Over the Hill

Just how wild was Paso Robles' Old West?

Special to The TribuneOctober 10, 2013 

Phil Dirkx

NOTE: This column has been changed from the original to correct the date when the old jail collapsed.

Saturday is Pioneer Day in Paso Robles, a day for celebrating the city’s roots in the “Old West.” But what kind of “Old West” did Paso grow up in? Was it a wild one like we see on TV and in movies?

You decide. Consider a news item that appeared in the Paso Robles Leader newspaper on Oct. 1, 1887. The headline said, “Reform Needed.”

The story began, “There is a menace to public safety in the shooting gallery on Twelfth street, which could be easily remedied by placing boards on the sides of the tent instead of canvas, as at present.”

It continued, “The gallery is in the centre of a populous neighborhood, and there are women and children as well as others constantly passing where an accidental shot through the canvas side of the house would hit them.”

The paper also recommended an added remedy that might rile today’s National Rifle Association: “The use of heavy firearms should be prohibited in the gallery also, as they are dangerously liable to penetrate a board wall.”

H. G. Wright was editor and proprietor of the Paso Robles Leader. Its first edition appeared Nov. 13, 1886. That was 13 days after the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad finally reached Paso Robles, and four days before the first lots went on sale in the newly laid-out City of El Paso De Robles.

But back to the question “Was Paso’s ‘Old West’ wild?” On Aug. 20, 1887, the Leader reported Ed Leslie was “charged with exhibiting weapons in a rude and threatening manner.”

The paper said, “This was the outcome of a drunken row … in which weapons were drawn and bloody threats made.”

Paso Robles had no jail so Leslie was locked in a boxcar. But he “Set fire to his temporary prison,” said the Leader, and was taken to county jail in San Luis Obispo.

The paper then opined, “The cost of taking a single prisoner to jail and returning him here for trial would go far toward defraying the expense of constructing a suitable lock-up.”

Two years later Paso Robles did build its own little, brick jail. It was 10 feet by 13 feet, not much bigger than some bus-stop shelters. It contained two cells and little else. It was abandoned in 1914 and sat vacant, neglected and decaying until it collapsed in January 1965.

But an exact, life-size, brick replica of the jail now stands on the grounds of the Pioneer Museum at 2010 Riverside Ave., next to the Paso Robles Event Center. You can visit the museum Saturday after 1 p.m. That would be after you watch the Pioneer Parade at 10 a.m. and eat your fill of the free bean feed in City Park at noon.

Phil Dirkx has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column is published weekly. Reach him at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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