Times Past: Chinese laborers helped build Cuesta Grade road

San Luis Obispo - The TribuneJanuary 26, 2013 

The stagecoach carrying the U.S. mail was running one and two months late during the mid-1870s. The Tribune observed that “had the Mountain Road been fixed before the storms set in, there would have been little delay.”

The editorial added that the “delays might have been avoided by following the suggestions of The Tribune … two months ago. … The county missed the first stitch in this matter and must now pay for the nine.”

It was necessary to station crews along the road to extract coaches and wagons mired in mud and to build temporary bridges over raging creeks.

The winter of 1875-’76 got the voters angry. Citizens decided to tax themselves to construct a new high road on the west side of Cuesta Canyon.

This willingness to commit funds for public improvements was a major shift away from the “dog bone penny pinching” attitude of so many county residents.

On May 6, 1876, The Tribune boasted that Charles Sutro of San Francisco had successfully bid on the purchase of $20,030 in Cuesta Road bonds.

“This little incident shows us that the capitalists in San Francisco keep well-posted upon the financial condition of the interior.”

On July 15, 1876, in the same issue that reported “General Custer Slaughtered” at Little Big Horn, the Tribune said county supervisors had awarded the firm of Lemon and Wing $11,100 to begin carving a ledge on the west side of the canyon.

Lemon and Wing employed Ah Louis, a pioneer merchant, as  labor contractor for Chinese crews to undertake the dangerous task of blasting out and digging a road on the side of the sometimes sheer slope.

This road served as the main road north until it was replaced by a state road, once again up the center of the grade beginning in 1915.

Readers can still travel the road along the west side of the canyon.

Chinese labor built most of the infrastructure in our region in the late 19th century. Brig. Gen. John Gong of the Army National Guard, himself an immigrant from the same region of China as Ah Louis, wanted to commemorate this largely unacknowledged fact.

John Gong, along with the Rizzo family of Café Roma, took a leading role in urging the installation of sculptress Elizabeth McQueen’s life-size bronze casting, The Iron Road Workers, in San Luis Obispo’s Historic Railroad District.

In December 2002, members of the Chinese community from throughout California, including noted historian and architect Phillip Choy, attended its dedication.

The Chinese Student Association’s famed Lion Dance team performed as sanctioned firecrackers popped.

John Gong died suddenly this past summer. His many efforts on behalf of all Americans and particularly for Chinese-American history will be much missed.  

This year’s Central Coast Chinese Association is celebrating Chinese New Year from 5 to 9 p.m. Feb. 16  at the Veterans Hall in San Luis Obispo. For more information, contact Gary at 291-7676 or membership@centralcoast-chinese-association.org.

Cal Poly’s 56th annual Chinese Student Association Banquet will be held Feb. 3 from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Chumash Auditorium at Cal Poly. It will feature food, martial arts and a student-produced play. Contact Fiona Fung at 935-354-3457 for tickets.

Both events feature the Cal Poly Lion Dance team, a great reminder of the contributions in times past.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.

The Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service