‘After leaving Santa Barbara County, the roads were ... horrible — no road in fact but a mere trail, like a cow path, hardly marked by the track of wheels, and often very obscure. We crossed gulches down almost straight on one side, then ‘ker-chug’ in the bottom, then up steep on the other.”
In April 1860, William Brewer, a young Yale-educated botanist, was assisting Josiah Whitney in carrying out the first geological survey of the state of California.
His wagon nearly didn’t make it, climbing the Hourihan Grade on what is now Thompson Road, the old Highway 101 just north of Highway 166.
The same wagon rolled over descending Arroyo Grande Hill. Brewer writes, “It was about five or six hundred feet high, the sides at an angle of about thirty degrees, down which the road ran in ‘crooks’ — now one side up, now the other.
“No work had been expended on it, so it was ... very (slippery) and very steep.
“We chained both hind wheels, and for a time, all went well. We had descended about one-third of the way, sliding, slipping and dragging, when, quick as a flash, over went the whole concern.
“Such a pile! The wagon caught when completely upside down, the wheels high in the air. The mules were tangled in the harness, one on his back, his mate standing over and astride him. One of the wild (mule team) leaders got loose and was lassoed by ... (the mule skinner) a mile distant.
“We unloaded, turned the wagon up again, found the top a total wreck with no insurance, but no other serious damage. We loaded up a half, and camped at the foot of the hill on a pretty, grassy bottom by the finest stream we had seen for some time.
“I had the curiosity to go back to the hill the next day. We packed down on our backs a part of the baggage, and measured the angle. In one place for some distance the road descended at an angle of 29 degrees! Yet this is the ‘better’ road to San Luis Obispo.”
The poor condition of the roads was a liability for the development of southwestern San Luis Obispo County, even after the grading of the first county road in the late 1870s.
But the potential of the country was obvious to Brewer.
The next night, Brewer’s party camped at Frances Ziba Branch’s Santa Manuela Ranch.
“He is an American and has a ranch of eighty-thousand acres, well stocked with many choice cattle and horses, comparatively well watered, and fertile.”
A little more than 20 years later, the transportation issues would be markedly improved by the construction of the Pacific Coast Railway.
The narrow gage tracks linked San Luis Obispo and Port Harford — which is now Port San Luis — with the Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys.
A pleasant, prosperous community developed between the mouth of Corbett Canyon and Arroyo Grande Creek. Arroyo Grande quickly grew and was incorporated as a city July 10, 1911.
Jan Scott, the curator of the South County Historical Museum, has assembled a marvelous exhibit celebrating the centennial event.
It includes an original city voting booth, telephone switchboard, materials from the Pacific Coast Railway, city and regional maps, fire department equipment and the first town marshal’s badge.
The exhibit is in one of the most interesting historic buildings in our region, the 1902 Odd Fellow’s Hall at 128 Bridge St. in Arroyo Grande. It’s open to the public on Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m. with a suggested donation of $2.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.