Celebrating 60 years of Port San Luis history

clambert@thetribunenews.comFebruary 5, 2013 

Did you know that in the 1920s, Avila Beach and Port San Luis were the largest exporters of oil in the world?

Or that during the 1960s and 70s, Port San Luis Harbor District leaders and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a plan — never realized — to construct a detached breakwater, add landfill and create a recreational marina with slips for about 1,300 pleasure craft?

Or that the Point San Luis Lighthouse, built in 1890, contained a glass lens shipped from France that was capable of projecting light nearly 20 miles out to sea?

The colorful history of the Harford Pier and Port San Luis Harbor District may be unknown to many local residents, unless they’re history buffs or have lived or worked around the port.

But as the 60th anniversary of the formation of the Port San Luis Harbor District nears, harbor district officials plan to reintroduce it to the public with events and historical displays.

Harbor Manager Steve McGrath hopes to show residents how the port has served — and continues to be — an integral part of San Luis Obispo County.

“We are as important to a regional economy as the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are to a national economy,” he said.

Voters approved formation of the harbor district in 1953 after a group of local boaters and residents pushed to have it be publicly owned and developed, according to a history compiled by Gerard Parsons, one of the founders of the district.

The harbor district boundaries encompass 378,500 acres (mostly the 3rd and 4th county supervisory districts) with an estimated 126,200 residents.

The district has about 25 full-time and 16 seasonal employees and a budget this year of about $4.2 million, with about two-thirds coming from property tax revenues. District properties include Harford Pier, constructed in 1873, the lighthouse, the Harbor Terrace site, Olde Port Beach, and the Avila Beach pier, paid parking lot and beach.

But in early 1954 when the new harbor commissioners were sworn in, the district “was in terrible shape,” said Parsons, who served as a commissioner for 32 years and is a charter member of the San Luis Yacht Club. He’ll turn 95 in March. “We didn’t have anything.”

The commissioners didn’t have any boats, trucks or other needed equipment to run the port. But the voters had given the district taxing authority, and slowly the district built up its assets.

In 1966, seven acres of landfill was added to create Harford Landing — the area which now includes the parking lot, district offices, two boat launch facilities, a boat yard, a restaurant and other amenities.

The district is constantly maintaining and upgrading its 19th century wooden pier. This year, with some grant money, McGrath said work will continue on a project to stabilize and repair the south and southeast corner of the pier. Planning will also continue on redeveloping the entire end of the pier.

The district’s main focus is to create access to the water, and to that end the district supports the commercial fishing industry (which is seeing a slight resurgence after suffering a steep decline) and leases space to businesses that provide recreational opportunities, including kayak and paddleboard rentals.

“We will do anything in our power to help them survive and thrive,” McGrath said of the commercial fishermen.

For more information about the district, visit www.portsanluis.com. More details on events will be posted as they are planned later this year.

Cynthia Lambert and Gayle Cuddy write the South County Beat on alternating Wednesdays. Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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