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Paso Robles' founders: A vigilante, a capitalist and Jesse James' uncle

James Blackburn, one of the founders of Paso Robles.
published in the Telegram-Tribune 8-1-1987 @ 3-9-1989
James Blackburn, one of the founders of Paso Robles. published in the Telegram-Tribune 8-1-1987 @ 3-9-1989

As Paso Robles celebrates 125 years as a city it is a good time to republish this Oct. 1, 1987, article by Telegram-Tribune reporter Phil Dirkx:

Paso Robles remembers its three founders on Pioneer Day

PASO ROBLES — The original pioneers of this city were three 49ers — men who came to California in 1849 looking for gold.

These three founders of Paso Robles were the stuff Western movies are made of. One was a vigilante leader.

Another was a cattleman and the uncle of train and bank robber Jesse James.

The other was a rancher and capitalist with several business interests.

One of their contributions to Paso Robles was the downtown park, which will be the center of activities during the 57th annual Pioneer Day celebration Oct. 10.

Two of Paso’s founders were brothers. Daniel D. and James H. Blackburn were born in Virginia and carpenters in Illinois before coming to California.

Daniel Blackburn was also a partner in a meat-packing business in Illinois.

The third founder was Drury W. James, a native of Kentucky and a veteran of the Mexican War.

All three came to California in 1849. Daniel Blackburn was 33, his brother James was 28, and Drury James was 22.

The Blackburns came with several relatives and partners in wagons drawn by oxen.

They arrived in August and mined for gold until November, with “astonishing success,” according to Myron Angel’s 1887 history of the county.

The two brothers each left the gold fields with $3,000.

They then went to Santa Cruz, where their older brother William, who came to California in 1845, was a judge and merchant.

Daniel Blackburn went into farming here raising potatoes and other crops.

His brother, James, built a sawmill and became a partner in a general store.

When the store caught fire in 1856, James and his partner, Lazarus Godchaux, decided to put their money into land, which would not go up in smoke.

So a year later, Godchaux and James Blackburn, along with brother Daniel, bought the 26,000-acre El Paso de Robles Rancho from Petronilo Rios for $8,000.

It included all of what is now Templeton and Paso Robles, the land in between and the surrounding area.

Daniel soon made himself a place in the history of this county by joining the local vigilance committee and being elected its sheriff in 1859.

The regular county sheriff stepped aside and let Blackburn and the vigilantes rid the county of some troublesome bandits, according to Angel’s history.

“He (Blackburn) made many arrests of desperadoes, and drove the infamous Jack Powers out of the state,” the history says. Drury James traveled to California in a different wagon train than the one the Blackburns had joined. He left the Missouri River April 1 and arrived at Hangtown (now Placerville) in August. He mined until the following spring when he began supplying beef to the miners. At first, he drove cattle from the Santa Clara Valley to the gold fields, and later from as far away as Los Angeles. He was on one of his cattle drives when he first visited the Paso Robles area. He camped by the bubbling hot sulfur springs, whose health-giving reputation later attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to Paso Robles.

In 1860, he and a partner bought 10,000 acres in the La Panza area near the Carrisa Plains, and stocked it with 2,500 cattle.

Then in 1866 he became a relative of the Blackburns.

He and Daniel Blackburn married sisters, Luisa and Cecilia Dunn, in a double ceremony at Mission San Luis Obispo.

In the meantime, a bathhouse and hotel to house 50 guests had been built in Paso Robles near the hot springs in the vicinity of what is now the corner of 10th and Spring streets.

At that time, Paso Robles consisted of a few little shanties, the hotel, the bathhouse, a stage coach barn and a few nearby houses, said Virginia Peterson, a Paso Robles historian.

About 1868, Drury James was visited by his outlaw nephew Jesse, with whom he shared the same middle name, Woodson.

It was just a social call. Drury James later denied knowing that his nephew was a wanted man. In 1869, Drury James bought a half interest in the Paso Robles hotel and bathhouse and the surrounding 4,300 acres. He also moved to the village that year.

James Blackburn, who never married, lived near what is now Templeton, ran 7,000 sheep, owned a hotel in San Luis Obispo, a dairy ranch in Cayucos, and had an interest in a butchering business in San Francisco, according to Angel’s history.

In 1886, after hearing the railroad would soon reach the area, the firm of Blackburn Brothers and James laid out the city of Paso Robles.

They threw a barbecue and auctioned the lots Nov. 17, 1886.

A year or so later, the town’s population had grown to more than 500.

Paso Robles became the second incorporated city in the county Feb. 25, 1889. About that time plans were announced to build a magnificent 3-story hotel, where the Paso Robles Inn now stands.

Construction started then stopped. The brick building stood partially completed for months. Construction resumed the following year, but a new company had been formed to complete it: El Paso de Robles Springs Co. with Drury James as the major shareholder.

James Blackburn had died in 1888. Daniel Blackburn was 74 and in failing health. He died in 1901.

El Paso de Robles Hotel opened Oct. 12, 1891, became a renowned spa and attracted guests such as pianist Ignace Paderewski and the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. James, however, gave it up a few years after it opened.

He moved to San Francisco in 1897 where he ran a rooming house, which was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, Peterson said.

He then bought a second home, which was also destroyed by fire.

He died in 1910.

El Paso de Robles hotel burned down in December 1940.

Two corrections have been made to the originally published story. One corrects the date of the El Paso de Robles fire, and the other identifies Paso Robles as the second city incorporated in the county. San Luis Obispo first incorporated in 1856; as the state Legislature changed rules, the town, then city, was forced to reincorporate at least two more times.

Paso Robles was born March 11, 1889, less than three years after the arrival of the Southern Pacific railroad in that town.