Times Past

Slow iPhone? This is what it was like to get the news in SLO County in the 1800s

California Southern Overland Stage station in San Luis Obispo from 1862.
California Southern Overland Stage station in San Luis Obispo from 1862.

I was exasperated recently with slower than normal email service on my iPhone. A sense of history put the situation in perspective.

The outgoing mail frequently sat in the office of San Luis Obispo’s Postmaster Alexander Murray for several months during the mid-1850s.

The problem resulted from the unreliability of steamships from the company that held the government contract put in at Port San Luis “if practicable.”

That meant that ships only stopped when they had paying passengers or freight to unload. There wasn’t any provision for overland mail shipments.

As a result, the balloting returns from San Luis Obispo County from the statewide election of 1855 were not mailed to Sacramento in time to be included in the total vote. County Clerk David Newsom noted: “This hurt some parties who had more influence than I, and resulted in having the stage line from San José to Los Angeles established. (This eventually) gave us daily mail service from both north and south.”

The overland mail service began as a two-horse stage wagon between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. San Luis Obispo attorney Walter Murray, the postmaster’s brother, received the government contract for this stage.

No one seems to have even suggested that there was any conflict of interest. There were only a handful of literate residents in our pueblo in the 1850s.

Walter Murray also held the contract for mail service to Santa Barbara.

Most travelers wished to go north by stage toward the goldfields, the booming city of San Francisco or the state capital at Sacramento. So the south-bound service consisted of a single horseback rider ferrying to and from Santa Barbara once a week.

The two-horse northbound stages were not luxurious. The fare to Monterey was $50 or more. Passengers still were expected to work along the way, sometimes pushing the coach up a steep hill when the two-horse teams proved insufficient. The final 500 yards going north up the center of Cuesta Canyon invariably required such “passenger-assisted” horsepower. Sometimes, paying passengers had to help dig the stage out of the mud or hold the wagon upright to prevent it from turning over on a narrow, steep part of the road.

The first day’s journey from San Luis Obispo only carried passengers as far as Petronilo Rios’ Caledonia Inn in San Miguel. Passengers had to rent beds for the night before proceeding on to Jolon in the San Antonio Valley.

Ironically, the Caledonia Adobe, now a beautifully preserved county historical park, became an occasional stopping point for famous outlaws from Frank and Jesse James and Tiburcio Vasquez to the Dalton Brothers.

The Daltons may have planned the first successful railroad robbery along the Salinas Valley portion of the Southern Pacific’s Coast Route while staying at the Inn.

The stage stopped at the Los Coches Inn just south of modern Soledad and veered to the western bank of the Salinas River. Late in the afternoon of the third day’s travel, the stage pulled into Monterey. Passengers bound for San Francisco and points north and east were left at Hill’s Ferry on the banks of the Salinas River. Some unfortunate travelers might have to wait at the Los Coches Inn for three days for a northbound stage to San Juan Bautista and San José and San Francisco.

Secessionist threats by the many pro-Southern “copperheads” in Los Angeles at the beginning of the Civil War prompted the creation of a tri-weekly stage service between San José and Los Angeles in 1861. The need for improved north-south communications resulted in expanding service to a daily stage in 1862.

In 1873, what became the Southern Pacific’s Coast Route was extended south to Salinas. Flint, Bixby & Company with its many coastal land holdings, which included the Rancho Nacimiento (now Camp Roberts), operated the stage service from San Luis Obispo to the Salinas railhead. The S.P. reached Soledad in 1874.

Readers had to wait more than a week for their favorite San Francisco-based newspaper. In 1869, Walter Murray took advantage of that delay by starting the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.