Monday marks 60 years since Frank Jordan, then California’s secretary of state, made official a process started by some visionary South County residents and approved by the voters of South County in a special election on Dec. 29, 1953.
Sixty years ago, the Port San Luis Harbor District was finally real.
The district had no employees and no assets, but it had a vision and a purpose: to enhance the harbor, to encourage commerce, to improve access and recreation and to support the commercial fishing industry.
Much is owed to those first intrepid Harbor Commissioners: Harry Davis, Dick Kirby, Bert Smith, Leo Brisco and Gerard Parsons. Gerard Parsons served 34 years on the Harbor Commission and, now 95, still talks of his hopes for an evermore thriving commercial harbor at Port San Luis.
In the early 1950s, the roadway and pier were acquired and — in a joint effort with the state, the county and PG&E — the road was improved. The parking lot was built on landfill later in the 1960s (by Alex Madonna), and work began to repair the pier.
Also in the 1960s, the district worked closely with the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a plan for improvements to the port: additional breakwater, more landfill area stretching toward the lighthouse, deep-water berths and a Coast Guard station, plus enough slips for 1,300 boats. Congress authorized the project, funds were appropriated and a scale model of the proposed harbor was built at the Corps’ facility in Vicksburg, Miss. No local funding was forthcoming, however, and, lacking Coastal Commission support in the early 1970s, a revised project eventually died.
In the 1970s, the district acquired the Harbor Terrace site (adjacent to the entrance to Diablo Canyon) for tourism, coastal access and district, boat and fishing gear storage.
In the 1980s, the district took over the beach, pier and parking lot in Avila from the county. And in the 1990s, the district acquired the lighthouse and the land surrounding it from the federal government.
Since then, so much progress! The road is now maintained by the county, and is a vital connection not just for visitors to the harbor and those who fish and work there, but also for the thousand-plus who work at Diablo Canyon.
One of the first projects after the district acquired the pier in Avila was, unfortunately, to rebuild it. The huge El Niño storms of 1983 took out not just the Avila pier, but also the (then) Unocal pier and other piers up and down the coast. (The wisdom of John Harford in building his pier in the lee of the point became apparent, as that pier survived the storms).
The Harford pier is looking great, but wear and tear never stops, so neither can maintenance. We are moving ahead with the plan to develop a campground on Harbor Terrace, to replace the camping that now takes place on the bluffs. A major restoration of the lighthouse has been completed, thanks to the efforts of the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers, and this jewel can now be enjoyed by everyone.
The district, and the tens of thousands of people who visit and work out of Avila and/or the port owe a debt of gratitude to the many people who have built on John Harford’s legacy. Perhaps most of all, the debt is owed to those visionaries who saw potential in a dilapidated pier with no easy access and looked forward to seeing a busy port again, with a thriving fishing industry and a hub for commercial and recreational activities.
The port has experienced three centuries and four incarnations.
In the 19th century, the port was initially the point of access for people and goods into and out of the county.
By the early 20th century , oil was king, and Port San Luis/Avila was the largest oil exporting port in the world by the 1920s.
By the latter part of the 20th century, oil was waning, and the primary activity in the port was commercial fishing. With the slowing of the commercial fishing industry in the early part of the 21st century, recreational activities have taken on greater importance to the economic life and vitality of the harbor.
The Port San Luis Harbor District represents only a piece of the history of the harbor, but is now an essential part of the fabric of this community and county, and we on the Harbor Commission are proud to be able to guide the district in service to our community.
Drew Brandy is president of the Port San Luis Harbor District Board of Commissioners.