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Chumash cemetery in Avila Beach dug up to make way for the railroad

A display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History depicts life in a Chumash Village.
A display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History depicts life in a Chumash Village.

Of the 21 missions in Alta California, five were located in Chumash territory: San Luis Obispo, La Purísima, Santa Inés, Santa Barbara and San Buenaventura.

The region was rich in resources and sustained a large native population.

The Chumash were said to be the first early Californians to meet Juan Cabrillo when he sailed up the coast in 1542.

It is estimated that 10,000 to 18,000 Chumash lived on the Central Coast in 1770.

When Don Gaspar de Portolá first explored the region overland in 1769-70, the expedition traded beads for much-needed food. They encountered friendly natives in what became San Luis Obispo County.

Just 140 years later, the 1910 census recorded only 74 Chumash survivors.

European disease like measles, violence and brutality from immigrants along with land grabs left the tribe’s survivors with precious little.

The first bond issued by the American state of California in 1854 raised $400,000 as a bounty to kill Indians and funded militias in this effort.

Gov. Peter Burnett said this in his Jan. 6, 1851, address to the state Senate and Assembly:

“That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected. While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert.”

Fast forward three decades later, Harford Pier was the best shipping point on the Central Coast.

The deep-water pier was protected from storms and served by the Pacific Coast Railway. The line eventually would provide narrow-gauge transportation from the pier to San Luis Obispo and south to Los Olivos.

Steamships were the superhighway of the day, and the rail connection gave farmers in southern San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties better access to markets.

The problem was the section of rail between Harford Pier and Avila Beach that climbed a slope of 100 feet and went through a tunnel in the hillside to get there.

The section had been designed for a modest horse-drawn railroad, but a steam engine could only drag 5 cars at a time over the steep grade.

Manager Fillmore wanted to build a more efficient, level path. It is roughly the road driven today between Port San Luis and Avila Beach.

Today, Native American monitors are often employed to ensure a respectful response when construction disturbs remains.

But none were on hand when this construction project broke ground.

The Tribune writes about beautiful scenery and economic benefit in the January 12, 1883, edition, before the article records the groundbreaking:

“The point was the dwelling place and cemetery of the pre-historic Indian, who’s long-held sacred graves are now to be rudely thrown into the sea to make way for the iron road.

Through this old cemetery a deep cut is to be made, and here work was begun.

The honor of throwing the first shovel of earth as accorded to Mrs. Dr. Hays, the representative lady of the American pioneers of San Luis Obispo.

The act was most gracefully performed, followed by cheers from the assemblage and the drinking of toasts to the success of the road, health to the fair inaugurator of the work, to the manager and others.

After these ceremonies a party of Chinese laborers were called to the picks and shovels and a search for Indian relics was made.

Shells, flints, mortars, pestles, ollas, and bones were exhumed.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp
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