Times Past

Even during early days of anti-immigration, SLO was always a land of diversity

The Goldtree Block, Chorro and Higuera in San Luis Obispo, now the Wineman Hotel.
The Goldtree Block, Chorro and Higuera in San Luis Obispo, now the Wineman Hotel.

The Anti-Immigrant Party, best known as the “Know Nothings,” elected the governor and all but two members of the Massachusetts state legislature and 40 members in the New York state legislature. By 1855, the group claimed have elected thousands of local government officials, eight governors, and 43 candidates were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives along with five “Know-Nothing” senators.

The Irish Potato Famine had affected most of Europe as the late blight of Irish potato destroyed a food staple. Political upheavals from Budapest to Rome and Vienna to Berlin, Paris and London destabilized Europe’s political systems.

An unprecedented wave of emigrants flocked to America. Most families claiming five or more generations of American ancestry are descended from that wave of immigration.

But at the time, there was a violent wave of “Know-Nothing” resistance that included the burning of Catholic orphanages and virulent antisemitism. Yet in the small town of San Luis Obispo in the late 1850, the local business community included names like Moise and Ernest Cerf, Abraham Blochman and Nathan Goldtree, Jewish refugees from France and Eastern Germany.

San Luis Obispo has always been a land of diversity.

During the 1850s, when the “Know Nothing Party” was flourishing in the Eastern United States, many nascent economies of the Pacific Coast welcomed business talent. The Cerfs, Blochmans and Goldtrees represented a group of much needed merchant bankers and brokers who could navigate the exchange of cattle, sheep, hides, tallow and other goods between San Luis Obispo, San Francisco and the mining towns of the Mother Lode.

It’s no accident that one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries along the Pacific Coast is here in San Luis Obispo.

The Civil War and the Great Drought of 1862-65 destroyed the local economy, but when the dairy-boom era began after 1865, the Cerfs, Blochmans and Goldtrees returned to rebuild their respective businesses and address the transportation challenges of the region. These merchants formed a syndicate called the “Peoples Wharf Company” in December 1868.

They constructed an 1,800-foot wharf just south of the mouth of San Luis Creek, approximately a hundred yards south of the present-day Avila Pier. They laid a narrow-gauge horse-drawn railway on the wharf to bring cargo on shore. The national recession of the 1870s hurt business.

So too did competition from Captain David P. Mallagh’s “Cave Landing,” built at the foot of the bluff over what is nowadays called “Pirate’s Cove.” The partners quarreled. In November 1872, Blochman sued the Goldtrees, and the presiding judge ordered the company dissolved.

The holdings were sold at an auction in front of the warehouse on the beach. Captain John Harford, a sometime partner in the syndicate, was able to reorganize the effort, building what is now the Harford or “Olde Port” in deeper water. Within a few years, he completed the construction of the Pacific Coast Railway linking the wharf to points as distant as the Santa Ynez Valley. The Goldtree family remained active in the Pacific Coast Railway.

They built the Goldtree Block, a large brick store, where the Wineman Hotel and The Habit are today. Their one-story home on Garden Street is now the two-story Garden Street Inn. They were active in urging the Southern Pacific Railway to come to San Luis Obispo. One of the major cattle loading areas along the SP’s coast route bears the family name.

I’ll be giving a version of the early Jewish history of San Luis Obispo for the First Annual Jewish Festival of Learning, May 17-19. For more information, visit www.jccslo.com/learning.html.

Learn about SLO mission

Learn about Mission San Luis Obispo and our early community: from 9:30-11:30 a.m. May 18 in the Old Mission Parish Hall. It’s a class for docents and is free and open to the public.

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