Secret SLO history tours reveal past of lawlessness, lynchings and more

Did you know that San Luis Obispo had a tough side of town in the 1800s called “Tiger Town” where several murders took place?

Or that architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed a medical clinic here? Or that the plaza in front of Mission San Luis Obispo was once a lynching ground?

Stories of the city’s past — fascinating, strange and sometimes dark —are presented as part of walking tours organized by a new company — Secret SLO.

Walking tours are commonplace in big cities like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles.

James Papp leads participants on a walking tour of San Luis Obispo’s railroad district organized by Secret SLO. The building in the background is the oldest wood frame commercial building in San Luis Obispo, built in 1873 built for the Tribune and later moved to Santa Barbara Ave. David Middlecamp

Limited tours have been available in San Luis Obispo, but Secret SLO is offering a slate of regular, comprehensive treks on foot for $10 to $20 apiece. The company was formed in late May by local professional historians Bill McCarthy, James Papp and Eva Fina.

Tour titles include Lawless San Luis Obispo, Mission to Mosque, Life in SLO’s Adobes and Victorian Houses, Wild West Lives. The Modern Masters of Architecture tour, for instance, looks at hidden gems such as Julia Morgan’s Monday Club building and Wright’s Kundert Medical Clinic building, one of his few commercial projects.

“There is a certain energy to learning about the city’s history and culture, and we offer a unique experience,” McCarthy said. “I love this city and its past.”

Since Secret SLO started offering walking tours in late May, the company typically has led a few excursions per week to public and private places of historical significance.

Most are guided by Papp, a local architectural historian and chair of the city of San Luis Obispo’s preservation commission. The company’s “secret” name is modeled after a New Orleans walking tour company.

“We have an unusually wide variety of tours, compared to other walking tour companies, to cater to all tastes in social and visual history and all the facets of San Luis Obispo,” Papp said.

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James Papp leads participants on a walking tour of San Luis Obispo’s railroad district organized by Secret SLO. David Middlecamp

Participants in the Lawless San Luis Obispo tour have included law enforcement officials looking to learn more about legendary “swindles, shoot-outs, bombings and flaming arrows,” he said.

For a recent Lawless San Luis Obispo tour, Papp gathered a group at Secret SLO’s headquarters at the Sauer-Adams Adobe, located at 964 Chorro St. across from the mission. That’s the general meeting spot for tours — with the exception of the Rise of a Railroad Town tour, which starts at the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum.

The Lawless San Luis Obispo tour included a journey through Mission Plaza, where Papp spoke about arsonists burning down Mission San Luis Obispo before less flammable building materials, such as titles, were used to prevent blazes.

In 1858, six men were lynched in the plaza area after a so-called Committee of Vigilance, made up of influential town leaders, decided their fate.

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James Papp leads participants on a walking tour of San Luis Obispo’s railroad district organized by Secret SLO. David Middlecamp

Real-life tales of Tiger Town, located a block from the current Chinatown area, largely come from historical accounts in The Tribune, which reference fighting between neighbors over insults and a scorned wife, leading to deaths.

“Because we work as professional historians, we never put anything on our tours, online, or in our publications that can’t be documented,” Papp said.

“One of the exciting things is how much resonance we’ve found among the local community,” he said, “not just people inviting our tours right into their houses and businesses, but native-born San Luis Obispans, members of pioneer families, long-time residents, and recent arrivals, going on our tours.”

In addition to tours, Secret SLO plans to offer book publishing, historic resource analysis and sales of art and other products distinctive to the region. It will also promote local businesses such as Mee Heng Low and Fromagerie Sophie.

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This photo depicts art for sale in the Secret SLO office. Courtesy photo

Secret SLO will host a free, 15-hour marathon reading of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” at 9 a.m. Saturday as part of the Coastal Awakening festival.

The event, which is open to community members age 12 and older, will be held in the Sauer-Adams Adobe back garden. Several readers are expected to take turns reading the scroll, which each 10-page section lasting about 25 minutes.

The event will include music, refreshments, and “oddball performances,” Papp said.

For more information about Secret SLO and its events, including a possible ghost tour, visit or

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