‘Teach the hand as well as the head ...” The Cal Poly tradition is the product of the pragmatism of the American West. The man who conceived of and fought for the school, and the state and town that gave it birth, were enmeshed in the irrepressible optimism that characterized America’s expansion westward during the second half of the 19th century.
Myron Angel, a well-known journalist (and former Tribune editor) and historian, was most responsible for the founding of the Polytechnic School. Angel’s life parallels the movement west.
He was born in 1827 in Oneonta, N.Y.. He spent his boyhood in that part of upstate New York. In later life, Angel recalled that he had witnessed the transition from the Mohawk Trail of the colonial era, to the Erie Canal constructed by the young republic, to the building of the Hudson Valley Railroad.
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Angel was granted an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1846. In 1849, he dropped out, joining his brother Eugene in the trek to the gold fields of California.
After months of travel, the last several hundred miles along the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe, N.M., on foot, the Angel brothers reached San Diego. Their clothes were in tatters and they were barefoot, carrying all their belongings on their backs.
They spent their last remaining money to buy passage aboard a brig to San Francisco. Penniless, they couldn’t rent lodgings. They spent their first night in the “metropolis of the West” wandering along the mud-filled streets.
The next morning, Angel was offered a job shingling a roof. Labor was in scarce supply because of the attraction of the Mother Lode. The wages were excellent, but Angel was forced to turn the job down. In his 1908 History of the California Polytechnic School at San Luis Obispo, he had to admit that “I never drove a nail in my life.”
A perennial civic booster, Angel had proposed in 1897 a school that would give “hands-on” instruction. His ideas were put into a bill and approved by both houses of the Legislature.
California Democratic Gov. James H. Budd vetoed the bill on the grounds that such a school was not needed and would increase taxation. San Luis Obispans were discouraged, but continued the fight in Sacramento.
In November 1900, Warren N. John of San Luis Obispo was elected to the Assembly. This young, ambitious businessman joined with Bakersfield Sen. John Smith in ensuring the passage of the bill.
Local citizens launched a countywide campaign to guarantee passage of the bill and its signing by the new governor, Henry T. Gage. The Republican was a Los Angeles attorney who had married into the historic land grant-owning Lugo family of Southern California.
Gage had been an attorney for Southern Pacific. Myron Angel and San Luis Obispo Tribune editor Benjamin Brooks had gotten to know Gage in their campaign to bring the railroad to town in 1894. Gage would be sympathetic to San Luis Obispo’s appeal because a school would increase railroad traffic along Southern Pacific’s Coast Route.
A statewide campaign brought endorsements from influential leaders including David Starr Jordan, Stanford University’s first president.
In February 1901, the act passed the state Senate by a vote of 33-3 and the Assembly by a vote of 51-1. On March 8, Gov. Gage signed the bill into law.
Angel, Brooks and San Luis Obispo had won its “Polytechnic School” with an overwhelming legislative victory.
San Luis Obispo now had a statewide institution.
March 8, 1901, was a very sweet day in the life of San Luis Obispo.
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.