Laguna Lake is disappearing. In 1863 a much larger lake there was reduced to gray clay and muddy holes.
During the heyday of the mission era, Central California was ideally suited to cattle raising.
The Spanish missionaries had introduced grasses to the area and wild oats, often six feet in height, blanketed the hills where other grasses failed to thrive.
Yet by 1863, the ranchers of the Central Coast felt that nature had failed them. The editor of the Tribune wrote, “All forage was utterly exhausted, and where the grass usually waved in luxuriant growth, the wind swept the dust as drifting sand on the desert. Fertile valleys were as bare as well trodden roads.”
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By the fall of 1863, many traditional watering holes were low. The “marsh” at the southern end of present day Marsh Street in San Luis Obispo, Laguna Lake and the wetlands of the Cíenega District of Arroyo Grande were covered with gray, dry cracked mud and tiny ponds of smelly decaying fish and tadpoles.
Nojoqui Falls (pronounced Naw-ho-wee) just south of Buellton disappeared for the first time. So, too, did the Santa Ynez, Cuyama, Nacimiento and San Antonio rivers. Santa Rosa Creek along the north coast also dried up.
Hundreds of Native Americans contracted cholera and typhus from drinking polluted water from the puddles. Many returned to Mission San Luis Obispo, which had once been their home. The “Padre’s Kitchen,” now the youth center, was turned into a hospice where their final moments might be made less painful.
The skies were unusually filled with buzzards. Grizzly bears and wolves that had virtually vanished for a decade began to appear out of the Santa Lucia and coast ranges, pursuing the helpless dying cattle. Soon, they would also fall victim to the relentless drought. But this was only the beginning of the cataclysm.
The rancheros proceeded with El Matanza Grande, the Great Slaughter, where butchers paid $3 a head for steers normally worth $50. They held back breeding stock and hoped for rain. But none came.
After the rainless winter of 1863-64, no grasses could grow. Cattle turned to devouring the stumps of the native coastal live oak and sycamore. Cattle were dying by the thousands. The rancheros could not tolerate the moaning and bellowing of their dying herds.
Julian Estrada was known far and wide as the “happy caballero.” His elaborate Californio costume, his fine livery with silver embellished saddles, trappings and beautiful mounts, all made him a living legend. Don Julian drove the remaining hundreds of his cattle and horses off the bluffs overlooking the Pacific at his Santa Rosa Rancho in present day Cambria.
On other ranches, as the dying cattle grew fewer in number, the survivors would assemble in circles with their heads toward the center. Pressing against one another, they would try to hold each other up. Soon, the last would fall, and strange geometric configurations of sun bleached bones dotted the thousand hillsides along El Camino Real.
Visitors arriving in San Luis Obispo from the south during the late afternoon beheld a frightening specter. The setting sun produced a macabre effect on the El Portrero de San Luis Obispo, the former mission pasture lands where Cal Poly and the Monterey Heights housing tract now set. The circles of bleached bones became almost blinding.
Drury James, the co-founder of Paso Robles and his partner, John D. Thompson, had over 5,000 healthy steers on the La Panza Ranch. They drove their herd nearly 100 miles across the Carrizo Plain and the Temblor Range to Buena Vista and Tulare Lakes.
A few men made their fortune out of the disaster. Captain David Mallagh, owner of the Rancho Huer Huero, and J. P. Andrews, later a pioneer banker, bought the carcasses of dying steers, boiled them down in what little water they could find, and fed the bolito to their pigs. The pork brought a very good price.