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The original Paso Robles jail: A calaboose built by the people

Paso Robles will celebrate 125 years as a city on March 11 next year. It is the second-oldest city in the county. San Luis Obispo first incorporated Feb. 19, 1856. The other four cities in the county — Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, Morro Bay and Atascadero — would wait for the 20th century to have birthdays.

This article by Phil Dirkx was published in the North County Tribune on March 9, 1989, when Paso Robles celebrated its centennial.

New city put jail building high on list of priorities

Brick building served Paso until 1924, collapsed in 1965

PASO ROBLES — One of the first things this city did after being incorporated in 1889 was build a jail.

It was a two-cell affair that resembled the privies of those days.

It stood just east of the railroad tracks on the south side of 12th Street.

The residents of Paso Robles had recognized the need for a jail as early as Aug. 20, 1887, when an article appeared in the Paso Robles Leader, under the heading, “A Calaboose Needed.”

The article first quoted a story from a San Luis Obispo newspaper, the Republic.

“Ed. Leslie, a resident of Hot Springs Township, is charged with exhibiting weapons in a rude and threatening manner, and on being arrested and appearing before Justice Haley, pleaded not guilty and demanded a jury trial. The case is set for hearing August 18th, and bonds fixed at $2,000. Not being able to procure the necessary bonds the defendant was brought over to this city last evening and turned over to Sheriff McLeod to be kept and returned to Paso Robles by the 18th inst. It would be a paying investment for the Supervisors to erect a calaboose in that township.”

The Paso Robles Leader hen added its own comments.

“This is the outcome of a drunken row last Saturday night and early Sunday morning, in which weapons were drawn and bloody threats made. A box car was called into requisition as a lock-up, but the man who was incarcerated set fire to his temporary prison and was released. The cost of taking a single prisoner to the jail and returning him here for trial would go far toward defraying the expense of constructing a suitable lock-up.”

After incorporating their city March 11, 1889, some Paso Robles people took the matter into their own hands, according to the City Council minutes of June 1 that year. The minutes said unidentified people donated 9,000 bricks and other people donated labor to build the jail.

The little brick building they erected stood until January 1965.

That was when its roof and part of its walls fell down after a month of heavy rains. Newspaper reports at that time said the jail had been in use until 1924, when the city got a new, bigger jail.

In 1964 historically-minded people had agitated to have the building moved and preserved, but Jim Brown, city public works director, said it was too dilapidated to survive a move. His opinion was confirmed when it collapsed the following January, just standing still. One of its cell doors was preserved, however, and is on display in the Pioneer Museum in Pioneer Park.

An article published in the Jan. 30, 1942, Telegram-Tribune indicates the new jail built in the '20s was not much bigger. A complaint was filed against the Paso Robles City Council due to the poor conditions at the jail, though the article is not specific about the location or history of the facility.

“Charging that the city jail occupies only 140 square feet, contains one room and two cages, that it constitutes a public nuisance and causes the confinement of all types of prisoners in one room, the complaint asks that the defendants ‘be enjoined and restrained’ from incarcerating or confining prisoners in the jail.

The plaintiffs charge that the jail, in which 53 persons have been held at one time, according to the complaint, is unhealthy in its lack of proper toilet facilities is filthy and violates statuettes governing jails.”

With a huge influx of troops during World War II at Camp Roberts and the drinking altercations that were likely, it sounds like time in the Paso Robles jail was hard time in the '40s.