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Once Upon a Time in the West chronicles SLO County history at the History Center 

It’s Sunday, Nov. 15, and I’m dodging much-needed raindrops on my way to the History Center housed in the old Carnegie Library on Monterey Street. A new exhibition—a series of photo collages—tells the story of our county from its first people to our modern times, and everything in-between: the early explorers, the mission system, the first settlers, the outlaws, the Depression, and more.

Evidence of the area’s first humans dates to about 15,000 years ago, and by 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo had “discovered” and named San Luis Bay and saw Morro Rock for the first time. Over the next two centuries, explorers and traders stopped along the Central Coast for fresh water and firewood. Then in 1772, we became “civilized” with the founding of the SLO Mission, followed by Mission San Miguel in 1797.

Despite the recent canonization of mission founder and brand new “saint” Father Junípero Serra, those were dark times for the native populations, whose ancestors look back in horror at the subjugation and near-genocide of their forebears. After the missions were abandoned by the church and secularized in the 1830s, things really got interesting in the county, which turned into the Wild West. It wasn’t uncommon along El Camino Real to find skeletal remains of travelers who were robbed and murdered. In 1848, the famed Reed Family murders—11 dead—occurred at Mission San Miguel.

The Gold Rush brought even more settlers—and victims—to California, and by 1858 some San Luis Obispo citizens took it upon themselves to bring “law and order” to the area with the formation of the Committee of Vigilance, which acted as judge, jury, and executioner … and lynched a number of people near the SLO Mission. 

One of the area’s most notorious outlaws of the day was Pio Linares, whose home was located near the current site of the Motel Inn, the world’s first “motor hotel,” near the north end of Monterey Street. Called “the bloodiest bandit on the El Camino Real,” Linares was never tried or convicted of a crime, but the Committee of Vigilance burned his house to the ground, chased him to Los Osos, and gunned him down. That’s the way things got done on June 13, 1858.

By 1864, San Simeon had established a whaling station. In 1873, the Pacific Coast Railroad started construction at the Harford Wharf near Avila Beach. Ah Louis opened his famous store in 1874. In 1903, Cal Poly held its first classes. In the 1920s through the ’30s, artists, hobos, bohemians, and writers started settling in the Oceano Dunes, calling their commune-like community the Dunite Colony.

Camp San Luis was founded in 1928, and then the Great Depression hit and in 1936 Dorothea Lange captured her world famous shot, Migrant Mother, in Nipomo. In 1941, a Japanese sub sank Union Oil tanker the Montebello off the Cambrian coast.

This collection of photographs chronicles it all, right through the 1955 building of the Morro Bay Power Plant, the 1958 opening of the Madonna Inn, the 1981 arrest of 1,900 protesters at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant and its 1985 licensing, and the 2014 completion of the Topaz Solar Farm in the Carrizo Plain. 

This exhibition—along with another about Phoebe Hearst and one about the old railroad in Avila Beach currently on display—proves the History Center is a vital resource for maintaining our local history. What a place we live in!

It’s still lightly sprinkling when I step outside the old 1905 Carnegie Library. As I look left toward the Mission, I imagine the spot where vigilantes lynched banditos, where Native Americans were enslaved, and where every summer Friday evening, a couple thousand people gather to watch live music. This may have been a dangerous place 150 years ago, but today my biggest worry is where to get lunch and contemplate where we come from and where we’re going.

Glen Starkey takes a beating and keeps on bleating. Keep up with him via twitter at, friend him at, or contact him at [email protected].


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