A traveler's story of SLO in 1912 on trip from Mexico to Oregon

August 10, 2013 

The Old Mission wasn’t restored when J. Smeaton Chase rode through in 1912.


August evenings bring a heavy fog bank that penetrates the Los Osos and Chorro Valleys, surrounding Cerro Obispo and Cerro San Luis. The scene has intrigued visitors to our region since the 18th century.

Joseph Smeaton Chase was an English naturalist with a scholarly interest in ethnology and history.  Along with Charles Francis Saunders, he wrote a number of excellent books about the California Missions. He also published still popular books dealing with California mountain trails.

Starting in El Monte, southeast of Los Angeles in 1911, he began a long ride that eventually went from Mexico to Oregon.  An account of that ride, “California Coast Trails,” was published in 1913 by Houghton Mifflin.

In August 1912, Chase, with his mount, Chino, crossed over See Canyon and saw the valley below:

“I walked, leading my tired horse, and enjoying a sunset view out over the wide Los Osos Valley below me. A lake of milky cloud filled the entire valley, extending westward to the coast and far out to sea. Above it stood up, black and ragged, the summits of a row of volcanic peaks, which give a unique character to this locality. Beyond lay the main range of the Santa Lucia, now near at hand, softly opalescent in evening light. About sundown we arrived on the outskirts of the town, and I furnished  diversion for the young fry of the place as I hauled my tired steed along . . .” to a livery stable.

“My own (quarters) were close to the Mission, and at intervals of each day of the two or three I stayed here, I watched from my window the black shawled women hurrying to (Mass). Once before, when I was in the town, I had wandered into the old building, and, finding service in progress, had felt it good to kneel with the half-dozen Mexican peons who shared the back seats with me. Somehow, the ties of a common humanity (and, I hope, a common humility also) seem to me of more account than the differences . . .    And when I watched these humble, black-shawled, rather sad-faced women going to their devotions, something brought to my mind the carpenter’s wife of Nazareth, and a phrase or two of that sweetest lyric of Holy Writ, ‘the lowliness of His handmaiden, exalted them of low degree.’

“The Mission itself, founded in 1772, is not especially attractive, but contains some interesting matters. By the kindness of the priest I got entrance into the old garden, a quiet square of old-time flowers and arbored walks.

“The Father told me that the Tulareños, or Indians of the interior valley, who come periodically to the coast to gather shellfish, still make their camp . . .  right in the Mission grounds. I was glad to hear that in the eyes of his church, at least, the Indian yet has some trifling rights beside his pauper’s dole.”

Chase did not like the sound of our now replaced Mission bells.

“I was at first staggered and then much amused by the bells of the Mission as they called worshipers to the services. Imagine being awakened from normal slumbers by this preposterous ditty, rung, in a sort of jig-time, on bells not remarkable for sweetness of tone, repeated four times, and ending with three explosions fortissimo -

“This, it appears, is San Luis’ traditional exhortation to his parishioners. Performed, as it was, in quick time and with a sort of idiotic excitement, it resembled the antics of marionettes, and I could never hear it without a burst of laughter.”

Our mission city has hosted many visitors over the past 241 years since it was founded by Fathers Junipero Serra and José Cavaller.

Over the next several weeks we will go back to Chase’s 1912 visit and write of the upcoming visit on Aug. 21 of the “Grand Riders,” a group of Taiwanese grandparents and their family entourage who are touring the coast on motor scooters.

Their ages range from the 70s to the 90s and their motto is” I Didn’t Stop Riding Because I Got Old, I Got Old Because I Stopped Riding.”

We will also be writing of the California Mission Ride which will arrive on September 17th.

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


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