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Arroyo Grande Creek’s history is awash with adventure

Bob Brown wrote a book about Arroyo Grande Creek, history and uses. His backyard is a short walk to the creek.
Bob Brown wrote a book about Arroyo Grande Creek, history and uses. His backyard is a short walk to the creek.

Arroyo Grande is named for the big gully that gives it life and has at times terrorized the town.

When William Brewer traveled by wagon, surveying the 11-year-old state of California in April 1861, his journal documents a memorable crossing.

“We wound among hills, and at last at the Arroyo Grande, had a bad hill to descend. We had come a longer road because the ‘hill was easier’ this way. Well, we got to the ‘easy’ hill. It was about five or six hundred feet high, the sides at an angle of about 30 degrees, down which the road ran in ‘crooks’ — now one side up, now the other. No work had been expended on it, so it was always very sidling, and very steep at the same time.

“We chained both hind wheels, and for a time all went well. We had descended about one-third of the way, sliding, slipping, dragging, when, quick as a flash, over went the whole concern. Pete and Mike escaped from under the pile by a miracle of agility that would astonish a circus performer. Such a pile!

“The wagon caught (stopped sliding) when completely upside down, the wheels high in the air. The mules were tangled in the harness, one on his back, his mate standing over and astride him. One of the wild leaders got loose, and was lassoed by Guirado a mile distant.

“We got up the mule, then attended to the wagon. I never before unloaded a load from the bottom — carpetbags, instruments, tools, provisions, tent-ropes, botanical papers, etc.”

In later days, the road was improved but the ungrateful creek washed it out. The span at Bridge Street dangled and the narrow gauge railroad bridge almost fell, too, during the epic flooding of 1914. Repairs were so costly that some tried and failed to disincorporate the city to avoid paying for repairs.

In 1886, terror of another kind visited the creek when a masked mob pulled a man and his son from jail and lynched them from the Pacific Coast Railway bridge. The jailed men had been accused of murder and attempted murder in the wake of a property dispute. A third man was let go with the rope still around his neck. School children discovered the bodies dangling from the bridge the next day.

Flooding in 1969 wreaked havoc throughout the county except in Arroyo Grande — the new Lopez Dam protected residents downstream.

A July 7, 2011, Tribune editorial celebrating Arroyo Grande’s Centennial reads, “The Arroyo Grande Swinging Bridge — the only one of its kind in the state of California — was built in 1875. It’s been restored and reinforced over the years, but it has retained its historic flavor and remains one of the most popular landmarks in South County.”

The cable suspension bridge was recently closed because of damage from over-exuberant users jumping on it as they crossed.

Many of the creek’s stories were gathered by Robert A. Brown in a book “The Story of Arroyo Grande Creek.

Telegram-Tribune reporter Jerry Bunin wrote the story Feb. 24, 2002:

Secrets Of The Creek

Arroyo Grande Resident Charts Waterway’s History And Use

After participating in two cleanup days for the Arroyo Grande Creek that runs behind his house and showing it off regularly to visitors, Brown decided he should learn more about it.

That led to a meeting with South County historian Jean Hubbard, with the meeting prompting him to write the “Story of the Arroyo Grande Creek.”

“When you get started digging into something, people come to you and tell you to see somebody else, and the story just develops, begins growing and growing, “ said Brown, 77, a former Long Beach resident.

The retired economist for McDonnell Douglas kicked off his research with a 2-inch-thick package from Hubbard.

“I took that as a start and went to the county people to find about the (Lopez Dam),” he said. Brown then quizzed his son, a fly fisherman, about steelhead trout in the creek.

After two Central Coast Salmon Enhancement creek cleanups, he spent two years writing the creek’s history and one year trying to get the book published.

“I had no idea how difficult getting published was,” he said.

Brown’s book, which contains two pages of acknowledgments of the people and sources who helped him, is an entertaining and comprehensive compilation of local histories, booklets, scientific papers, interviews, government documents and newspaper accounts.

It details how early settlers used the creek and survived its periodic floods by controlling its flow to produce an agricultural economy, domestic water supply and recreational area.

The well-organized reference book is full of little-known facts, such as how Lopez Lake and Lopez Dam got their names.

Jesus Lopez was a homesteader and farmer of 300 acres near what is now Lopez and Vasquez creeks in the 1860s to 1870s, said Brown, whose book includes a two-page chronology of events leading to the dam’s construction.

The Wittenberg Arm of Lopez Lake was named after early settler Daniel Wittenberg, whose son Newton allegedly shot and killed the county’s last grizzly on family ranch land that is now part of the Lopez Lake Recreation Area.

Brown traces how the Arroyo Grande Flood Control and Water Conservation District was formed to control the 103-square-mile Arroyo Grande Creek watershed, including 34.7 square miles downstream of the dam.

Another chapter deals with the various bridges crossing the creek, which runs 13 miles from the dam to the Pacific.

The chapter cites Hubbard’s writings about Newton Short, who settled in Arroyo in 1875, built a home where the gazebo stands today in the Village and constructed the structure that is now a picturesque “Swinging Bridge” spanning the creek in the city’s old town area.

Brown ends his tale with some advice: “Become familiar with the Arroyo Grande Creek, or any creek in your area, with all its many facets, and you will soon know what you can do to gain the most pleasure from it and do the most good for it.”

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

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