Times Past

Naturalist offers unique view of the coast and mission trail

September 8, 2013 

A century ago, in 1912, J. Smeaton Chase’s mount, Chino, meanders through the coastal hills.

COURTESY PHOTO

The lady said that as a small child, she “ … had seen three bodies swinging in a row at the corner of the street.”

I loved automobile travel before the completion of the interstate highway system. My family would stay in hotels near the town center. Even the smaller towns had threeand four-story hotels. We would eat in the hotel dining room, often overhearing conversations filled with local folklore. As we strolled the town sidewalks, we engaged in conversations with longtime residents. It was part of my introduction to community history.

In August 1912, English naturalist Joseph Smeaton Chase rode into San Luis Obispo on his mount, Chino. Chase was riding the length of coastal California. An account of that ride, “California Coast Trails,” was published in 1913 by Houghton Mifflin.

After putting Chino in a nearby livery stable, Chase rented a room at what was most likely the Blackstone Hotel at Monterey and Chorro streets. We can make a good guess that he ate dinner at the nearby Chiesa Italian Restaurant on Chorro. While it was still daylight, he began his stroll. His reflections on what he encountered bear little resemblance to the San Luis Obispo we live in today.

“A walk about the town, which is an old one, by Western reckoning, and contains some 6,000 people, yielded a few attractive items. There is quite an air of old California remaining in the nooks and corners. Near the center of the town stands what was one of the best of the old adobe houses, now … a Chinese laundry. Nearby are a few fine olive and pear trees; and half hidden here and there among the stores are tall date palms and ancient prickly pears that mark the gardens of the old pueblo.

“The surrounding region has been the scene of labor of some notable bandits, and more than once it fell to the citizens of San Luis, as to those of many other Western towns, to take the execution of the laws into their own hands. In one year, I was told, no less than 11 malefactors, or supposed malefactors, were here summarily hanged; and a lady with whom I talked described how, on one occasion, she herself, a girl at the time, looking casually from her veranda, had seen three bodies swinging in a row at the corner of the street.”

Chase’s informant was in all likelihood being truthful. There were a number of local children who observed the handiwork of the Committee of Vigilance in 1858.

Chase’s description of what he saw on his ride is an excellent outsider’s view of the coast and mission trail on the eve of the automobile age.

On Sept. 18, another group of riders will arrive in San Luis Obispo. The California Mission Ride will approach the mission on horseback. They will explore perspectives of life and land in California from angles rarely appreciated since the advent of the automobile. Their journals and blogs are the modern-day equivalent of what J. Smeaton Chase saw in 1912.

A century later, they answer questions big and small about California and Californians.

We will give you a schedule of their visit in next week’s Times Past.

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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