Arroyo Grande's centennial: A history more than 100 years in the making

An illustration of William H. Ryan's hotel and stable in Arroyo Grande, circa 1883.
An illustration of William H. Ryan's hotel and stable in Arroyo Grande, circa 1883. file photo

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained two incorrect dates: Mexico opened land grants to settlers in 1833, not 1883, and Arroyo Grande's only lynching actually happened in 1886, not 1888.

On July 1, 1911, The Herald-Recorder published a lengthy article with a bold-faced headline: “The City of Arroyo Grande Is the Very Latest and Best Piece of News — Town Incorporates With a Small but Compact Majority of 2.”

The city was officially incorporated July 10, 1911.

The local paper noted “the election went off quietly, there being no rowdyism, drunkenness or any display of ill-feeling on either side. Every available vote was cast, and at closing time neither side would have bet 5 cents on the results.”

While the city incorporated nearly 100 years ago, Arroyo Grande’s rich and colorful history stretches back much further, to days when Mission Indians tended vegetable gardens at the mouth of Correlitis Canyon, according to “Images of America: Arroyo Grande,” by Jean Hubbard and Gary Hoving of the South County Historical Society.

The land known as Arroyo Grande was held by Spain and then Mexico and used for the missions. In 1833, Mexico closed the Mission Period and opened thousands of acres of land grants to settlers, according to Hubbard and Hoving’s book.

In 1831, Francisco Zeba Branch moved to California from New York and established a trading post in Santa Barbara. Heapplied to become a Mexican citizen and courted Manuela Carlon. They were given a 16,954-acre grant in April 1837 in the Arroyo Grande Valley.

Twenty-five years later, Branch petitioned county supervisors to form the town of Arroyo Grande. He laid out the town in 1867.

Today, residents and tourists drive down Branch Street as they make their way through the historic Village area.

Path to incorporation

Before the early 1880s, accessing Arroyo Grande was possible by boat at Port Harford — now known as Port San Luis — and then traveling by horse, wagon or carriage to town, according to an exhibit organized by Jan Scott, museums curator for the South County Historical Society.

“This was nowhere land,” Scott said. “The reason Arroyo Grande happened is because of the Pacific Coast Railway.”

By 1882, the narrow-gauge rails had reached Arroyo Grande. The community started living by the timetable of the train.

In 1886, the community suffered a tragedy — its one and only lynching. Local residents have gathered twice since, in 1986 and 2004, to tell the tale of a land dispute that led to the shooting death of Eugene Walker and the hanging from the old Pacific Coast Railroad bridge of his slayers, Julius and Peter Hemmi, by vigilantes.

In the meantime, the sleepy town was waking up — and so were some of its entrepreneurs. By 1911, three blocks of Branch Street housed six to eight (and by some counts, 11) saloons, Scott said.

At the same time, temperance organizations urging reduced use of alcohol were increasing. Locally, leaders in the Methodist and Presbyterian churches led the Prohibition movement.

When local residents voted 88-86 to incorporate, one saloon owner promptly bought land just outside the new city limits, Scott said. Alcohol was banned in Arroyo Grande the next year.

After incorporation, the Good Samaritan Society, a temperance organization, donated a large lot and building on Branch Street to the new city. It served as city hall and the fire department and today is used as the city council chambers.

Hit with disaster

Less than three years later, disaster struck. A storm on Jan. 24-25, 1914, dumped 8 inches of rain on the county, according to a Telegram-Tribune article published in 1956.

The rampaging Arroyo Grande Creek destroyed railroad bridges, undermined homes along its bank and caused great damage.

That same year, local residents voted 179 to 172 to disincorporate their city. But the vote fell short of a two-thirds requirement to pass.

Scott said the push to dissolve the city may have stemmed in part from higher taxes put on residents to rebuild after the flood. But she also thinks the saloon owners would have welcomed the change.

Another attempt to disincorporate in 1924 was defeated.

Unique history

For years, Arroyo Grande remained a small town. It is now home to 17,252 residents, but retains its small-town feel and sense of community.

Over the years, Arroyo Grande leaders have made it a priority to preserve the city’s agricultural heritage and historic Village.

“I think we have a really unique history,” Jean Hubbard said. “We’ve been able to preserve a lot of our history along with becoming modern.”