Times Past

From ‘Atascadero Beach’ to Motel Inn, how SLO County became a tourism mecca

Bill Roy with a foursome on the ninth green of the “Cabrillo Country Club” in Morro Bay in 1928. The Clubhouse is where the Natural History Museum stands today.
Bill Roy with a foursome on the ninth green of the “Cabrillo Country Club” in Morro Bay in 1928. The Clubhouse is where the Natural History Museum stands today.

“I just bought some lots with a view in paradise.”

Throughout the 1920s, postcards were mailed from Pismo Beach, Morro Bay and Cambria with a similar message. It was a boom time for real estate developers.

Between 1909 and 1918, three state bond acts were passed, providing funding for construction of a connected state highway system.

State Hwy 2 became Hwy 101 linking cities from San Diego to San Francisco.

Frank J. McCoy opened his Santa Maria Inn in 1917 with 24 rooms. By 1928, there were 85 rooms. The aphorism “Santa Maria Barbecue” is testimony to the success of the enterprise.

Arthur and Alfred Heineman’s Milestone Mo-Tel was opened in 1925 on Monterey Street at the foot of the Cuesta Grade. It became better known as the Motel Inn. Soon, the term “motel” became commonplace across the U.S. In 1926, Highway 101 became one of the original “national routes.” Chambers of Commerce quickly picked up the linkage to the trail of 21 California Missions, associating the highway with the romantically styled “El Camino Real.”

Santa Maria, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo were on the main highway and immediately benefitted from tourism in the age of the automobile. An improved road linked Morro Bay, Cayucos and Cambria, largely products of the “dairy boom” along the North Coast from the 1870s on, to 101 through the dairy ranches in the early 1920s.

E. G. Lewis’ promotion of his Atascadero development created the need for a beach-side access in Morro Bay. Before air conditioning, Atascadero’s summer heat proved too harsh for many residents. By 1916, Lewis acquired what he renamed “Atascadero Beach” just north of the small town of Morro. In the 1920s, Lewis built his Cloisters Inn at the foot of San Jacinto Street.

Lewis promoted the construction of a road between Atascadero and Atascadero Beach. He promised that the road would link Morro Bay to the entrance to Yosemite National Park. By 1934, Highway 41 was completed.

Soon, other promoters saw the possibilities of selling land in Morro Bay. James Goulding’s Morro Heights Development Co. and the T. J. Lawrence Co. successfully sold lots for as little as $10 down and $5 a month.

A. Manford “Pickhandle” Brown built the “Log Cabins” overlooking the bluffs above what is now the Embarcadero. The cabins were Morro Bay’s first “motel.”

T. J. Lawrence Co. advertised heavily in the Los Angeles newspapers and, after the mid-1920s, on the radio. Lawrence’s sales team included Robert Baker and William Roy. Both Baker and Roy had big dreams for Morro Bay. They saw the possibility of a major harbor being constructed.

Lawrence lobbied U.S. Senators Hiram Johnson and Samuel M. Shortridge to back a proposal to construct a harbor that “would bring the Pacific Ocean within 87 miles of Bakersfield” and its abundant supplies of cotton.

That proposal hadn’t taken into consideration the impact of the 211-mile Union Oil pipeline from the Central Valley to Avila. Senator Shortridge, who sat on the committee for port appropriations, reconsidered and saw Avila with its Custom House and UNOCAL facilities as the logical place for a major seaport on the Central Coast.

Shortridge’s shift was a great disappointment for the Morro Bay faction, but not for Bill Roy, who saw the potential for turning the small town into a major tourist destination. Acting for the Lawrence Co., Roy persuaded Los Angeles developers Quintin Miller and E. W. Murphy to purchase 1,600 acres in Morro Heights and build a golf course called “Cabrillo Country Club” there.

The Great Depression forced the sale of the club to the State of California in 1934, but Roy’s vision of Morro Bay as a tourist destination was spot on.

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On Monday, I’ll be speaking about Morro Bay’s “Boosters from the 1920s to the ‘60s” as part of the Central Coast State Parks Association Mind Walk Lecture Series at the Inn at Morro Bay at the entrance to the State Park Golf Course.

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

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