Times Past

SLO leaders hoped college would transform rough railroad town

Special to The TribuneSeptember 22, 2013 

Myron Angel


Cal Poly’s “Week of Welcome” opened this past week with enormous traffic jams. The increased enrollment has made many longtime residents nervous.

I usually remind merchants about how they complained when Poly had to strategically downsize because of the state budgetary crisis during the early 1990s. But I also like to point out that San Luis Obispo did everything in its power to attract a statewide educational facility 113 years ago.

By the late 1890s, San Luis Obispo had become a rough-and-tumble railroad town with more than 30 drinking and gambling establishments and a “red light” district.

The 1890s marked the end of the frontier. Towns on the western fringe of the United States competed with one another for a connection to mainline railroads. Once the railroad arrived, these towns sought the kind of institution that would enhance economic growth.

Journalist (and early Tribune editor) Myron Angel was the best civic booster in our region’s history. He led the campaign to attract the mainline Southern Pacific Railroad to our city during the 1890s.

Angel wanted to turn the town into the sort of place that would attract new businesses and more firmly link San Luis Obispo to the other settled parts of California and the West. In 1893, he visited his hometown of Oneonta, N.Y. He remembered it from the 1840s as a coarse and vulgar town along the bandit-ridden Mohawk Trail. Instead, he found a refined city. He attributed the change to the presence of a campus of the New York state normal schools for teacher training.

Angel returned to California, determined to get the state to build such a school in San Luis Obispo. Unfortunately, other cities and towns wanted the same thing. San Diego was starting to blossom under the aegis of John D. Spreckles, the sugar millionaire. San Diego’s lobbyists were busy in Sacramento urging that their town receive a normal school.

In the meantime, state Sen. Sylvester C. Smith suggested to Angel “… that the plan be changed to that for a polytechnic school.” On Feb. 3, 1897, Smith introduced a bill for that purpose.

On Feb. 20, 1897, the select committee of the Legislature arrived in San Luis Obispo after its visit to San Diego. In its eagerness to gain the normal school, the City Council appropriated $100 for a banquet and reception at the elegant 103-room Ramona Hotel.

When Angel was summoned to give the final speech at the banquet, he surprised the audience with a shift in tactics. He spoke of a different sort of school: an institution that would “teach the hand as well as the head so that no young man or woman will be sent off in the world to earn their living as poorly equipped as I was when I landed in San Francisco in 1849.”

Angel and his supporters made references to models for such a school: Pratt Institute in Brooklyn; Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.; and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., which was not far from Angel’s hometown, as well as the prestigious polytechnics of Germany and France.

Plans for the local normal school were put aside. In less than a month, the polytechnic school bill had passed the Legislature. But in April 1897, Gov. James H. Budd vetoed the bill on the grounds that such a school was unnecessary and would increase taxation.

There was “no joy” in SLO when news of the governor’s veto was telegraphed to Myron Angel.

To be continued next week.

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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