“As it was this year, Christmas week was wet in San Luis Obispo in 1868.”
Elliot Curry was commenting on the weather during the holidays in 1982. The winter storms of 1982-83 proved devastatingly sensational. The destruction of the UNOCAL wharf at Avila on March 1, 1983, marked an unforgettable moment in our region’s history.
Elliot knew just how volatile weather could be along the Pacific slope.
Elliot came to San Luis Obispo in 1943. He was the former managing editor of The Telegram-Tribune and a student of San Luis Obispo County history. He wrote many columns like “Times Past.” He gave me copies of most of his history columns, such as this one he wrote dealing with a storm-filled winter like our present one.
It’s also the story of a newly founded Methodist Church and the rise and fall of a newspaper.
“On the week before Christmas in 1868, the women of the Methodist Episcopal church of San Luis Obispo announced in a paid advertisement in the weekly Pioneer that they would hold a ‘Ladies Fair and Festival’ on Dec. 24 for the benefit of the church and the Sunday school library. There would be an ‘endless variety of fancy articles on exhibition and for prices to suit purchasers.’
“Since the church did not have a building, the sale was being held in the courthouse, then located in (the) Casa Grande (the large adobe structure which served as the county court house) on Court Street (where Copeland’s Center is now located.)
“If a church bazaar was not exactly the biggest news of the day, it provides at least a footnote to the history of Christmas in San Luis Obispo.
“For one thing, it was the first Christmas on which a newspaper had been published in San Luis Obispo. Rome G. Vickers had established the Pioneer in January of 1868, and now in December, for the first time, the church ladies would have a publicity medium, and students of our city history more than a century later would be able to look back to its columns and say, with some accuracy, ‘That’s the way it was in 1868.’
“ ‘The way it was’ was wet. It had been a dry fall, but come Christmas week, a heavy rainstorm blew in.
“Dr. W. W. Hays, a man of many talents who had come here for his health in 1866, had set up a rain gauge and reported that 6.9 inches of rain had fallen.
“The rain was also causing some traffic problems. A bridge was being built across San Luis creek south of town, but it was not yet ready for use. Meantime, wagons were having difficulty fording the creek in the rising water.
“The storm was also causing difficulties at San Luis Bay.
“The clipper schooner Jos(eph) Wooley, out of San Francisco, was bouncing around outside the bay waiting to unload cargo and passengers in time for Christmas.
“There was neither breakwater nor wharf in the bay at that time. Ships unloaded with small boats at a small dock, then known as Steamer Landing, now called Pirates Cove.
“Making the steamer trip to San Luis Obispo in those days was no luxury cruise.
“Storm or no storm, however, the editor of the Pioneer was in a cheerful holiday mood. With tongue in cheek, he wrote that he had heard that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive,’ but at the same time, he thought he could receive without flinching.
“He advised that small donations, like coin or checks, could be slipped under the door, but barrels of sugar or sacks of coffee should be carried around to the back porch.
“Unfortunately for Vickers, this was the only merry Christmas that he would spend in San Luis Obispo. In the following August, Judge Walter Murray would establish the Tribune, and before another Christmas came, the Pioneer quietly ceased publication.”
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org