was Chauncey Hatch Phillips, who as secretary of the group has left some intriguing documents promoting the virtues of the area encouraging future residents to plant their futures in the abundant land for sale. After all, to increase the population, potential residents needed to migrate to the Golden State…specifically the central coast. Unlike many of the local historic figures, Phillips went on to become a premier developer of other properties in the state.
The coming of the rails to Templeton as well as an entertaining series of personal essays about early life in north county is captured in Carla Willhoit’s The End of the Line.
Nevertheless, to have finally succeeded in bringing the railroad within 25 miles of San Luis Obispo in 1886 was only the beginning. The herculean undertaking was to convince the Southern Pacific to continue south…a formidable task as the Cuesta Pass presented an extraordinary…and expensive…challenge. The tunnels required through the mountainous landscape is its own story.
Wooing the very rich and powerful societal scions required endless hours and days of planning, bargaining, begging and grit that have evaporated into time much like the smoke from the early engines. Nonetheless, the motivation was not to become remembered in the pageant of history as much as among the rolls of the prosperous. Yet, the extraordinary efforts required to capture and introduce the transportation system to connect the Nation along the central coast is a tale in the best tradition of American heroism.
With some influential allies as directors, the WCLC wasted no time in welcoming the rails to the new community of Templeton. Indeed, there was a station ready for passengers and freight and land sales were booming. In a repeated sales program of the time, free rail transportation was provided to potential buyers, a free barbeque (undoubtedly laced with abundant spirits), a sonorous description of potential lots for sale all resulted in the new pioneers investing in their future in a community undoubtedly whose name eluded their knowledge. Pioneers came west in more than covered wagons.
The tomorrow so diligently pursued signaled by the railroads brought the good, the bad and the ugly. Strangers started to arrive and there was a newness, a raw feeling, to the new town. Phillips, ever aware of economic potential, decided to establish himself – and his family – in the middle of the community with a grand home. Still a community gem, today a bed and breakfast, the expanded home was (and still is) a formidable reminder that Templeton was not going to be another forgotten stop (there would be many) along the railway once the Southern Pacific continued to move south.
Yet, just how much longer until the train’s whistle would be heard locally? There was progress. Indeed, within a few years the rails stretched south a few miles to Santa Margarita. On April 20, 1889, a Grand Auction Sale of land sent the rails and population closer to San Luis Obispo. Visit www.santamargaritahistoricalsociety.org for an interesting article (among many) on the coming of the rails to the tiny community that time seems to have forgotten…much to the delight of those who live there. Now, you could almost hear the iron horse chugging into the station and the early morning whistle drifting over the Cuesta into the County Seat.
The tantalizing future was just a few miles away. Rails Across the Ranchos by Loren Nicholson encapsulates the quest. To keep its good will with the San Francisco railway headquarters, part of the bargain to bring the rails south was granting free land and rights-of-way. If Phillips and Jack were able to convince the rail barons to expend a fortune to construct the tracks into San Luis Obispo, there were others who contributed part of their land (and thus their wealth) for the benefit of the small town. More years of pleading, planning and cajoling and the tunnels through the Cuesta Pass were required before the iron ribbons streamed south ending in a “railroad section” of town. Today, the statue of the Chinese railway workers near the station pays tribute to their contributions nationally to building the railroad but not here.
As if wooing a potential bride, the efforts to bring the bride to San Luis Obispo continued for five more years with success as the first train arrived in the community celebrating a true milestone in its pursuit of “progress.” The saga of convincing the railroad moguls to expend the time, energy, and, especially, the expense of bringing the trains just a few miles south took years and years of conversations, meetings, arm-twisting and economic savvy. Phillips and Jack continued to lead the effort with a tenacity and dedication worthy of remembrance. With a steady drumbeat provided by the local press, the effort is a milestone in municipal achievement. Today, Templeton declares Phillips its founder and Jack is remembered by a stunning Victorian home on Marsh Street and his ranch in Cholame.
When the epoch-making day finally arrived on May 4, 1894, there seemed no end to the cheers and joyful noise to welcome more than an engine, more than a link to rails around America, but a civic rite of passage as – at least, instinctively – everyone knew the community would never be the same. However, Progress is often a fickle companion and not all change would prove positive. It is a lesson learned, often slowly, by those who relinquish (or chose to forget) the past for the often-illusory promises of a better tomorrow.
Until May 5, 1894, the community intensity of interest simply consumed most of the local talk or civic planning. The rails MUST make their way south. Some of the multiple plans, hopes, dreams and disappointments will be intertwined with the development of the city, but the train – if for no other reason – would relieve the arduous trek for anyone or anything needing to travel. Now, rather than braving the terrain of the Cuesta Pass and an arduous land journey (or the equally dangerous trip by sea), a passenger could board locally and – an incredible luxury – disembark in San Francisco within (many) hours. Imagine doing the same to the south of the city!
Eventually, the final connection between the rails from north and south would unite San Luis Obispo – both County and City – to the rest of the Union. Indeed, the rails at America’s shores joined shipping to trade with much of the world. The final link became a civic drama for the following seven years and will be detailed in another installment. In an extraordinary gift of research generosity, Wilmar Tognazzini has compiled the local newspaper articles in “Closing the Gap” as testimony to this civic milestone.
Once there was a direct connection along the coast an early reward just happened to be a visit from the President of the United States. Back to top
Preparing for the Railroad
Arriving in 1883, Myron Angel and his newspaper continued to be a major booster for the small community. His praise included noting that gas and water were becoming increasingly available to residents with a volunteer fire department housed in the first city hall. Transportation was eased as the narrow-gauge railroad originally into San Luis Obispo traveled as well from Avila south to Los Alamos.
With rail service from the north, traveling would already have been a quicker and more pleasant experience. Until the train pulled into the small community, traveling south required:
(1) if you lived north, a ride over the Cuesta Pass on horseback, wagon, or stagecoach (not the elevated route used today but the approximate one called Stagecoach Road);
(2) transferring to the narrow-gauge cars at the station at Higuera and South Streets, eventually wending through the countryside to Los Olivos, and
(3) disembarking for another stagecoach ride over the mountain to Santa Barbara to board the southbound train.
The trip was identical in reverse for those starting in the south of the state. Besides time-consuming, travel was expensive and required a pioneer’s preparation for the journey. With the new anticipated connection, at least, traveling to San Luis Obispo from the north would be a much easier ordeal….and should be rewarded.
Before and after the first train’s arrival, the community hadn’t remained passive waiting for the railroad barons to bless them with an iron queen as evidenced by the activities of the West Coast Land Company further north. There were others whose vision foresaw an emerging center of progress in California. One even prepared for the event by building an impressive palace to greet newcomers.
Preparing for the railroad and celebrating its many contributions to the central coast, a must-see collection is the Railroad Museum in San Luis Obispo. The well displayed memorabilia are a tribute to the determination of volunteers to preserve the past for the present. Knowledgeable docents will further enrich any visit. Back to top
Travelers deserved to be greeted and pampered in the luxurious hotel. Indeed, these were heady times as the Andrews Hotel opened its doors on July 3, 1885. If the Nation was to celebrate its Independence the next day, the opening of the Andrews proclaimed an inaugural day in a San Luis Obispo staking its claim as a new, more cosmopolitan community.
The title of the first chapter of Nicholson’s excellent Rails Across the Ranchos is “The Grand Promise.” It was neither that of politicians, bureaucrats nor developers but the fulfillment of a dream of John Pinkney Andrews.
For Andrews, the community required a fine hotel to accommodate the expected throngs of visitors who would find the valley community a convenient overnight stop if traveling between the northern or southern parts of the state. The centrally located locale would be a choice spot to rest between the lengthy journeys from either San Francisco (with about 300,000 population) or the considerably less populated southern end of the State. The rural community was only about 40 miles equidistant from the City on the Bay and the City of Angeles.
Undoubtedly, a comfortable place to refresh oneself would encourage some to simply stay or return and plant their futures in the emerging city. Well deserving of the title as a “grand promise,” the finest hotel – then or now – was built years before it would be needed to receive rail guests and, sadly, succumbed in its infancy.
July 3, 1885 was an exceptional day with the grand opening of the spectacular Andrews Hotel. More than a business venture, the building was a visual reminder of the anticipated greatness for the agricultural community (Federal census in 1880: 2243). The three-story palace of luxury towered over the city on the corner of Monterey and Osos Streets unashamed of its beauty. After all, it was the harbinger of the future. Not proclaimed at the opening, but typifying the excited anticipation of the time, one admirer declared:
“I am listening for the tramp of coming multitudes…they are coming fifty thousand strong. Coming from their eastern homes to find this balmy atmosphere and to secure for themselves and for their children a future home.”
The city still has not attained the “fifty thousand strong.” The hotel was a spectacular echo of Myron Angel’s statement that “the present condition is that of steady progress” referring to the emerging community. When he arrived in 1883 to take ownership of the Tribune newspaper, he was keenly aware of the evolution of the county as found in his seminal History of San Luis Obispo County (1883). The grand hotel became a jewel surrounded by a crusty setting. Angel is an essential presence in our history and will reappear later not only as a writer…but a visionary whose foresight has proven beneficial to tens of thousands to this day.
The “Great Promise” of the Andrews Hotel included every possible convenience for guests. The Andrews expected a discerning clientele and the hotel would rival any accommodations available in San Francisco. Furnishings for 112 rooms came from that city and required close attention to transport from the Bay area to Port Harford. Expensive curtains, “fine paintings in rich frames, soft velvet and Brussels carpets, grand mirrors” among many amenities declared the hotel belonged in a progressive and cultured community. Besides smaller rooms for commercial travelers, large suites were provided, some with a dumb waiter so food could be delivered into the suite from the kitchen below. A dining room of over 2000 square feet also doubled as a ballroom. Each room had hot and cold running water, fireplaces and “electric call bells.”
When the train finally did arrive (soon most hoped, especially the investors), passengers would be rewarded with the utmost in taste and luxury.
It didn’t survive for one year.
It was Sunday afternoon, April 18, 1886 when the harbinger of bad news, the fire bell atop City Hall began its ominous clanging. It didn’t take long for most to see the smoke rising above the new tall Andrews Hotel and the “lurid flames” reported the Tribune seemingly came from everywhere. Later investigation showed the shabbily constructed flues in the attic accelerated the fire throughout the building. More than once, Angel warned in the pages of the newspaper of the shoddy construction. Not only the hotel but the County Courthouse nearby was in danger as residents rushed in to retrieve valuable records. Fortunately, the Georgian building was saved but not so the Bank of San Luis Obispo, the first county bank (another Andrews enterprise), the post office, the main livery stable, along with other shops and offices. It indeed was a sad day for everyone. In what must have seemed like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, San Luis Obispo was simply burning to the ground.
It was a spectacular fire as flames eagerly looked for – and easily found – more to consume. When it was over, the community lost buildings…and watched the promise of the magnificent Andrews Hotel disappear in a fiery, destructive night of havoc. If there was a civic date for communal depression, it was the day of the fire. Not even a year from the gala opening, the stunning building, a lighthouse for the soon-to-arrive railroad was gone.
It was not as if the town simply looked on as most able-bodied men joined the volunteer fire department passing buckets of water and attempting to salvage anything from inside. Colorful names such as the Good Will Fire Company or Rescue Hook and Ladder were no match for a hungry fire.
Sensing the loss as more than a building, the next day the city’s band came marching down the street with music meant to cheer the weary and dejected. Words couldn’t lift the spirits but music could! It was not the time for the faint hearted, and J. P. Andrews lost no time in developing plans for a second Andrews Hotel opening many years later. The second hotel, however, was simply a commercial venture unlike its predecessor as by then the railroad was a seasoned community convenience. The second Andrews was a much more prosaic structure ending its days as a dormitory for Cal Poly students.
Indeed, the dream of the first Andrews Hotel had been quickly transferred to the 144 guest rooms and suites called the Ramona Hotel opening in 1888. The three thousand residents would still have a fine hotel to receive railroad guests. Little did anyone realize that from its front veranda, the President of the United States would in three years greet the community!
Locals were not the only entrepreneurs planning to reap the benefits of a railroad. A few months after the opening of the ill-fated Andrews Hotel, a Colonel A. M. Gray presented plans to build a mecca for entertainment: a 700-seat opera house on the corner of Higuera and Broad Streets. While never constructed, the Colonel saw the potential (correctly) as once connected between north and south, the central coast was a logical midpoint – and overnight stop – for the travelers. People need lodging and food and entertainment. To varying degrees in its history, San Luis Obispo has been a popular venue for tourists and entertainers traveling between the great cities of the north and south.
In one of those delightful historical juxtapositions, the next month after the railroad’s grand celebration, another quieter inauguration is enjoyed today. Back to top
San Luis Obispo Library
The long, tedious but successful quest to bring the railroad to San Luis Obispo in 1894 was not the only stellar civic milestone. A somewhat less spectacular event – indeed one month after the first train rolled into the community in May – occurred when the community library opened its doors. As with the railroad, the journey to improve the municipality’s literacy was as daunting as that of improving its rail commerce although not as expensive. Many residents were educated and literate, maintained personal libraries, established many schools throughout the county, and – since 1868 – enjoyed a local newspaper (well, if you were a Democrat, you might subscribe to the Pioneer but Republicans waited another year until Walter Murray and Horatio Rembaugh founded the Tribune). Information beyond the local gossip and back fence conversations depended on the newspapers from San Francisco.
Over 20 years previous to the coming of the railroad, referring to state legislation passed in 1863 (An Act in Reference to Library Associations), records indicate on January 15, 1872, the San Luis Obispo Library Association was incorporated “for the purpose of erecting, procuring and using a public library.” Signatories were many of the most prominent Town members.
Victor C. Allen (who was also the Town Clerk) was appointed librarian. The Standard (another early newspaper) hoped the Association met with “universal encouragement.” The reader should understand this was not a free library…but one that simply was open to members and not an in-home private collection. The reigning civic improvement model of the time was to support with tax money only the most basic community necessities. Everything else was at the direction and funding of the community. Today, the county library system still operates – in part – as a reflection of this late 19th century philosophy. If a community wants a library today, the residents are responsible for generating half of funds needed…in addition to paying their regulated taxes.
Thus, in 1872, use of the library was by subscription and the membership fee of $5 plus $1.50 per month allowed use of the Association’s reading room open daily from 2-5pm and 7-10pm. While records are scarce, the library seems only to be supplied with magazines and newspapers and there were no withdrawal privileges. A benevolent idea, it was not long before the newspaper reported it was “in failing health.” Undoubtedly, many of the corporation members enjoyed their own home collections and had no need to subscribe. The February 8, 1873 Tribune article exhorted its readers:
“If men would rather haunt the saloons, let them subscribe for the benefit of their wives and daughters. Come down, all of you; and let it not be said that no beneficent an institution shall fall to the ground.”
The power of the local press resulted in an immediate increase in membership. Within a week, the Association reported at least 40 members in a town of about 1500 residents. Reminiscent of more modern perpetual budget issues, a festival was planned to raise funds along with fee-based lectures for the edification of the members.
Assuring its readers, the new literacy efforts “will no doubt be well patronized,” the Tribune also depended on readers. This may have not lasted long – or have been supplemented – as by the mid-1870s, merchants Samuel A. Pollard and John J. Simmler established a circulating library in their store along with selling State textbooks. Most likely, any circulation was among the store’s customers.
Another issue was the ability of local governing boards to establish taxes for specific purposes. It was many years later that the Legislature authorized the County Supervisors to establish (and fund) free public libraries. Expectedly, the County Supervisors here did not embrace any library levy. They would not consider the issue until 1915. That, too, is another story.
In the meanwhile, a Literary Society was formed with many of the same members of the Library Association. With no movement afoot to create a publicly funded library anywhere, interest in literacy persisted typified by a newspaper article extolling the virtues of a home library. Of course, books were expensive and any personal collections were subject to taxation. Nonetheless, vision preceded reality.
Our civic ancestors must have felt the summer of 1894 was not only a new year but a new era. With both the railroad’s arrival and the first library opening its doors, the future was indeed filled with great promise and expectations. While not totally free as funds came from subscriptions, a giant step had been taken to encourage literacy without using tax revenues.
We had become the center of our own universe. With the twin pillars of progress: commerce and literacy, the railroad (almost) connected us to the world and a library (potentially) connected us to all of mankind’s recorded endeavors. In that most determinative year, the thinly populated County and County Seat of San Luis Obispo could finally see the smoke and hear the bell of the future rumbling its way across the landscape. Any sense of entitlement was further boosted as a quieter revolution to the civic landscape was inaugurated with a small collection of books housed above yet another bank building in the community. PROGRESS – intentionally spelt with capital letters – was inevitable.
What more, undoubtedly asked many, could possibly enhance the thriving, revitalized urban center? A few may have remembered the mean years of lawlessness when the gun, not justice, determined the future of individuals rather than self-determination and enterprise. The human flood of gold seekers to the north had transformed the still-Mexican possession from its relatively isolated place to world-wide attention as the Goddess of Gold lured the ambitious, the unprepared and the unscrupulous to seek their fortunes at the end of a shovel and pick-axe or by guile.
Who could forget the extreme measures of the Vigilance Committee led by Walter Murray who unable to find competent governance created their own? As if peace was to be denied, many recalled the national struggle for survival in the bloody, unsettling epic of the Civil War. The final link at Promontory Point of the rails in 1869 was more than a commercial venture but also a visual reminder that the Union had survived, was one…and now physically linked in a celebrated technological miracle.
Yet, life was more than business. How was a community to nurture its spirit? Among the many demands in any life, the literate sought solace and inspiration from the printed page. Schools maintained a meager supply of books for instruction but with very limited access to any popular titles beyond textbooks. The demand for a more organized effort to promote reading beyond the classroom grew with the County’s population. The local Independent Order of Odd-Fellows Hall emulated their San Francisco brothers in maintaining a library for members in their lodge rooms at the corner of Monterey and Court Streets. Nonetheless, the desire to have a separate facility to become a city library opening any collection to the public would – eventually – overcome the lack of funds.
Six days after the momentous arrival of the first train, on May 16, 1894, Articles of Incorporation were filed with the County Clerk for the San Luis Obispo Public Library. Several signatories had also incorporated the Library Association some twenty years previous. The eleven officers were empowered to “buy, own, manage, and sell such real and personal property” as necessary. While the corporation was granted for 50 years, it lasted for three.
First, it needed a home. Who would have guessed that both commerce and literacy would dwell together?
It was more than a shrewd business move by John Pinckney Andrews to build a bank…most assuredly of brick. He was painfully aware of the perils of wood when his other huge investment – the eight-month old spectacular Andrew Hotel – burned to the ground some 15 years earlier. The enterprising Andrews knew there would be competition as his was not the only bank in town. However, his was the only one with a library on the second floor. What convenience when you could transact business (most often a male pursuit) and browse the collection (definitely appealing to the ladies)!
With the completion of the imposing Andrews Banking Company building on the corner of Osos and Monterey, the necessary icon of an “enlightened” community – a library – was born. So enthusiastic …and confident…of its success, the 800-square foot upper floor was leased for 20 years! On June 15, 1894, a reception was held to celebrate the generosity of book donors and to solicit subscriptions (fifty cents monthly only to those of “good character”). The grand opening was for many an extension of the expectations from the previous month. For $50, a life membership was possible with over 30 subscribers including Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph – who would build his own library (and them some!) further north on the Enchanted Hill.
All too familiar in the saga of local libraries, the space proved inadequate and the first library will move half way through its lease.
An Episcopal priest, the Rev. Robert W. Summers, was appointed the first librarian for the 768-book collection that more than doubled by the end of the year. Summers had more than liturgies and literacy on his mind as he and his wife were acknowledged pioneer botanists along the Pacific rim. Both were educated and talented individuals who advertised students could receive:
“instruction in English literature, zoology, geology, botany, physical geography, the distribution of life in time and space, and courses of a similar character.”
Some students could also receive “pianoforte” instruction as well.
Open daily in the afternoons and evenings for six hours (no evening hours on Sunday), visitors for the first year numbered over 4500. When funds became scarce (an on-going issue for libraries), evening hours were eliminated to save on electricity. True to their civic determination, after the New Year, an “entertainment” was held and $223 netted for book purchases.
The initial vision for the new community asset expanded its name. Its constitution was developed for “a museum and reading room” – a cultural center – for the small city. In part, the “museum” acknowledged the artifacts gleamed from Summers’ personal collection. Posterity has been enriched as ?????? recounts the Summers exploits before moving into the valley.
One evening’s cultural enrichment included some Shakespeare with prizes for characterizations, a guitar duet, singing and refreshments. Larger community events (admission: 25 cents) for the library’s benefit provided a program of local talent performing songs, “comic recitations,” and violin and coronet solos as well as selections rendered by the mandolin and guitar.
In the summer of 1896, another fund-raiser was an excursion to the Sycamore Hot Springs. Besides dancing, clam chowder and coffee were provided with the proviso: “The ladies (Trustees) will furnish cups…but each participant is expected to furnish his own spoon.” The community affair – many merchants agreed to close their shops early on the day of the excursion – once again allowed the library to remain open during some evenings. The Tribune complimented the ladies from rescuing the library from a “condition of collapse.”
Possibly . . .
While the collection, patrons and enthusiasm grew, the semi-private collection became the City and County’s first free library the next year. It lasted for three quarters of a century.
It was a landmark date for San Luis Obispo. On September 21, 1897, the City assumed responsibility for the 2000 volume collection. It was a momentous step in the community’s cultural life. Now, the library was integrated into the city’s official consciousness requiring taxpayers to contribute to the collection and personnel, but open to all. In other words, along with streets and sanitation, public safety and public education, the advancement of literacy was a municipal value. The library was now a free public library. It even had its own tax-rate separate from the city’s annual general tax. Thus, the designation as “free” applied to usage and not cost to residents as most paid taxes to support the collection. Having taken responsibility for the library, the city fathers passed Ordinance 99 making it a misdemeanor punishable with fines up to $100 for anyone violating library rules.
Any library – more accurately, its concept and development – reflects its community. Yes, there were even wrongdoers (exceeded the due date) who paid a late fee. Admittedly, two cents a day was not excessively punitive, but offenders with continual, blatant abuse of library “privileges” could be barred from its services! Unlike more intense criminal activity (a discussion later), inside a library was a civic sanctuary from the noise and irritation on the outside. Charging a late fee has been an on-going discussion among library personnel. From “amnesty” periods to increases and decreases in the amount, to filing charges against wrongdoers, there are limits as to the meaning of “free.”
To oversee the operation of the now free public library, the City Council appointed a five-member Library Board of Trustees…all women who would stand for election the next year. Considering the ladies were not eligible to vote for themselves – or anyone else, after the first election, the Library Trustees were appointed. Among the appointees was Nettie Sinsheimer.
It would be over 10 years before there was a male appointment. There is much to say about the decision to appoint only women to the task; but it is doubtful the men fully comprehended what the ladies would do in addition to being faithful guardians of the growing collection. They were also involved in the suffrage and temperance movements. We’ll look at some of the extra-curricular political activities at a later date.
Summers continued as librarian until 1898. Upon his demise, a most famous lady assumed guardianship of the collection. Francis Margaret Milne began her ten-year tenure but today is most noted for her poetry. Still in print, she wrote for a different generation and era, but as with all quality poetry, is ageless. Included in her duties, she compiled a yearly report for City officials. These documents from 1901 to 1934 are part of the City Clerk Archives and provide an invaluable insight into the library as it struggled to meet patron needs as well as budget restraints.
In addition to funding requests, the Trustees requested such mundane items as a step-ladder and swivel chair. However, then, as now, space was a continuing concern as the second floor of the Andrews Building soon became an issue. The answer came not from the City fathers but from a Scottish immigrant.
The saga of the fabulously wealthy Andrew Carnegie’s faith in libraries – including a $10,000 gift to this community – deserves attention. Suffice here, the fabulously wealthy man who considered dying with great wealth to be disgraceful – sponsored over two thousand libraries worldwide to support literacy. His only visit to California in March 1910 did not include a stop in San Luis Obispo. In fact, traveling north by rail, he was forced to change trains as a collapsed tunnel through the grade prevented a direct route.
However, at this point, we’ll let the nascent library rest as the advent of the twentieth century provided even more exciting civic drama. Back to top
A President Comes to Visit
The beginning of the twentieth century found the small city of San Luis Obispo (population 3021) relishing in the signs of PROGRESS. Engulfed in a state that had nearly doubled its population in the last 20 years to nearly 1,500,000, residents wondered at the woes and wonders of the Union as well as the rest of the world. There were many who well-remembered the agonies of the Civil War and the unprecedented assassination of President Abraham Lincoln…followed by a second of President James Garfield in 1881.
Now, who would have thought a group of cities would form a baseball association now known as the American League? Or that German Kaiser Wilhelm would commence a military build-up that would engulf Europe in a war to end all wars (until the next one)?
Locally, the residents were greeted with rain, a blessing for farmers and ranchers but not conducive to celebrating the arrival of the new baby into a new century. A highlight seems to have been a special service held at the Mission. Regardless the splendor as well as the squalor ever present in human affairs, the City almost had a railroad connection to the world and a blossoming icon of culture and refinement – a library – as twin pillars to support the civic psyche that would define the community through the next 100 years and – within the next decade – even change the form of governance.
The city fathers were led by William A. Shipsey (1900-1902) whose title was president of the Board of Trustees (and whose home is a city treasure) and issues large and small occupied the municipal agenda. As expected, the major conversations were centered on bringing the railroad north from Santa Barbara and south from the city to truly link the central coast to the rest of the world. Any progress (or rumors thereof) was reported and as 1900 aged into 1901, the sound of the train’s whistle could almost be heard (certainly in the imagination) faintly from the south and receding from the north. The realities and fantasies of a local connection provided plenty of copy for the newspapers and conversation in the multiple saloons. The original 55-mile “gap” roughly from Ellwood (north of Santa Barbara) to Serf (near Lompoc) will take years to complete.
When the local version of the “golden spike” was finally placed and the first trains rumbled into and through the community into the vastness of America, who would have thought a few months later that no less a personage than the President of the United States would pay a brief visit. It must have seemed as if he wanted to personally congratulate the city on its latest achievement. In reality, he stopped for an hour and was more concerned about his wife’s health than another speech along a journey that would take him from the White House and – some four months later – to his grave.
William McKinley was the first Chief Executive to enjoy the new rail service (literally finished shortly before his arrival) into and through San Luis Obispo County. It certainly was a civic crown jewel and celebrated with more relish than the advent of the new century!
One may wonder as President McKinley planned his train excursion around the Nation, if there was any concern (or knowledge) that there would be a connection along the central coast.
President Rutherford B. Hayes rode the rails from Washington, D. C. to San Francisco as did President Benjamin Harrison in 1891 to Santa Barbara. Both stopped at the end of the (then) line. In what must have been both irritating and confusing, a convenient stop between San Francisco and southern California was simply bypassed for the more inland route. There had been additions to the coastal line since the train’s arrival in San Luis Obispo in 1894 but there were some who were grateful the President was coming to town. The rails needed to be ready for his visit on May 10, 1901.
“Never in its history has San Luis been thronged with such a crowd as was present last night,” proclaimed the Tribune, “but never before in its history has our city received a president.” Being but one stop of the 10,000-mile presidential journey across America, the community “for an hour at least” would be the “seat of government.” For in that hour, American democracy as embodied by its president would leave a memorable impression on the municipality. Rather than rumbling by as was dictated by most of his California itinerary, President McKinley was going to stop and pay a visit. It was heady acknowledgement that San Luis Obispo – finally – was more than an insignificant hamlet between the northern and southern empires of the Golden State.
Running for office at the turn of the last century was vastly different from the mega-million-dollar extravaganzas of today. McKinley primarily confined himself to receiving supporters from the front porch of his home in Canton, Ohio (except on Sundays). However, as president, he wanted to meet his constituency. After the victories in the Spanish-American War, he was now the leader of a world power!
When the local officials were notified of the presidential visit in early April, the railroad from the south had just begun linking passenger and freight service with the rails from the north.
Officially, the rail connection was completed on the last day of 1900 with regular service being inaugurated in late March. When McKinley and his entourage boarded their train in Washington, D.C. on April 29, they would be the most famous rail visitors to the community… “one of the first fruits” of the huge step in the community’s link to the rest of America. Personal and civic pride must have been unparalleled in the municipality’s history.
Planning for the event involved anyone interested in helping. Parade routes, receptions, etc. would demonstrate to the Chief Executive that the community might be small in number but huge in good will. Contrary to the great expectations by the community, when the final schedule was presented to the local planning committee, the entire event was confined to one hour…and no more.
The President had a demanding schedule and punctuality was expected. Southern Pacific printed a timetable listing every stop covering Friday, May 10 from Santa Barbara to Tuesday May 14 in San Francisco. The President’s Special had the “absolute right of track over all trains” which were required to clear the tracks thirty minutes ahead of the august travelers.
It can only be imagined the anticipation and exhilaration as the crowd heard the arriving whistle of the locomotive bringing the President…and Progress…to the city.
As the train whistle announced the imminent appearance of the President and his entourage of 43, the ecstatic community was ready to show the easterners that the municipality was worth the stop. Who would have guessed that the Grand Tour in a gesture to underscore that the states were indeed united also would become a presidential farewell journey?
Mayor William A. Shipsey greeted President McKinley and his party regretting their brief visit would not afford them an opportunity to “feast your eyes on the magnificent beauties of nature and on the homes in and around town.” The original community plans were to give a 21-gun salute followed by a parade to show off its development as a modern city. While so many communities might tout their agricultural superiority, San Luis Obispo wanted a procession so the President could admire residences. Was there a better image of maturity and stability than homes build for families? Expressing the community’s hope for “continued success” in his administration, Shipsey concluded saluting the continued “prosperity and integrity” of America.
“Amid the wildest cheers and utmost enthusiasm,” McKinley rose from his seat on the expansive veranda of the Ramona Hotel amid other dignitaries and thanked the assembly. “If all goes well with his country,” noted the Chief Executive, “all is likely to go well with him.” Since a fundamental tenent of democracy was the right to vote, he was sure to mention in words applicable at any time, “Good citizenship is indispensable to good government.” There were undoubtedly many in the audience devoted to including women as part of the voting citizenry. While a decade away, many appreciated a friendly ear from the city’s guest and, especially, his wife…who while accompanying her husband did not join him at his outdoor reception.
Unfortunately, the First Lady was reported as suffering from a “felon” (inflammation of a finger). Such a minor occurrence, hardly worth mentioning, became the genesis of a series of decisions that changed history. Ida McKinley’s small cut to an index finger became infected, and now, the wound turned into blood poisoning. In San Luis Obispo, her health continued to deteriorate rapidly as her husband fulfilled his duties. Within a few days, in San Francisco, fearing the First Lady would not survive, the procession stopped. The Grand Tour was derailed.
Ominously, the pioneer Sandercock Transfer Company had placed a picture of McKinley in the center of a flag display with the prophetic legend: “We Will Never Look on His Like Again.” While undoubtedly a kind reference to the popular president’s character, it was also an epitaph.
If President McKinley’s Grand Tour was delayed in order to attend to his wife’s illness, it ultimately ended in tragedy. Originally slated to end in Buffalo, New York on June 13, instead, responding to his wife’s malady, McKinley postponed his appearance until the fall.
Rescheduling his appearance for September, he was shot in the chest at point blank range on the sixth. McKinley survived but endured days of suffering and succumbed eight days later. Would the assassin, Leon Czolgosz, have been ready in early summer rather than in the fall? Was the delay caused by a seemingly minor cut developing into blood poisoning evolving into a postponed function have resulted in the same tragic results? San Luis Obispo was but a tiny increment leading to the tragedy. His death roused the community to plan – not a welcome – but a farewell. Back to top
Another President Comes to Visit
However, within two years, another – very different – president decided to visit. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt burst into the community…but only after the local planning committee had been instructed to consider the security for the event.
After the recent assassination of his predecessor, President Roosevelt’s advisors were adamant: “No reception. No handshaking.” Crowds were to keep their distance during the Chief Executive’s brief visit. There was to be no “disturbances” in the carefully arranged 66-day tour. Precautions were wise as in 1912, an attempted assassination was thwarted when a bullet to T. R.’s chest was stopped by his metal eyeglass case and a thick speech in his breast pocket. Undaunted by the assassination attempt, he continued with a ninety-minute speech. Fortunately, an enthusiastic crowd locally just wanted to see and hear him. Indeed, the public was even cautious about cheering the 26th President as he started his brief visit. Additionally, for the speech, directions indicated the admirers were to keep well away from the newly built grandstand in today’s Mitchell Park.
Annie Morrison, a mainstay for local historians with her massive Pioneers of San Luis Obispo County and Environs (1917) vividly recalled the day years later.
Describing herself as “a little middle-aged country school teacher ‘from the hills,’” she eagerly awaited the president’s arrival with her four students after having traveled into the city from thirty miles away. Everyone had been warned to keep the streets clear and so she waited near the train station in “a sort of tenseness” amid a silent crowd. “Not a single Hurrah,” she recalled, came from the spectators. It was as if any noise or movement was feared as “some act of violence.” Nonetheless, she couldn’t contain herself:
“I felt as if our president were (sic) being mortally insulted and with no idea but to honor our chief I sprang onto the curb, threw up my right arm and yelled – plain yelled – “Hurrah for Roosevelt! Three cheers for Roosevelt.”
Immediately, others joined in as the President rose, “swept off his silk hat, showed off his teeth in one big smile and facing me bowed low and waved his hand.”
Somehow, the president seemed to expand time in his one-hour visit to the tiny town of San Luis Obispo on May 9, 1903. He led a carriage parade from the train station to the Mission, toured the venerable structure and returned to the site of today’s Mitchell Park for an official greeting. The President described by Annie Morrison as having a “clean, manly, fearless life” did not disappoint the admiring crowd with his greeting.
Calling California “the West of the West,” Roosevelt was no stranger to the vast expanses of America. Possibly a few residents knew of his heartbreak upon the death of his first wife in 1884 two days after giving birth to their daughter. Earlier on the same day – in the same house – his mother also had died.
The trauma and heartbreak required a radical solution. Roosevelt moved to North Dakota. Entrusting his infant daughter to relatives, the Harvard-educated politician transformed himself into a westerner. Roosevelt learned to ride western style, rope and hunt. His three-year sojourn gave him a new perspective on life in America…an attitude he carried into the presidency and beyond. To him, the westerner possessed “few of the emasculated, milk-and-water moralities admired by the pseudo-philanthropists; but he does possess, to a very high degree, the stern, manly qualities that are invaluable to a nation”. True to his literary nature, he added three books to his growing bibliography.
For three years, he largely abandoned his political and personal life to energizing both his body and soul on the vast expanse of the rural north of America. In an extraordinary transformation from a privileged politician of the east to a rugged cowboy of the west, there emerged a dynamic, unswerving Roosevelt. His advice: “Believe you can and you are halfway there.” He brought both the man and the message in full force to his limited interaction with the city.
All his speeches on his innumerable California stops have been published and for us, he was sure to compliment local agriculture noting the “largest pumpkin” came from here. There still is a yearly Halloween display in the Mission Plaza attesting to his compliment. With the newly founded California Polytechnic Institute, the Harvard graduate reminded everyone that “farming is not only a practical, but a scientific pursuit.” Having embraced the land, he extolled “the earth tiller, the soil tiller, the man of the farms, the man of the ranches… stands as the one citizen indispensable to the entire community.” Farming fed – and still feeds – America.
Looking over the crowd, the young man (born in 1858) knew many of these same men of the farms laid down their plows to take up arms in the Civil War. Attending as a mounted Honor Guard, the President acknowledged the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) as those who proved true in “the hour of the nation’s agony…their practice preaches louder than any words of mine could.” The crowd agreed in robust applause. No stranger to combat, he had formed his own military company. Colonel Roosevelt – a title he treasured all his life – experienced war as he actively led his men in the bloody battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba in the Spanish-American War just five years previous.
A frequent theme on his many stops, TR reiterated his pleasure at noting the affluence of the Golden State. While “material prosperity” was congratulated, it was a “better thing to bring up children.” Children were precious. He knew…his wife had died to bring their daughter into the world. He was impressed by the schools and sent a “special greeting to the future, to the children, to those who are to be the men and women of the next generation; and upon whom it will depend whether this country goes forward or not.” An essential message for all generations, he reiterated: “I like the way…you are training the children to citizenship of the future.”
He was sure to make note of the newly-founded California Polytechnic School. An Ivy League graduate, the practical president knew the nation needed more than intellectual training on the road to greatness. Lauding the wage-earner and the home-maker, the President shared his vision of the future in “what will count for most is the average character of the individual citizen…that is what counts in the long run in making a nation.” Often lost in the complications of Progress, the President spoke to the essence of a democracy.
A polished and experienced speaker, Roosevelt’s speech of about ten minutes to the assembled crowd (that had been warned to keep their distance) underscored the necessity of personal integrity as well as community/country resolve. From the “wise use in perpetuity of the forests” to attention to “the interests that go to make up the higher life of the nation,” the President was one to look forward to what must be rather than relying on what had been. Heralding his love of nature, presidential favor and leadership embraced conservation and those who come “on the soil to stay” and rear their children to continue caring for the land. He had little use for speculators who abused the land and would merely “skin” the country of its resources. Indeed, a highlight of his California adventure was meeting – and camping – with conservationist John Muir. During his presidency, Roosevelt signed extensive legislation creating national parks, forests and sanctuaries for wildlife.
In a speech punctuated by frequent applause and cheers, the Chief Executive emphasized that a sound mind and body, but especially character, are essential. To the young president, in words resonating in all ages, the “elements of decency, of courage, and of common sense” were more than abstractions but sound advice for all. Personally, a rigorous lifestyle had initial overcome childhood illnesses and while in the White House, he insisted on boxing (among other athletic pursuits). Undoubtedly intimidated West Point cadets were instructed to hit him in his many physical routines. One blow, a secret he kept hidden from the public, blinded him in one eye.
He had visited and toured, he had hoped to recognize and inspire the populous, and now it was time to leave. He boarded his six-car train as the band played “America” and rode into destiny.
TR’s future included a popular presidency and reelection the next year. He would come to deeply regret promising the public he would not run for reelection in 1908. The personal and political ramifications of that decision are aptly recorded by Doris Kearns Goodwin in The Bully Pulpit. In a life crammed with accomplishments besides politics, Roosevelt’s would include the Nobel Prize in 1906, the completion of the American construction of the Panama Canal that he enthusiastically endorsed (including a personal inspection), and an autobiography in 1913 and a toy named after him. The last was not an endearing footnote to his life as he vigorously opposed being called “Teddy”.
T.R. was not a man to waste time. In addition to his political ventures, a near fatal safari recounted in The River of Doubt by Candice Millard took its toll for years. Roosevelt died in his sleep on January 6, 1919 at his home (Sagamore Hill). One notable reflection was that Death was wise not to visit while he was awake. If so, TR would have entered into yet another battle.
Given his intensity for life, he just might have won. Back to top
California Polytechnic Institute
For the 3000 residents of the city of San Luis Obispo, the opening decade of the 20th century must have seemed like a ten-year World’s Fair. The great icon of progress – the railroad – had finally connected in March 1901 along the coast allowing for traffic from the north – and then connections to the rest of the Nation. Almost immediately after the welcoming whistle, another whistle announced the coming of the President of the United States, William McKinley, and almost exactly two years later his successor, Theodore Roosevelt. Who would have thought the rural community would be a stop along any presidents’ nationwide trips…let alone an hour visit from each! They were the last sitting Chief Executives to visit the County Seat.
Yet, more civic pride and progress was on the horizon. Among President Roosevelt’s remarks, he was sure to add:
“I am glad to learn that the state of California is erecting here the polytechnic institute for giving all the scientific training in the arts of farm life.”
By then, TR undoubtedly remembered he could have used some training in “the arts of farm life” when he reinvented himself in the former Dakota Territory after the debilitating loss of his wife and mother on the same day and in the same house in 1884. He continued:
“There should be the same chance for the tiller of the soil to make a learned profession that there is in any other business.”
The President didn’t have time to go into the extraordinary saga of Myron Angel’s quest to do good for his community. Unfortunately, neither the community nor the school has reciprocated in any meaningful recognition of the amazing generosity of spirit that founded today’s university.
The genesis for an institute of advanced education began in 1893 when the prominent local 66-year old Myron visited his hometown of Oneonta, New York to refresh his youthful memories. Among his discoveries, he was most impressed by the newly founded (1889) State Normal School. This in a community he once characterized as an “unsidewalked, disorderly village.” Providing educational opportunities to this day, Angel not only praised its architecture, but more importantly, its purpose to influence “the greatest good upon the people of the village and surrounding country.”
The institution was a powerful symbol of PROGRESS and, for Myron, why couldn’t that progress be brought west? Thus, began a decade-long effort to translate a dream into reality. At a time when most would welcome a time to rest and enjoy the fruits of one’s life, Angel could only think of the generations he would never know who would benefit from his quest for their advanced education.
And quest it was! What he had envisioned was a state normal school to educate teachers. Unfortunately, other communities – with more political clout – entertained the same notion. Rather than enter into a losing political battle, the goal changed and the first-ever state polytechnic school was born. President Roosevelt had knowledgeable “advance” men as when he spoke about the school in May, the bill to establish the institution had passed the legislature the previous March. It would be two more years before the first students were admitted to the pioneering educational institution.
When President Theodore Roosevelt briefly mentioned the founding of the California Polytechnic School in his hour-long visit to San Luis Obispo in 1903, the institution already had a long, notable history in simply coming into existence.
Today, its most remarkable achievement has not been its students, staff and touting hundreds of millions in gifts or sprawling acreage and buildings…but that the university came into being. There were no mass meetings and lobbying of the powerbrokers, no demands that the isolated valley was entitled to the benefits of larger urban centers. As it developed, Angel’s hopes, supported by his never-failing journalist efforts propelled legislation – finally – to allow its founding. Indeed, it wasn’t even a” cookie cutter” bit of legislation that was used to establish several normal schools in the state.
The concept of an institution for advanced education that did not follow the classic route prevalent in America at the time was a very daring experiment. Not that learning from the masters in literature and art, the great minds of science and theology or the men and women who had advanced civilization was somehow wrong. It has always been a valid learning method. However, then and now, everyone benefits from using both their intellect and hands in their daily pursuits. As a friend once remarked about the highly educated and trained crews valiantly going into space: “Someone has to know how to use a screwdriver.”
For local legend Myron Angel, the original concept to best serve the future was to provide for the teaching of teachers. As sound as the thought was, the demands for its implementation was anything but simple. Angel’s altruism – as too often happens – ran head-on into political reality. In the end, Myron wasn’t successful but the defeat of one goal was the beginning of an even greater quest.
To succeed in his mission, Myron had learned long ago that persistence was an essential factor. His major task was to convince Sacramento and its haven for politicians as an ally. Throughout his life, he had paid close attention to the political landscape as an essential backdrop for society although vision and politics rarely agree. Any vision requiring legislation all too often ends in vision waiting for another day. More powerful lobbies than the reclusive central coast wanted the same thing: normal schools. In the end, San Diego, Chico, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Francisco received funding for normal schools and the central coast was allowed to keep its dreams. Instead, Myron quickly adopted a new one.
Angel knew the revised goal for San Luis Obispo at the turn of the twentieth century “was in advance of the times.” Being in advance of the times is what visionaries do…that’s why there are so few. It’s tough enough to contend with the present, let alone the future. Nonetheless, it is the visionaries who stake out the path followed for most of us. Today, educational practicality locally has its own shrines, but over a century ago, planning for a polytechnic school was both enterprising and audacious.
A “practical” education would have been dearly appreciated as the local legend vividly recalled a memorable episode from his earlier life. Cold, discouraged and desperate, the young Angel needed a job. “I walked the streets of San Francisco, penniless, ragged, and hungry.” When offered work – to shingle a roof for $8 per hour – he was forced to decline as “I never drove a nail in my life.” Decades later, he knew “…a school here which will teach the hand as well as the head…” was a noble idea.
Thus, “learning by doing” was born…almost stillborn in the birthing rooms of Sacramento.
Vision is often a lonely occupation. While those around you are anxious about what to do with an empty acre or two, you’re already picking apples from the trees growing there. You mentally planted trees long ago. The challenge for what today is most often called “long-term planning” is the resistance from clashes with those who want “results” or those who see such planning as heading for a steep cliff.
And so, Myron Angel continued to rigorously propose a “hands-on” school as a community (and statewide) need. All the effort and energy finally made its way in April 1898 to the desk of Governor James Budd. Budd, who is the legislative ancestor of Cal Trans, vetoed the bill citing that the school was unnecessary and would increase taxation. Reality in Sacramento requires careful attention and, once again, vision suffered a setback.
What many didn’t realize (then or now), “vision” is tenacious. Using his power with a pen, Angel compared a school to other noted universities. “What Freiberg and Heidelberg are to Germany and Cornell to New York, the Polytechnic School of San Luis Obispo is designed to be to the Pacific Coast.” There was no question in his mind that advanced education was more than the accumulation of knowledge. Higher education also meant learning the “art of making a living.” The concept is still illusive for some in the education world.
Thus, once again, the battle was resumed, conversations continued, support rallied reminding all that “labor is the source of all wealth.” A new governor promised a new opportunity. Again, defeat came upon the heels of disputes in the legislature as local Assemblyman Burnett became embroiled in legislation to pay a bounty on coyote scalps! This time, the bill to create the polytechnic institution never made it to the governor’s desk.
For a visionary, “surrender” is rarely an option.
If the local politician was the problem, the answer was to elect a different one. In 1900, Warren M. John joined the State Assembly and the next year An Act to Establish the California Polytechnic School in the County of San Luis Obispo was passed by a near unanimous vote and made its way to the desk of the new governor, Henry T. Gage (1899-1903), who signed the measure on March 8, 1901. Angel’s vision became a reality at least on paper.
Given the Southern Pacific Railroad’s control of California politics, an institution of higher education would complement their closing of the “gap” finally uniting the coastal route between the northern and southern portions of the state. Indeed, plans were being made for President William McKinley to travel the nation. He would expect that rails would precede his special train due to arrive May 10. The 25th President didn’t mention the new venture during his hour visit as the site for the new school was as yet to be determined.
His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, did include mention of the polytechnic school during his one-hour visit two years later. The youngest man (to his time) to be the Chief Executive knew a few painful lessons about agriculture.
It must have been a proud day for Myron Angel.
If the new institute of learning ever needed validation, it came on May 9, 1903 when visiting President Theodore Roosevelt complimented the community for its newest venture and vision for providing for those who nurture the land “to make his a learned profession. “Farming, the Harvard graduate added “is not only a practical, but a scientific pursuit.” While he did not elaborate, the Spanish-American War veteran undoubtedly wished he had the advantages of the “learned profession” before he had tried ranching with miserable results. “The earth tiller, the soil tiller, the man of the farms, the man of the ranches . . . stands as the one citizen indispensable to the entire community.” Farming fed – and still feeds – America.
So, the saga of Cal Poly began on the periphery of the community primarily involved in agriculture in a countryside populated by many dairies. Some traces of the past continue today at the now-university with its many departments and accomplishments, but the vision of its founder, Myron Angel, continues a tradition of “hands-on” learning.
In a sad commentary on remembering the past, while the City hasn’t even a street name for this energetic and influential pioneer, neither does the university. Back to top
As the first decade of the 20th century drew to a close, locals had a great deal to reflect upon besides the fledgling polytechnic institute. In ten years, the magic of PROGRESS, the railroad, finally connected the central coast to the rest of the world and the visit by two sitting Presidents (the last to do so) was undoubtedly seen as confirmation of the new status of the small community. The Federal Census tallied 5157 residents for the comm
unity in a county nearing twenty thousand. Just ten years previous, San Luis Obispo barely counted 3000.
Indeed, amid the daily requirements of life, undoubtedly there were a few residents in 1910 who remembered that in the last sixty years, the new city and county had entered the nation along with the rest of the 31st State, changed national allegiance from Mexico to the United States, suffered with the Nation through the great Civil War among other conflicts, was shocked when three presidents were assassinated (President William Mc Kinley had spoken from the veranda of the Ramona Hotel just a few months before his demise), connected to the world via the iron horse and sought cultural amenities typified by the opening of the library. There was much more as the drama of life had a never-ending series of scenes for both the individual and collective population.
It is from the luxury of historical perspective that the past seems to highlight some, diminish others, and generally forgets most. History also provides previews of coming attractions (and distractions) unavailable to those struggling and succeeding in the mundane routines of the day. Who would have envisioned going from a parochial civil conflict to one involving the world? The nation would change…indeed, much of the world, but San Luis Obispo would have little to do with the first “war to end all wars” but became heavily involved with the second.
Nonetheless, the emerging and evolving community sought to create its own future amid the turmoil of the times. There were more changes in the future…this time as to what kind of City the residents envisioned in the new century.
As the city settled into the second decade of a new century, the previous ten years had included a remarkable series of municipal milestones. The sense of “promise” underlying the recent past encouraged the civic leadership to consider increased “home rule” rather than being dependent upon State legislation. Becoming a Charter City was the answer.
Basically, a municipality through its charter would have more autonomy with respect to its civic affairs and could enact legislation differing from that adopted by the state for “general rule” communities. Of course, both community and state are obligated to respect and follow constitutional law whether federal or state.
The small central coast community of about 5000 residents was no stranger to reorganization as over the past half century, state legislation required the local governance to change more than once. (see this writer’s San Luis Obispo: 1850-1876 for a more detailed discussion of municipal changes). Encouraged by the nascent Chamber of Commerce in 1906, various “factions” met to select a committee of “freeholders” – a commission who would frame the charter. The only requirement was each had to be a voter in the community for the previous five years.
The men chosen included some of the most prominent in the city: Benjamin Brooks: longtime editor of the Tribune newspaper; William Mallagh: an attorney and judge with historic family roots along the coast; Frank C. Mitchell: a successful contractor whose gift is a park today…an oasis in the historic district; William Sandercock: the family’s “transfer’ company still operates in the city, and Louis F. Sinsheimer who became the longest serving City mayor (1919-1939).
The move to create a charter city had definite political motivation. The Morning Tribune printed the proposed benefits to the community but also declared its hope that future leaders needed to “not laugh and grin at us” as if they were “masters rather than servants” and would perform their duties without a “spirit of favoritism.” “Fear and favor,” the article concluded, “seem to be the guiding principles of the present system.” While not explicitly charging political favoritism, the message was clear. In politics, names change; practices seem immortal.
For two months beginning on May 2, 1907, the Freeholders met to complete a proposed charter addressing elections, salaries, officers, municipal services, taxation, claims, contracts, streets, sewers, and bridges among major topics. Always a key concern, there were no guarantees to lower taxes; neither were there any to raise them. Common-sense, then and now, knew better. A community treasure is the slim Freeholders Minute Book preserved in the City’s vault.
The new vision for the municipality’s rule impressed few.
After presentation to the City fathers, an election was called for Saturday, December 22. “Very little interest (was) taken in the measure,” commented the press. Of the 1381 registered voters (in a community of about 5000 residents), 40% cast ballots. Of 567 votes cast, a decisive majority (367) were negative.
The various “factions” complained that the proposed charter fell short on addressing some issues resulting in a low voter response with a majority – not unexpectedly – response being negative. Considered a temporary setback, another attempt was made three years later.
An election in April 1910 resulted in the return of three former Freeholders. The new postmaster, Warren M. John, with no affiliation with a faction was chosen chairman of the group. Dr. William M. Stover, a Chamber of Commerce representative, will be twice elected mayor (1915-1919). He will be challenged by the first woman to run for the office in 1917…Queenie Warden…and won by a small margin. Louis F. Sinsheimer, a favorite of the Merchant’s Association, as mentioned, became the longest serving City Mayor.
The Daily Telegram underscored the benefits of the Charter “not obtainable under any of the ‘class’ designations” for communities provided by the State legislature. It will be remembered that in 1876 when the community was first designated a “city,” the requirement was simply a population of at least 3000. As such, San Luis Obispo was designated in the lowest class – the “sixth class” – with fewer local obligations than larger communities, but more state regulations. Local autonomy was limited as the State legislature regulated much of the community’s civic responsibilities. In extolling the virtues of the new proposal, the newspaper underscored existing governance needing revision.
There would be no sudden rise in taxes (note the emphasis was on “sudden”), clear provisions as to street work, procedures for obtaining park sites, holding the water works “forever,” removing “faithless” public officials, procedures for the “people” to initiate legislation, public “say” as to the granting of a public utility franchise, abolishing useless offices, and competitive bidding for public works. High expectations and results were again demanded of the Freeholders.
Completed three months later, the new proposal was printed in the Tribune. The City Council formally accepted the charter on August 15 and called for another election for voter approval in early September.
There were many proposed changes starting at the top of the political ladder as the Mayor’s role as chief executive officer also required a yearly report on city affairs, employing a “competent” accountant to examine financial transactions, and supervision of the public utilities…especially water. The four council members became a “mayor” of specific duties as each became a Commissioner: Public Health and Safety, Supplies, Public Works, and Revenue and Finance. A commissioner was expected to exercise “active management and control” of his department. No issue could be decided if a department’s Commissioner was not present. Some 56 specific “powers” were reserved to the elected officials.
This time the voters were a bit more satisfied. Of the 821 votes cast, 65% were affirmative. The election and charter were then sent to the State and formally adopted by the Legislature by February 1911. Officially, the new Charter City of San Luis Obispo was born. Unfortunately, the official Secretary of State certification and Charter are missing. Fortunately, in order to meet the legislative mandates, the Charter was reprinted in various state resolutions.
Times change and politics respond sometimes reluctantly. Over the years, the Charter has been amended requiring a vote by the residents and, thus, a bare skeleton of the original remains to guide city affairs. For its time, however, the Charter was an official – and hopeful – community look into a better future for its growing population.
The “new” Charter City of San Luis Obispo came into legislative being. In part a response to what were seen as less-than-satisfactory civic functions, there was also an element of optimism that the now mature municipality of some 5000 residents would embrace a more efficient form of self-management. Of course, no one could know that by the end of the decade, a new world political order was called into being after the Great War (to change again by the Second Great War). Both would impact the small central coast community. However, that is another story for another day.
Archibald McAlister, an insurance agent, was the first mayor elected under the new charter that invested heavily in the office. To date (2018), 21 have served in the office. As to duties (Article 4) other than “general oversight” of departments, the mayor was charged with the enforcement of all ordinances, the “faithful performance” of all contracts, supervision of public utilities and with providing an annual address to the City Council. A major duty was the examination of books by employing an accountant with “unlimited privilege of examination” of any and all income and expenditures. This seems an attempt to be sure all income and expenditures were accurate.
The same article included duties for the mayor pro tempore. The first is consistently listed as P. A. H. Arata. While not a religious minister, his first name is Pastor. The designation was similar to today’s as in 1911, the City Council chose a vice-president from its members who would serve in “the temporary absence or disability of the mayor.” If both were absent, the three remaining councilmembers were free to choose one to preside over any official meeting.
All local businessmen, George Hanson, James C. Hill and Anton Luchessa were elected to serve as commissioners.
If the vice-president could have duties as mayor, he also was a commissioner. To reiterate: Article V categorized municipal business into four departments:
- Finance and Revenue
- Public Health and Safety
- Public Works
- Public Supplies
Each council member was detailed as a “foreman” for a department and was expected to take “active management and control” of such. As commissioner, the council member could nominate any employees for a department but ratification of employment was to be by the entire council. However, discharge was at the sole discretion of the department commissioner. It was not unusual for the council to defer action on any department item if the designated commissioner was not present. More about enumerated duties below.
The major appointments were: Police Chief: William F. Cook, Treasurer: Warren W. Smithers, Attorney: Thomas A. Norton and Fire Chief: Joe Ghigliotti. Norton was elected as Mayor in 1913 for a two-year term.
Additionally, the chief appointed officials for the city were enumerated as the treasurer, attorney, collector, engineer, chief of police, street superintendent, fire chief, and five library trustees (the latter received no salary). Except for the last listed, all remain in city administration today. In 1973, the city library merged with the county system. A major departure from the pioneer days of San Luis Obispo is no staff member today may retain any fees paid for city services.
The Commissioner of Finance and Revenue was also an ex-officio member of the Board of Education. Public Education will be discussed later but in 1911, it was a department of the city.
In a very early community issue recently in national news, elected officials were restricted as to employment for one year after leaving office if their anticipated employer had a contract with the city.
Thus, becoming a Charter City was more than an administrative and legislative shuffle of words. The small city wanted a larger stake in its future and less decisions made for it by a relatively unknown gathering of politicians in Sacramento and – certainly – Washington, D. C. Of course, not even the most imaginative residents could visualize what the two centers of political power would deliver to the valley in the next 100 years.
While the mayor had few enumerated duties, council members had 56! These in addition to those specified for each as the Commissioner for Finance and Revenue, Public Health and Safety, Public Works or Public Supplies.
We’ll review a few of their duties as in 1911, governance was not some amorphous journey through law-making, especially revenue generation, but a comprehensible set of expectations for office holders.
The first specified duty is still required by the municipality: to affix a “corporate seal” to “all instruments or writings needing authentication.” Not enamored with spending public funds, the existing seal was kept and used to this day. There have only been two in City history. Over the years, the city’s oldest administrative position, the clerk, has been both an elected and appointed position. More of this duty are discussed below.
Another duty was judicial as the council could “prescribe fines, forfeitures and penalties” for those who violated provisions of the Charter or any ordinance. Penalties could not exceed $500 or six months in jail or both. Today, while the city is not permitted to be a court, there are an abundance of fees, including penalties for those determined as “late.”
Many of the councils’ responsibilities could be lumped together under the umbrella of property regulations. There was no city planning or planner (the position would advent over 60 years later) but building, especially residential dwellings, was a growing business. Indeed, a building permit was required beginning about ten years previously. The large index card sized permits were rescued from the trash bin some years ago and are filed in the Cal Poly Special Collection Archives.
Today, massive amounts of details are required to construct and/or maintain most anything beyond Lego structures, but in 1911, the strictures were basic and straightforward. Most exist today emeshed in a great many more words in a major city department called “Community Development.”
- Everyone was expected to abate any nuisance. If not, the council was to provide for “summary abatement” at the owner’s expense;
- The manufacturing or storage of certain materials including dynamite, nitroglycerine and “other explosive” items was to be regulated. Included here were fireworks which still annoy the City. Possibly less dangerous, the council’s “judgement” controlled the use of steam and gas engines and electric motors that might endanger the public;
- Public buildings were to have adequate entrances and exits and restricted obstacles from blocking interior open spaces;
- Exteriors, including sidewalks and gutters, were to be free “from dirt, rubbish and weeds” at the owner’s expense;
- And, a civic necessity, “To levy and collect taxes upon all the real and personal property within the city…” It will be remembered that there was a city tax as well as a county and state tax. Today, the same tax exists in the yearly onerous County tax bills.
The objective of the Charter was to delineate the various duties of the elected officials and the “Powers of the City and of the Council” (Article VII). In a vast array of sections, the Freeholders who compiled the list addressed (hopefully) any eventuality confronting governance. Wide ranging in scope and content, we’ll revisit some of the sections in the various sections in the future.
As a potential safeguard against official overreach, Section 44 entitled “Direct Legislation” empowered the voters through “the initiative” to enact (or change) enforcement of any general powers of the city or those granted to the council. Part of the arguments for the charter had been discussions of “cronyism” in the past and so there was reserved for the voters an opportunity to insist on some perceived corrective legislation.
While throughout its history, San Luis Obispo has had elected officials (verified to at least 1868), the chief executive title has changed. Our current title – mayor – was actually used before 1911 and then changed with yet another community incorporation through the state legislature. At various times, titles have been chairman and president.
Such has not been the case with “Clerk” either of the Town or City. The position is the oldest in the municipal organization (historically traced back to biblical times). Any municipal clerk holds a special place in historians’ hearts. As part of multiple duties, a clerk is the official archivist for the community. In one short article (VII), the clerk’s duties are summarized. A major difference today was in 1911, the clerk was also the assessor of property to determine the city personal property tax. William J. Miles served briefly as clerk but died on May 26 of the following year and was succeeded by his wife Callie until the next election.
For whatever reason, often unofficial, this community has had early clerks that were not super-efficient in tossing unneeded documents. Thus, we have a rich heritage of original civic documents maintained in the city vault.
Regulating the elected official’s official behavior was important to our civic ancestors, but the critical issue was in the next article entitled “Finance and Taxation.” It is interesting that both ends of the revenue stick are named. Today, the department is more blandly called Finance…as if there are groves of trees in the municipal parks growing the source. Eleven sections amplify the article with a definite attempt to limit both income and expenditures to rigorous scrutiny. Little did anyone know that a soon to be mayor – and the longest serving one at that – Louis Sinsheimer was a strong advocate for what today is anathema to most leadership…No Growth. Basically, the article dictated the timeline and procedures for taxation. In subsequent years, the secret was well known to all. By limiting needs, the City limited the need for income; thus, tax rates remained quite stable. One advantage (Article X) was the city managed the utilities (and still does for water/sewage) and all revenue from such was to be used to operate any utility and pay any debts of the operation. Increased expenditures were to be matched with existing sources of revenue. While unwritten, the attempt was to not increase income through increasing fees but through additional patrons using the municipal’s water supply.
Key provisions of the article, and an insight into possible practices of the time, was to demand all contracts to be formed after a bidding process. Interestingly, two long sections warn against “collusion” among bidders to discourage limiting any bidders. The lengthier warning was against any official who in any way interfered with an open bidding procedure. Cronyism was discouraged.
The saga could continue as community’s change – purposefully or reluctantly – with the passage of time, laws and goals. The charter received its legal seal of approval but soon required adjusting and then more adjusting until the present…and inevitably in the future. What is historically important to remember is the conscious effort of the people to strive to become a better place for everyone to live and flourish. It was – and is – a worthy dream as humans walk forward more easily than attempting to step back.
Indeed, looking forward is easier but history can only wait for the future while it demands adherence to the past. It is not history’s place to judge as much as to record for the future. Hopefully, the past provides an enlightened path into the future as there really isn’t anything new under the sun. Humans have an amazing and infinite capacity for diversity and perversity. Given their essential composition, in any time, both the saints and sinners will emerge to delight and disgust. Most often obvious at the time, history has a habit of blurring edges and melting the passions of the moment making it difficult to understand and appreciate what transpired decades, ages, or eons ago.
Thus, at this point, let’s leave San Luis Obispo’s saints and sinners to their own devices and hope somewhere in the future someone else will brave the new city’s history.
Time has a way of compacting memory and, so, while it seems just a short time ago, this local history has resulted in over 50 separate installments in the city staff’s newsletter since beginning in January 2013. It has been extensively edited for presentation here. There always seems another path to explore, a civic event to detail, or simply something of interest to report. Hopefully, there have been readers as there is no reporting back if the online city news is opened…let alone read.
The original concept was to use a loose chronology of events to recall the saga of the city since mission days. Now, it seems an appropriate time to end the story in 1911 as the new Charter City began its modern journey of successes and failures.
The elected and appointed officials would occupy pages of names (we have the names and dates for every elected and appointed official from 1870); geographic boundaries have been expanded, and buildings and homes replaced with their memories providing landfills with debris. In all fairness, there are some structures valiantly surviving the incessant call of “Progress” and memorialized in the city’s Historic Registry…especially residences. This wonderful vestige of the past is currently available on the City’s website along with a treasury of documents. Today’s Downtown has all but obliterated any building from the early years of the 20th century. Of course, any resident of the times has also moved on.
It will be up to the future to reflect and pass judgment on the present’s attempt to remember and enrich its history. Hopefully, some help has been offered in these ongoing articles. That said, the plan is to return to some of our yesteryears to meet the people who made the history. After all, history is not some sort of cosmic experience appearing on a cloud to visit us.
History is people.
Who were the men and women who directed so much of the future? The common thread among the notables of the past – and their similarity to those today – is going about their lives in a variety of efforts but with a desire to improve and enrich the lives of others.
In other words, while we have our definition of a hero and heroine (a word no longer in fashion as it sounds like an illegal drug), time tends to honor some. There were (and are) many, many more. In so many ways, “today” is a reflection of yesterday only with different characters.
Initially, we’ll interview these pioneers simply on how they arrived in San Luis Obispo. Not only how they got here, but why? If possible, we’ll then move on to detail some of their efforts and their impact on local history. Of course, they didn’t wake up one morning and announce to the world, they were going to make history that day. All had a day devoted to the business of life, trying to make ends meet, seek some joy amid the grief of life, stumbling into self-made or unplanned pitfalls until there was no longer any breath to give to life. Certainly, not always the stuff of greatness, but, most assuredly, the stuff of humanity.
It always takes courage to take on the day, muddle through the messes, marvel at the competence of others, and suffer (often in silence) through the too-often incompetence of self and others.
Let’s meet some of our civic pioneers. Back to top
SAN LUIS OBISPO PIONEERS
1911 is a good time to halt the progression of our civic drama and let others relate the more modern developments of the city. As you recall, in 1911, we became (and still are) a Charter City. The ramifications of this legislative realignment are most pertinent to the lawyers as they navigate local laws amid the sometimes-obtuse shoals of federal, state and county regulations. Plus, I’ve rewritten (some) and reorganized (most) of what has appeared in SLO What, the City’s internal newsletter, over the past several years for this webpage and added considerable new information.
Instead, I would like to spend some time allowing the pioneers to speak. After all, they are the ones who contributed to the development of the mission settlement-pueblo-town-city of San Luis Obispo first named on September 1, 1772. As such, we are one of the oldest settlements in the state. Indeed, we are number 5 or 6. After all, history isn’t some disemboweled spirit wandering around looking for people to amuse or scare! Fun stuff, possibly, on Halloween but not the stuff for history.
Everyone wants to have some “meaning” to his or her life. We all (with some, unfortunately, trapped in destructive and demeaning behavior) attempt to construct a future based on hopes born in the present. In that, we share the heritage with the past. Thus, anticipations based on opinions, beliefs and efforts are the same as with those in our past who had their own dreams. With the past, we share much historical DNA. They spent their allotted days in a myriad of activities and all made their history…and you’re entitled to make yours.
Not many (if any) woke up in the morning deciding that day they would make a notable difference. On the national level, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), he knew it would change our history, but one wonders if there also were any clues as to the massive death and destruction called the Civil War his signature would signal? Hindsight is always more accurate than foresight.
Locally, there is no such single event or person who would crystalize an era or stamp his or her personality upon the community. That is not to say we shouldn’t all be grateful to many – often unknown – for what we call community today. Among the purposefulness of life amid the foolishness, time cannot be stopped…although it may be used in a myriad of ways.
Thus, I plan to call forward some of these folks from their home in eternity and hope you will enjoy celebrating (possibly for the first time) their gifts to us. I need to alert those who have read my efforts in Journal Plus that some have been profiled in past issues. However, a tasty pie can be even more delicious with some different ingredients!
That said, my first introduction is to (in my estimation) the most historically important person to ever reside in this county after statehood. Back to top
Charles Henry Johnson
You’ve driven along his avenue, most likely passed his business block, if not shopped in the stores therein, the railroad goes across his land, part of his farm is now owned by Cal Poly, he was a member of the 1861 State Assembly, the “mayor” before such a title existed, a well-educated and gifted (for his times) speaker, a San Francisco entrepreneur before it was popularly known as San Francisco, the Collector of Customs in Monterey, and one of the earliest residents of the new county seat by at least 1856.
An interesting fact is “Charly” (as he was affectionately known) arrived in this city when he was about 30 years old and died in 1915, bowing out of this existence just as the city was inaugurating its status as a Charter City. In other words, he was here during our pioneer years and undoubtedly knew just about everyone. But, we’ll let him tell his story.
Charles Henry Johnson is an encyclopedia of local lore and he will relate his story personally. You’ll know it’s him by the quotation marks. I will fill-in as best possible with whatever information I have been able to uncover through research. This is the first time we’ve had a conversation.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
“Well, thank you for this honor. As you probably know, I am quite use to public speaking and the local press has even printed some of my remarks in separate pamphlets.”
Yes, I’ve seen them. Let’s start at the beginning. We’d appreciate hearing about your early years.
“That was certainly a very long time ago… but I was born in Baltimore, Maryland on November 17, 1825. I share my father’s name who was 32 when I was born. He had served as an officer in the French Navy and participated in the famous Battle of Waterloo ten years before and that spelled the end of Napoleon’s rule as well as his career. I hope that is correct as I was told all this.
He came to America and married my mother, Eliza Green in 1819 when she was 19 or 20 and lived until she was almost 90. By then, of course, I had long before left home and was in San Luis Obispo. I was the third child with Elizabeth born first in 1822 and Mary Olivia two years later.
Unfortunately, my health was deficient and my formal education at the Methodist school, I recall named Asbury, in Baltimore, was interrupted as my parents decided the open seas would prove beneficial and they were right! My sea adventures also cast my future leading to the California shores.
I went to sea with my uncle who was an agent for the East India Company sailing the oceans looking for goods for America and Europe. At the time, the company was a leading merchant in much of the world and accounted for about 50% of world trade according to my uncle.
Not only did my health improve but I saw much more of the world than from Baltimore or a classroom.”
Sorry to say, but we’ve run out of time. Thank you for recounting what was not a usual youth. Next time, I’d appreciate your speaking about how you arrived in California.
“Now that was another grand adventure. I thank you for your interest and kind attention.”
For those just tuning in, we’ve been talking with local pioneer, Charles Henry Johnson. He arrived here in the 1850s having been born in Baltimore, Maryland. His life’s adventures provide some fascinating insights into our history as well as life in America before the discovery of electricity! We’ll focus on how he – and other pioneers – arrived in our valley. His comments are in quote marks.
How did you get to California?
“First, let me say that while my formal education at Ashbury was not completed, I had ample opportunities to learn in my youth. I believe in a quality education and when at sea, I had even more opportunities to read, wonder and wander the world. While to some, a seafaring life might sound like one of adventure, it was also a life of boredom and tedious days. I had many hours and days to write as well. In hindsight, my seafaring days proved most beneficial to both my health and prosperity. I enjoyed seeing as much of the world as possible.
Eventually, I returned home and decided to bring a shipload of goods to the Sandwich Islands. It was during that trip that I wrote an extensive diary describing some of the splendid places I was able to explore. I kept the diary as it reminded me of some glorious adventures.”
I can certainly underscore that as I’ve read your journal from your voyage to today’s Hawaiian Islands. And how did this trip result in your life in California? (Note: There is a copy of the journal in the History Center.)
“Well, after an eight-month journey around Cape Horn, my partner, John Finley, and I arrived in Honolulu with the square-rigger Rhone loaded with goods for sale. However, in late July we changed our plans as news came of the hostilities ending in the Union. By mid-August, we anchored in San Francisco. We were told we were the first American vessel to do so after the end to the hostilities.”
(Note: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was finalized on February 2, 1848, but it would take months for the news to travel to Hawaii.)
“We established the business house of Finley, Johnson and Company – the first in town. Our cargo sold quickly for about $100,000. We continued to prosper with imports from Peru, Chili, Mexico and the Islands. We just might have continued in the growing town, especially after the gold boom, if it hadn’t been for the fires. Over the next four years, our business suffered great loses from the fire plague and the growing mayhem as a result of the influx of gold seekers. I thought it best to go elsewhere.”
…to San Luis Obispo?
“Not directly. First, I moved to Monterey. You see, I was now 28 and had met the step-daughter of a fellow seaman. She changed my life and a murder helped me move here as well.”
Well, I’m certainly anxious to hear about how love and murder led to your decision to move to San Luis Obispo!
“I had hoped my marriage in the summer of 1852 would provide for a more stable life and family. My wife was Isabel Gomez de Estrada. And I was fortunate enough to become the Assistant Customs Collector in Monterey under Collector Isaac Wall.
But it was not meant to be. When poor Isaac was murdered in 1855, the tragedy presented another opportunity. This unexpected opportunity caused us – my wife and I and children – to relocate to San Luis Obispo. By then, we had two sons, Charles Alexander and Albert Beresford, born in Monterey in 1853 and 1855.
You see, Isaac was traveling to San Luis when he and another- I’ve forgotten his name – were waylaid and both murdered. It then became my duty to notify the authorities and try to continue conducting business at the Custom House. When I received an opportunity to oversee the collections in Avila Beach plus the dowry of land received by Isabel, we moved further south.
I hope you will note the San Luis Obispo in 1856 was simply a crossroads between the increasing population in the state and not a particularly safe place. Of course, there weren’t many safe places anywhere given the influx of people chasing after gold.”
(NOTE: the 1850 Federal Census for California is about 92,500; ten years later, it’s listed as 380,000.)
“However, we were determined to establish ourselves permanently and quickly became involved in establishing a stable governance including addressing the criminals and violence around us. I had reliable employment and free land to farm. I was thirty years old and had no desire to return to the sea or the merchandising business. Along with other responsible residents, we were determined to establish a lawful community.”
I’m sure we’d like to find out what happened but for now, the focus is on how you and the earliest pioneers reached San Luis Obispo.
“I appreciate your interest very much, but I was not the earliest here. I know you will be interested in another early settler who was here when I first arrived. I hope you will be talking with my friend, Sam Pollard. He was here even before we became a state!” Back to top
Samuel Adams Pollard
As we’ve discovered, there were no direct flights to our valley in the mid-19th century. Indeed, any “flight” was most often a circuitous route from somewhere else…and for some, San Luis Obispo was not even the intended destination. Our first pioneer, Charles Henry Johnson, eventually planted roots here after birth in Maryland, an early life at sea, trading and merchandising in San Francisco, marriage and employment in Monterey and, only then, some 60 years in the valley. More of Johnson’s life story will be found in the pages of Journal Plus magazine (March-October 2010).
Our next pioneer, Samuel Adams Pollard had some similar experiences – but not all.
Thank you for speaking with me. Charles Johnson recommended you as a source of information about early San Luis Obispo. He said you were even in the community before statehood in 1850. My question is just how did you finally settle here?
“First, thank you for this opportunity…and thanks to Charlie as well. We both go back a long way although I settled in a bit earlier in 1849. How I got here from Virginia covers a lot of our nation over some 25 years. I’m glad I finally arrived, but over the following 50 years, I didn’t stay only in the settlement but branched out in the county.”
Yes, I have read of your many roles here from merchant to the first Chairman of the Board of Supervisors to Superintendent of Schools as well as your long marriage to Josefa, William Dana’s daughter. However, for now, I’d appreciate your relating the journey you took in order to arrive here.
“Well, it started when I was born in 1826 in Richmond, Virginia. We were an agricultural society, close knit and believed in our way of life. Of course, this will lead to the terrible Civil War. We moved to a farm in New Orleans when I was 12. Besides my parents, I had an older brother, Robert, and two sisters. My actual traveling west began with the war.”
This would be the Mexican-American War?
“Yes, although the name may be important to others, I remember trying to survive day-to-day as well as avoiding being someone else’s target. However, it was just what a 21-year-old needed to live beyond the farm. I volunteered in October 1847 and served with Colonel Doniphan (see below). I have carried a memento from those years as I had the top of one of my fingers shaved off by a Mexican shell during one engagement.
When our enlistments ended in June the next year, we headed for home. I returned to New Orleans and briefly worked as a clerk until Dr. Beale came to town with the astonishing news and samples of the gold discovery in California. This was the first anyone heard of it. By the end of the year, I headed west by going to Mexico again…and that’s another long story.”
(NOTE: Alexander William Doniphan (1808-1887): attorney, soldier and politician from Missouri. In 1846, Doniphan became colonel of the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers. His outstanding service record included an incredible march of more than 3,000 miles, one of the longest and most successful marches in military history.)
It may be a long story but you have written about the time before, haven’t you?
“Oh, yes. I wrote them for the Society of California Pioneers in 1901.
You see living in New Orleans was an advantage. By December of ’48, I joined a group of about a dozen men and we sailed south to Tampico. It was advisable to go with a group. The terrain was unfamiliar and the danger very real. For many years, even California was dangerous.
Tampico was a new city and a convenient port on the eastern side of Mexico. However, we needed to get to the other side. I knew some Spanish and was put in charge of buying the necessary supplies as we were going overland about 700 miles to Mazatlán. We were warned as everywhere the old women beseeched us not to go further as “ladrones” (thieves) were sure to kill us. The women were always kind to us but the men were a bunch of cut-throats.
Our trip took us to San Louis Potosi, Guadalajara, Tepir and finally to the coast. We arrived in one piece but saw many a “ladrone” along the way. They hung from trees like mummies drying in the sun. We arrived by the end of the year, found another ship and sailed north. It just so happened the ship was the Benjamin Euphemia. Later, I heard that the city decided to buy the ship and use it as a prison brig in the San Francisco harbor.
Sailing into San Francisco Bay, I thought it was the loveliest country I had ever seen with bright sunshine and green hills. However, I couldn’t leave the ship since I was broke and needed to pay a $1 hospital tax. Fortunately, a man came aboard and offered me $16 to unload a coal ship. That was a lot of money but hard work…and didn’t last long. I tried a little bookkeeping and even prospecting at Woods Diggings but I decided a miner’s life – let alone living in San Francisco – was not for me.”
“Now that was some adventure! Gold had been discovered in the area – you know it as Jamestown – and by the spring of ’49, hordes of Mexican, Chileans and Chinese flooded the camps along with Europeans and Americans. While there was talk of finding nuggets along the paths, I didn’t find many and within a few months, I headed south.”
“Let me tell you, San Francisco was not a great place. Thousands of men poured into the port, ships were abandoned, life was chaotic and I was looking for a better life. I met William Beebee – another pioneer you should talk with – and decided to become a merchant.”
How did that work?
“Considering we were not flush with cash, you might say we wanted to open a merchandise store using hopes for money. Fortunately, we met poor Henry Tefft and borrowed funds from him.”
Why do you say “poor Henry Tefft” if he had money to lend?
“I wasn’t talking about his money but his life. Henry came west and married into the local Dana family. After statehood, he became the county’s first judge as well. He drowned not too long after helping us out. I especially remember Henry as some years later, I married his widow. But that’s another story.”
I agree, but let’s return to how you established yourself here. Since you arrived here before we were even a state, I think our readers will be interested in how you survived in the era…so how did Tefft help?
“Beebee and I were able to have the store built but it was so expensive, we didn’t have any money to buy supplies. On the other hand, Tefft was paid for his judgeship but needed the draft cashed in San Francisco. So, we made a deal. I’d go to San Francisco to cash the drafts and he’d let us borrow money for six months with no interest. You need to remember traveling overland from this county was a very dangerous proposition…let alone traveling with money. More than one poor soul was found dead…or simply disappeared.”
Did that work?
“Oh, yes. You see, our store was a big event for the settlement’s progress. Once completed, we invited everyone to attend a grand opening ball. Just about everyone came and the event was remembered years later as a civic landmark in terms of the growing settlement. At the time, the few living here, mostly from somewhere else, envisioned a settled community with more than one church, stores and services, and a peaceful environment. We were a long-way off in that ever happening.
So, having a store meant more people would come to town for supplies and this would lead to more commerce. In fact, our little venture became the first post office as well. The mail carrier would ride in and sit a spell while folks read the San Francisco newspapers. Back to top
Our little store became a popular spot along the coast. Did you know part of the California state seal was designed here? Or that the famous John C. Fremont slept in the store?”
No, I didn’t. But I do know of your many other contributions to the development of the county. Let hope we can meet again to discuss some of those.
As a last question, do you have a recommendation for someone to talk about their adventures getting here?
“Well, first thank you for your interest in my story. I suggest you talk to my partner, William Beebee next.