When author Dan Buettner named San Luis Obispo the happiest city in America, the folks at the History Center of San Luis Obispo County decided to set the record straight.
“At the turn of the century, in the late 1800s, San Luis Obispo was a bit of an outlaw city,” said Erin Newman, the History Center’s chief administrative officer. “You would really think of this as a squalid place.”
The city’s somewhat seedy past comes alive in “The Dark Side of San Luis Obispo,” one of three audiovisual walking tours offered by the History Center. The podcasts, which can be downloaded for free, pair audio narration and period-appropriate music with antique photographs, newspaper headlines and other scrolling images.
“It’s almost like walking in a movie, rather than listening to someone talking to you,” Newman explained. “It takes the walking tour to a whole new level.”
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According to Newman, the walking tours were created in collaboration with the History Center, Verdin Marketing and Red Canary Productions, all based in San Luis Obispo.
The project was funded with a $13,000 grant from the city of San Luis Obispo’s Community Promotion program.
“San Luis Obispo’s Historic Downtown” debuted on iTunes in November 2010, followed in June by “The Darker Side of San Luis Obispo” and “San Luis Obispo’s Historic Railroad District.”
“The Darker Side” tour, which takes about 45 minutes to complete, recalls a time when prostitutes, opium dealers and highway robbers mingled with more respectable folk.
Walter Murray, founder of The Tribune, was among the early settlers who found the city “very distasteful.”
“You say that you are sorry that I am situated where I am, buried alive as it were in San Luis Obispo,” he wrote to his sister in 1858. “I’m sure you cannot regret it more than I, nor have greater desires that I should emancipate myself from it.”
“Like any frontier town, San Luis Obispo went through a period of lawlessness and accumulated its fair share of seedy stories and city secrets,” narrator Terry Veal explains in “The Darker Side.” “It also endured a time of shameful bigotry, cruel discrimination and wanton exploitation.”
The History Center tour starts and ends in front of the Carnegie Library Museum on Monterey Street. Other stops include the Freitas Adobe, home to the native acolytes who worked and worshipped at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa; the Quintana Block, the former site of the Blackstone Hotel; and Mission Prep, which stands on the grounds of the Academy of Immaculate Heart. A 2002 archeological dig at the Catholic high school uncovered whiskey flasks, beer bottles, smoking pipes and firearm materials alongside broken slates and baby dolls.
Some of the spots included in “The Darker Side” no longer exist — such as the “hanging tree” that once stood near the mission, or the long-gone red light district at the corner of Palm and Morro streets.
Others have changed significantly. For instance, the nowpristine San Luis Obispo Creek was used as a sewer until the 1890s and a garbage dump well into the 1960s.
Notably, “The Darker Side” devotes two chapters to Chinatown, the Palm Street neighborhood that served as a city center for hundreds of Chinese immigrants during the 19th century. Arriving in California during the Gold Rush, they labored in hotels, laundries and restaurants, worked on wharfs and roads, and built the narrow-gauge railroad stretching from Port San Luis to San Luis Obispo.
As Veal explains, the hardworking immigrants weren’t always welcomed with open arms.
“When jobs became harder to find, Anglo-Americans vented their anger at the Chinese, blaming them for the low wages they were forced to accept,” Veal says in “The Darker Side.” Local newspapers rallied against the so-called “Yellow Peril.”
Although much of modernday Palm Street is dominated by parking structures, a few landmarks remain from its Chinatown heyday, including Mee Heng Low Noodle House and the Ah Louis Store.
Known as the unofficial mayor of Chinatown, Ah Louis established a general store, bank, post office and pharmacy at the corner of Palm and Chorro streets in 1874. A licensed opium seller, he also served as a labor contractor, mined quicksilver and built the city’s first brickyard.
According to Newman, the walking tours are designed to appeal to technology-savvy youngsters and older history buffs alike.
“We’ve received nothing but compliments on the final product,” she said.
Although the History Center isn’t sure how many people have downloaded the tours, Newman said she’s been contacted by tourists, school teachers and historical societies.
“Sometimes I’ll be walking around downtown and I’ll see somebody obviously taking the tour,” she said. “It’s really nice to see that.”