History of Paso Robles

History of Paso Robles

The Salinan Indians, the ancient inhabitants of the Paso Robles area, discovered the local thermal springs thousands of years before the Spanish started building their missions throughout California. Both the San Miguel and San Antonio Mission inhabitants, Indian and Spanish, used the soothing waters for their medicinal properties. By 1795, those hot springs were becoming famous, referred to in print as “California’s oldest watering place,” for the area’s underground mineral springs and mud baths. By the middle of the nineteenth century, after the Spanish land grant of nearly 26,000 acres was purchased by three businessmen, the San Francisco Examiner announce that Paso Robles was on its way to becoming the watering place of the state.

The former “Rancho de Paso Robles,” soon had its first bathhouse, with eight wooden tubs. A hotel, which would become the Paso Robles Inn, followed to cater to the influx of visitors attracted by the growing fame of the hot springs. One of the three investors in the town site sold his interest which in turn was sold to D.D. Blackburn and his partner and brother-in-law, Drury James, uncle of the outlaw, Jesse James. In fact, the twenty-year-old bank robber came to California from Missouri, worked in the hotel livery stable and escaped the long arm of the law by hiding out in the tunnels under the original Paso Robles Inn. The young outlaw escaped a nationwide manhunt after he and his brother Frank executed the first daylight bank robbery in U.S. history, taking $57,000 from the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri in February 1866. In Paso, Jesse was known as a gambler and heavy drinker. There is a local legend that while Jesse James laid low in Paso, he used a tree in the Estrella riverbed for target practice. Today people still search for that bullet-riddled tree.

In 1886, the Southern Pacific Railroad came to what was not yet the city of Paso Robles, making it a main stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Quickly, the town site was laid out and within two weeks prospective buyers were brought in by rail to tour the area, enjoy daily barbeques and after a “Grand Auction,” purchased 220 town lots. Within a year, there were over 500 residents and 100 buildings. Paso was incorporated as a city in 1889. Besides the mineral springs attraction, Paso Robles was also known in the 1880’s for having the world’s largest concentration of almond orchards.

By the turn of the century there was a grand new Hot Springs Hotel with telegraph office, general store, Wells Fargo office, and extensive livery stable. The city had a two-block public downtown park, donated by Drury James and his partner, and Paso Robles became the location for spring training camps for the San Francisco Seals baseball team of the Pacific Coast League, Chicago White Sox and Pittsburg Pirates. The ball players soaked in the soothing mineral springs after practice.

The new century brought few changes to Paso Robles until the U. S. Army established the largest West coast training center near Paso Robles at Fort Hunter-Liggett. The population rose from 3000 and sped growth to the city and outlying areas. The famous Mid State Fair began in 1946 and added another layer to Paso’s character. Speaking of famous, there is a little apartment complex at the south end of Spring Street that is known as the overnight honeymoon spot for Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio. On their way back from getting married at San Francisco City Hall in January1954, the couple spent the first night of their marriage at the Clifton Motel. In the morning they continued on to a Palm Springs lodge. The room they stayed in then is memorialized with pictures of Marilyn and Joe.

The cattle and horse ranches, farms and orchards surrounding Paso Robles over one hundred years ago eventually became the vineyards and wineries of today. The first wine grapes were first planted by Spanish missionaries in 1797 at the San Miguel Mission, just north of Paso Robles. This is the earliest wine producing region in California, older than the Napa Valley. Wine production fell during Prohibition but by the 1960’s and ‘70’s, vineyards began springing up again. In the last ten years, the wine industry exploded, growing to over 200 and propelled Paso Robles into the stratosphere of the wine world and making it an increasingly popular travel destination.

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