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Railroad out to Port San Luis Harbor

Avila Beach History & Port San Luis History

Chumash Indians

Records of Paleo-Indians are scattered all over the southern half of the USA (the northern half was covered by ice). They date from over 13,000 years BP (Before Present). A brand new date of 14,300 BP has come out of a cave in Oregon. These are the so-called Clovis People (from a site at Clovis, New Mexico). Interestingly, the most sites are located along Chesapeake Bay.

However, the oldest known human remains were found on Santa Rosa Island, just offshore from Santa Barbara. The record in San Luis Obispo County is fragmentary; which is no wonder. Where one would expect to find an Indian Camp would be where a freshwater stream met the Pacific Ocean. These  areas, today, are under 360 feet of seawater.

The so-called “60 fathom place” is well known to fishermen: It is a stair-step at 360 feet of water depth.  It marks a “fossil” sea cliff, cut by surf during the last ice-age.

By 11,000 years BP, the world had turned inside out. These Indians vanished; the ice receded, and mega-fauna died out.

Lions and tigers and Bears; Oh My! Elephants, camels, horses, giant ground sloths; all gone. The only large animal to make it through the extinction was the American bison (which we sometimes call a buffalo).

There was continuous occupation on San Miguel Island since 11,000 BP by a new set of Paleo-Indians. Absolute dates of 8000-9000 years BP are scattered all around the San Luis Obispo County and California, in general.

We assume that these people evolved into the Chumash and other tribes.

Spanish Exploration

Long before the founding of Jamestown (1607), the Spanish were exploring the Pacific Coast of what is now Mexico and USA. Cabrillo (1542) and others were actively mapping this West Coast of North America.

In 1769 a settlement was established at San Diego and the building of missions began. In all 19 missions, 4 presidios, three pueblos were in place in California before the Louisiana Purchase.  Mission San Luis Obispo dates from 1772.

From 1810-21 Mexico fought is War of Independence from Spain; which started and era of political and social upheaval which lasted into the 20th century.

Avila Beach

Any Californian could petition the Mexican Governor of California for a land grant. Miguel Avila did so and was declared owner of 2 square leagues (about 14 square miles) around Avila Bay, but there was no formal grant. In 1846 the new Governor, Pio Pico made if official. Miguel had married Pio Pico’s Niece! Certain restrictions were added; public access to a road and to the strip around the bay.

This is a pretty choice spot; a fresh water creek, flat river-terraces (the golf course) for farming and room for ranching, near by oak forest for lumber and firewood and the only natural harbor in the area.

Remember, Morro Bay was not a useful port until the 1940’s when the causeway was built to the Morro Rock to the mainland. Until that time, Morro Rock was an island, and surf came right down what is now the Embarcadero.

The Gold Rush occurred in 1849; California was admitted to the Union in 1850. The economy was booming. Yet there was no railroad to the Central Coast and no decent road. People traveling with gold-dust caused a boom in banditry.

The only safe way to move any supplies was by boat. Avila needed a wharf. So in 1855 2 gentlemen build one at cove landing. This is also known as Pirates Cove and is San Luis Obispo County's only nude beach. The problem with this landing was ships had to off lead onto small boats.  Then the cargo had to be hoisted by crane up the steep hill.

The main road (along the river) and the wharf did not match. This problem will be seen over and over. But this landing operated for 10 years.

In 1867 Miguel’s son laid out and sold lots in Avila Beach. In 1869 John Hanford put together the finances for an 1800 foot pier near the present Avila Beach Pier.

Port San Luis

John Harford came to the California coast in the late 1960’s after the Civil War. He built the Harford wharf in 1873. They used horses to bring the cargo off the ships into San Luis Obispo until he connected the pier with a narrow gauge railroad in 1880’s. The Port developed into the largest crude oil shipping port in the world by world war II.

In 1954 the southern SLO County voted to create and fund the Port San Luis Harbor District. Five Harbor Commissioners were elected to the board and the hope was to give the old facilities new life and create some commerce and revenue for south SLO County. The State Legislature granted the Harbor District the area's tidelands in trust in 1955. The Harbor District was given the Point San Luis land site from the Federal Government in 1992. Today they are focused on the environment and keeping a working harbor while serving the public and of course tourism & camping. You can find out more about the history and other info on About Port San Luis.


Points of Interest in Port San Luis

Point San Luis Lighthouse - MAP

Historic Point San Luis LighthouseEven though the need for a lighthouse was obvious because by 1870 Port Harford was averaging over 400 ships per year, it wasn’t till a near disaster of a ship hitting the pier (then ran aground) that put everyone on the same page. The Point San Luis Lighthouse was completed in June 1870 and was lit for the first time on June, 30th 1890. It helped guide ships for 84 years before the Coast Guard closed the lighthouse in 1974. In 1992 the Port San Luis Harbor District was given the Point San Luis land site from the Federal Government as long as they restored the lighthouse and opened it to the public. It has been fully restored by the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers and is currently open for public tours by a docent lead hike or trolley tours.

Pillow Basalt (Lava Rocks in the Port) -MAP

Pillow Basalt in Port San Luis HarborThese rocks are Pillow Basalt. They are formed with hot lava is extruded underwater. Underwater extrusion of lava is not the same as pouring lava into the sea. Pouring lava causes it to shatter into sand-sized pieces; the source of the “black-sand” beaches of Hawaii. If one walks out along the base of the cliff (low-tide only), the toothpaste-like structures is obvious. Look closely and you will find a couple of 1”+ bore holes; drilled into this rock, obviously man-made. Here’s the story: Black rocks contain black minerals which contain iron. Close up of Pillow BasaltWhen the liquid lave hardens (crystallizes) the iron minerals line up with the earth’s magnetic field. That magnetic movement is locked in these rocks forever (as long as they are not re-heated). If one cuts a core from the rock and marks its orientation, one can take the core back to a lab. Now, we must have an apparatus which can shield the core-sample from all outside magnetic fields. The very tiny field, locked in the minerals, can be read. It yields the latitude (north of the equator) but not the longitude (east-west direction). This pillow basalt was formed very close to the equator. It has drifted into the Port San Luis Harbor through plate-tectonics.

Whalers Island - MAP

Whalers Island in Port San Luis HarborWhalers Island is now incorporated into the break water. In the 1800’s it was an active whaling station. During the whaling migration (November-April) a lookout was stationed above the lighthouse. Boats would row out and attempted to harpoon the whale, which was towed back to the island where the blubber was stripped. On shore were 1500 gallon pots in which blubber was boiled down to oil. Ten whales would pay for a season. Whale oil lubricated the Industrial Revolution. Whaling preceded petroleum, and vegetable oil will not hold up to the stress of heat and shear; whale oil was the answer.

Smith Island - MAP

Smith Island in Port San Luis HarborFor ten years, starting in 1884, the Smith family lived on this island. They were followed by two families of Gregory’s; one with 14 children. The bridge connected the island to the land where boats were stored. There were decks cantilevered over the cut terraces.


Points of Interest in Avila Beach

Avila Beach Pier

Avila Beach Pier taken in 1926Avila Beach Pier was first constructed in 1908 by the county of San Luis Obispo but because it was not well protected, it sustained major storm damage throughout the years and was constantly repaired after each event. Now, Avila Beach Pier is 1,685 feet long and is intended for tourist strolling as well as recreational fishing. It extends out from the center of the actual beach of Avila Beach and is surrounded by beach goers most months of the year. Picture was taken in Feb 1926

Original Cornerstone from Seawall - MAP

Historic Point San Luis LighthouseThis cornerstone is from the original seawall that protected Avila Beach and Port San Luis Harbor for over 60 years. The seawall was constructed in 1937 by the U.S. Government's Works Progress Administration. It was finally replaced in 2000 and the cornerstone got a new permanent home near the park in downtown Avila Beach.

Circle of Life - Tile Mosaic

Circle of LifeFound on the downtown promenade in Avila Beach, this tile mosaic is in the shape of Nautilus Shell. It’s called the Circle of Life and has inlay titles that depicts our rich history. Walk on it and see the evolution of Avila Beach from the time of the Chumash Indians to the oil spill and town clean up when this was made.

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Map of Avila Beach