“It was dark night when the train deposited me at San Luis Obispo town . . .”
Charles Francis Saunders arrived on a train the Southern Pacific Railroad came to call “The Lark” because of its night time service.
It was 1914, and San Luis Obispo had only a few gaslights leading down Osos Street from the old Southern Pacific depot to the center of town. Saunders probably could see very little of our town as “a villainous little omnibus had rattled and jolted” him from the station.
He “went promptly to bed and to sleep in a very comfortable hotel,” very likely the Blackstone at Monterey and Chorro. The shell of the hotel still stands within the rounded corner site which is soon to be demolished.
“Fatigue made a short night of it, and it seemed but a few minutes before I was startled wide awake by such an outlandish clamor of discordant bells as made me think for a moment that fire again was arousing the town. It proved, however, to be only the bell of the Mission calling to early mass.”
Saunders shared the same highly refined musical taste of his collaborator, J. Smeaton Chase, whose 1913 book, “California Coast Trails,” figured in last week’s Times Past.
Saunders and Chase were preparing an account of the California Missions and missionaries that was published by Houghton-Mifflin in 1915.
“The California Padres and Their Missions” was a popular book marketed at the height of what is called “mission mania.” The authors wanted to picture California’s missions in a very romantic light. By their description, San Luis Obispo did not make the grade.
Saunders recalled a brief poem about the pealing of mission bells in the 1860's by Bret Harte:
“Bells of the past, whose long forgotten music
Still fills the wide expanse,
Tingling the sober twilight of the present
With the color of romance.”
Saunders observed that “It would be a robust poet . . . who could hold his own against San Luis’s bells of the present . . .”
In 2005, the two 1818 Peruvian bells and the bell recast in San Francisco in the late nineteenth century were replaced by five new bells cast especially for our mission by a historic firm in the Netherlands.
Everyone agrees that the new bells have a truly musical sound. Our bell ringers have carefully researched historic bell-ringing patterns. Michael Lafreniere has devised some beautiful new pieces that are actually “played” on the bells.
Next Wednesday, August 21, the bells will be rung to greet the arrival of the Grand Riders, a group of Taiwanese grandparents touring the coast on motor scooters.
Over the last fifty years, motor scooters have become one of the most noted features of Taiwan’s cities and highways. It was thought to be a means of travel largely for the younger set, but the Grand Riders set out to prove they could be as mobile as anyone on two fast wheels.
Their ages range from the 70s to the 90s and their motto is “I didn’t stop riding because I got old, I got old because I stopped riding.”
We will be welcoming the Grand Riders as they arrive, traveling down the Grade onto Monterey Street and arriving at Mission Plaza to the pealing bells at 3 p.m. Mayor Jan Marx will greet them at City Hall at 3:30.
At 4 they will tour the Mission and visit the site of the Ah Louis Store and our historic Chinatown, as well as Chen Park, the “Chinese Park” at Marsh and Santa Rosa street, and the Iron Road Pioneers sculpture at the upper end of Osos Street.
The Manse on Marsh Street will be hosting them for dinner.
We are confident that they will have a more aesthetically pleasing visit that did Charles Francis Saunders in 1914.
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.