During the 19th Century, the city of Paso Robles was born on March 11, 1889. This year represents the 125th birthday of this still somewhat out-of-the-way town on the California Central Coast. However, what was the Golden State like during its, at least to some extent, formative years as a state?
Originally part of Spain and then Mexico (and even Russia), the state became a territory of the United States after the Mexican-American War, which originated because Texas was admitted to the union. Closely following the Lone Star State’s lead, California was established as a state and admitted into the union in 1850, making it the second largest state after Texas. California once was much larger and included Nevada, most of Arizona and parts of Utah. This all happened about the same time as the California Gold Rush, ballooning the state’s population.
Once railroads were established in the 1860s, travel to and from other states and the East Coast became more regular and helped business grow in California creating a land boom of sorts. Soon farming became popular once farmers realized how many valleys and fertile lands there were throughout the state. Included was the Paso Robles region due in part to the Salinas River and its huge underground water basin.
Leading up to Paso Robles’ incorporation (which is the second oldest city in the county), the 1880s had been a time of economic boom and industrial development helped by electrical power and rail expansion. Machine shops were created along with direct and alternate current motors (AC and DC) expanding, plus paper became more easily made. Also, the steam turbine was invented, the inflatable tire was developed and of course Karl Benz patented the first automobile.
With this rapid growth, the Wild West was being tamed (Jesse James once lived here) and to say the least, the 1880s were quite a period of change. However, due note California did have a dip in its economy towards the late 1880s after the bubble that was created during the land rush. By the way, the following year in 1890, 140 miles to the east of Paso Robles, the Sequoia National Forest was established – the first national forest in California.
What was happening
On New Year’s Day 1889, there was a full solar eclipse. When Paso Robles became an official city that year, during the summer and less than a 100 miles to the east, most of the town of Bakersfield burned down. To the south, in what some call the Great Fire, in early fall nearly a million acres in Orange and San Diego counties were torched in Southern California. Just to the south of California in Baja, Mexico, they had their own short lived Gold Rush, which had less to do with gold and more to do with bold rumors and talk than was real – some things never change.
The President of the United States in 1889 was the newly elected Benjamin Harrison who was the grandson of the ninth President of the U.S., William Henry Harrison (‘Old Tippecanoe’) who was in office for all of one month before dying from pneumonia. A Republican who believed in protectionism using high tariffs, along with broad new powers to stop monopolies, Harrison pursued civil rights and an increase in national forests.
The Governor of California was Robert Waterman – also a Republican. Originally a New Yorker before moving as a young teenager to Illinois, he came to California like many, looking for riches in prospecting. No luck at finding precious metals, he returned to Illinois where he became a successful farmer along with being a newspaper publisher. A second visit to California would be much more triumphant for Waterman and finally propelled him into the governorship. Known for his straight-forwardness, he believed the state should be run like a business. Waterman served one four-year term from 1887 to 1891 dying a few months after he departed office.
Paso Robles sits nearly halfway between the two giant metropolitan cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Back in 1889 they weren’t nearly as big as they are now with L.A. being less than 50,000 in population. San Francisco was the major city in the Western U.S. and by 1889 was already approaching 300,000. At that same time, the population of Paso Robles was maybe 500 folks. It should be noted that the first thing Paso Robles did as a city was build a jail – it was still the Wild West after all. Paso Robles would build the first high school in San Luis Obispo County just a few short years after incorporating with the Marie Bauer School.
Although meteorological records weren’t accurately kept in Paso Robles until a couple years later, 1889 ended with heavy rains, especially in the northern part of the state as a hard winter had set in with the Sierras seeing terrific amounts of snow that season.
Paso Robles was known for little more than a stop on the trail with hot springs. Cattle ranches and almond orchards dominated the area. The county was the milk producing capitol of the state during this era and also the area was known as Almond City. Sheep used to be common place in this region but by 1889, agriculture was starting to become more popular just as it was around the state. Areas east of Templeton and Paso Robles were being cultivated with grain fields and fruit orchards due to the great composite of fertile soil. Times were changing.
The towns of Santa Margarita and Templeton both surfaced during this time as well resulting in a time in history when the entire North County of San Luis Obispo County had sprung up during 1889.
Paso Robles would go through many more changes over the course of the next 125 years as did the state as a whole with California emerging as the most populous state in the U.S. with an economy that would rank as the eighth largest in the world. And of course, Paso Robles is now known as the world’s number one wine region.
A lot has changed over the last century and a quarter in Paso Robles and California.
Sources – University of San Diego, Baja Fever, Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, State of California
Daryle W. Hier