History About San Luis Obispo, CA

The area that is now San Luis Obispo has been inhabited by the Chumash people for thousands of years. The Chumash had numerous settlements along the coast of California and were known for their excellent craftsmanship and seafaring skills.

In 1772, the first Europeans arrived in the area when Spanish explorer Captain Pedro Fages and missionary Juan Crespi entered the valley looking for a mission site. They named it the Valley of Bears (Cañada de los Osos) due to the large population of grizzly bears.

On September 1, 1772, Father Junípero Serra established the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in honor of Saint Louis of Toulouse. The mission became known for its agriculture and livestock. The Chumash people were forced to help build the mission and convert to Christianity. Many Chumash died due to introduced European diseases.

Mission Period (1772-1822)

During the mission period, San Luis Obispo grew into a largely self-sufficient community focused around the mission. In addition to converting the Chumash people, the mission raised cattle and grew crops like wheat, barley, corn, beans, and peas. A large aqueduct system brought water from local streams and springs to irrigate the farmland.

Daily life at the mission revolved around religious services and agricultural work. The Chumash people lived in small adobe homes near the mission and were expected to provide manual labor. Trade also occurred with ships that stopped in the coastal town of San Simeon just 9 miles away.

Mexican Period (1822-1848)

In 1822, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and California became a Mexican territory. The Mexican government secularized the missions in the 1830s, and the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was transferred to civilian administration in 1835.

During the Mexican period, the former mission gained its first streets and plaza. But the town remained small with around 300 residents. Outlaws occasionally passed through before heading to hideouts along the coast.

San Luis Obispo Established (1848-1900)

San Luis Obispo’s modern history really began after California became part of the United States in 1848 following the Mexican-American War.

In 1850, California was admitted as the 31st state. That same year, the city of San Luis Obispo was officially incorporated. The county of San Luis Obispo was established shortly after in 1851.

Early Growth and Development

In the 1850s and 1860s, San Luis Obispo grew slowly but steadily. Early industries included ranching, farming, and mining. The Gold Rush brought an influx of miners and merchants to California, some of whom made their way to San Luis Obispo.

One major development for the town was the establishment of California Polytechnic State University in 1901. The school specialized in training students in agriculture and industry to help develop California’s economy. It brought new residents and economic activity to the area.

Railroad Arrives

In 1894, the Pacific Coast Railway was extended through San Luis Obispo, connecting the town by rail to San Francisco and Los Angeles for the first time. This greatly improved transportation to and from San Luis Obispo.

Additional rail lines like the Southern Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific helped connect the town to other parts of California over the next decades. The railroads transformed San Luis Obispo from an isolated agricultural community into a trading hub.

20th Century Developments

The 20th century brought sustained growth and many changes to San Luis Obispo. The population grew from just over 3,000 in 1900 to over 44,000 by 2000.

Oil Boom

In the early 1900s, oil was discovered in San Luis Obispo which led to an economic boom. The Union Oil Company established the area’s first commercial oil wells in 1903. For the next few decades, oil became a major industry in San Luis Obispo. New residents and businesses arrived to profit from the oil development.

Transportation Improvements

In 1942, the modern San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport was established. This allowed new connections for commercial and private air travel.

United States Highway 101 was fully paved through San Luis Obispo in 1954, providing a major new automobile route along the West Coast. Tourism increased as a result.

Recession and Recovery

In the 1980s, a major recession impacted California. Like many cities, San Luis Obispo had high unemployment and vacancy rates during this period.

Efforts to revitalize downtown led to the creation of the Downtown Association in 1985. This organization promoted local businesses and worked to beautify the downtown area. The economy began to recover in the 1990s.

Recent History

Some key events in recent San Luis Obispo history include:

  • Opening of the San Luis Obispo Promenade in 1998, a downtown shopping area
  • Completion of major renovations to Cal Poly athletic facilities in 2006
  • Election of Mayor Jan Marx in 2010, the first female mayor of SLO
  • Opening of the Performing Arts Center in 2013
  • Hosting of Tour of California bicycle race in 2017

Today, San Luis Obispo is often ranked as one of the best places to live in America thanks to its natural beauty, architecture, and quality of life. While growth has slowed compared to the 20th century, the city continues to develop and change while holding onto its small town charm.

Historic Architecture and Neighborhoods

San Luis Obispo has done an excellent job preserving historic buildings from its past. Several notable architectural areas exist in the city.


Downtown San Luis Obispo features many buildings from the late 1800s including the Dallidet Adobe and Myron Angel Home. The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa anchors downtown and remains an iconic symbol of the city’s origins. The historic district has buildings in the Spanish, Italianate, Tudor, and Art Deco styles.

Railroad District

Located near downtown, the Railroad District contains warehouses, industrial buildings, and housing dating to the late 1800s when the railroads first arrived. The unique Jack House with an octagonal tower is located here along with the Whale Rock train reservoir and Roundhouse.

Old Towne Historic District

This area has over 20 historic homes from the 1870s to 1920s. Queen Anne, Craftsman bungalow, and Colonial Revival styles are represented. Notable homes include the Richard Shackelford House and McDonalds-McNamara House which is a museum.

Margarita Area

Northeast of downtown, Margarita Area is an old residential district with many 19th century Victorian and Craftsman homes. This area developed when the railroad came to San Luis Obispo. The historic McPhee Home is located here.

Chinatown District

A small Chinatown once existed in San Luis Obispo before fading in the early 1900s. Some buildings like the brick On Lock Sam Curios Shop still represent this history on lower Higuera Street. Chinese laborers helped build the railroads and settled in towns along the routes.

Cal Poly Campus

The California Polytechnic State University campus contains many historic agricultural buildings from its founding including the Administration Building, Dairy Science Complex, Poultry Unit, and Horse Stables. Modern campus architecture now dominates due to expansion, but the old facilities represent an important part of Cal Poly’s past.

Historic Places and Museums

To experience the history of San Luis Obispo, be sure to visit these notable historic attractions:

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Founded in 1772, this is one of the best preserved missions in California. It features a church, museums, gardens, and original buildings like the padre’s quarters and soldiers’ barracks. Docent-led tours provide a glimpse into mission history and life.

History Center of San Luis Obispo

Located in the historic Carnegie Library building, this center contains exhibits on the city’s history and genealogical records. It also offers walking tours.

Dallidet Adobe

Built in 1856, this is one of the oldest surviving buildings in San Luis Obispo. It is a classic Mexican territorial adobe home named after its original owner Pierre Hypolite Dallidet. The inside is decorated with period furnishings.

San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

Housed in the historic Carnegie Library building, this art museum contains a permanent exhibit on the architectural history of San Luis Obispo. Rotating art exhibits also showcase local artists.

Jack House

This Victorian home built in 1874 features unique octagonal towers and 10 rooms of period decorations. Operated by San Luis Obispo Historical Society, tours allow you to experience upper-class Victorian life in the city.

Margarita Area Historic Homes

Some of the historic homes in this district are open for tours including the McPhee Home, Steiner Home, and Dana Adobe. The Dana Adobe dates to 1839 and shows the hide-and-tallow trade between Mexican California and Boston.

Myron Angel Home

Built in 1854 for the founder of San Luis Obispo’s first newspaper, this historic home in downtown offers docent-led tours. It is an example of an early American settler residence in the city.

Historic Events

From Chumash settlements to the present day, San Luis Obispo has witnessed many major events and developments:

  • First inhabitants – The Chumash people occupy this region for over 8,000 years. They have numerous settlements along the Central Coast.
  • 1772 – The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is founded, establishing Spanish influence in the area.
  • 1850 – San Luis Obispo is officially incorporated following California’s statehood.
  • 1876 – The San Luis Obispo Pioneers Society forms to preserve local history.
  • 1894 – The railroad connects San Luis Obispo to major California cities, spurring growth.
  • 1901 – California Polytechnic State University is founded in San Luis Obispo.
  • 1903 – Commercial oil production begins in the area, creating an economic boom.
  • 1942 – The San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport opens.
  • 1990 – San Luis Obispo hosts the first ever Thursday Night Farmer’s Market, which becomes a popular weekly event.
  • 2013 – The Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center opens at Cal Poly as a major regional venue.
  • 2017 – San Luis Obispo celebrates its 225th anniversary since Mission San Luis Obispo founding.

From its Native American roots to emerging as a modern Californian city, San Luis Obispo has maintained a close connection to its rich history over the centuries, while continuing to evolve.

Notable Historical Figures

Several important figures have left their mark on San Luis Obispo over the years:

Junípero Serra

This Spanish priest founded Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in 1772, establishing the first European settlement in the area. He led efforts to convert the native Chumash people to Christianity. The mission became the base for San Luis Obispo’s early development.

Captain Henry Dana

A sea captain and merchant from Boston, Dana helped develop San Luis Obispo during the hide-and-tallow trade era in Mexican California in the 1830s. He built the Dana Adobe which still stands today.

Peter Lebeck

This German immigrant served as the first mayor of San Luis Obispo when it incorporated in 1850. He represented the town’s early American settlers.

Myron Angel

Arriving in 1854, this pioneer founded the town’s first newspaper the San Luis Obispo Tribune. He promoted early development with his journalism before moving on in the 1870s.

Lyman Stewart

A Los Angeles oilman, Stewart developed the early 20th century oil boom in San Luis Obispo after his company drilled some of the earliest commercial oil wells in the area.

Robert A. Mott

Mott served as mayor of San Luis Obispo for 19 years from 1903 to 1922. He oversaw the city’s growth in the early 20th century. The historic Mott Gym at Cal Poly is named for him.

Walter F. Dexter

This educator was the first president of California Polytechnic State University, serving from 1933 to 1966. He shaped the school into a major regional institution.

Jan Marx

Elected in 2010, Marx became the first female mayor of San Luis Obispo. She served for five years helping lead the city in the early 21st century.

From Spanish missionaries to modern mayors, these figures all profoundly influenced San Luis Obispo’s development over time. Their contributions left lasting marks on the city’s history and landscape.

Historically Significant Sites

Visiting these notable historical sites provides a look into San Luis Obispo’s past:

Mission Plaza

Located in downtown, this plaza was the first public space established by the Spanish when they founded Mission San Luis Obispo in 1772. The mission anchors one end of the plaza.

Dallidet Adobe

Built in 1856, this is one of the oldest buildings in San Luis Obispo. It originally belonged to pioneer settler Pierre Hypolite Dallidet and his family.

Ah Louis Store

This brick building was part of Chinatown in the 1880s. Chinese businessman Ah Louis operated a store selling general goods to miners and ranchers.

Soldier’s Barracks

Part of Mission San Luis Obispo, these small stone rooms housed Spanish soldiers who guarded the mission. They were built sometime before 1779.

Octagon Barn

This historic eight-sided barn on Cal Poly’s campus was built in 1922. It served as the center of Cal Poly’s agricultural education programs for decades.

Union Pacific Railroad Station

The 1903 railroad depot now houses the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum. It stands as a landmark from the era when railroads connected the city to the rest of California.

Fremont Theater

Built in 1942, this Art Deco theater still operates as a movie house in downtown San Luis Obispo. It anchors the area’s entertainment district.

Madonna Inn

Opened in 1958 by Alex Madonna, this legendary kitschy hotel off Highway 101 is a classic roadside attraction popular with tourists and locals. Its Gold Rush Steak House dates to the 1960s.

From the mission era to mid-century motels, these sites offer windows into San Luis Obispo’s past and evolution over time. They represent the city’s varied history.

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  • Take US-101 N 10 miles. Exit LOVR, turn left. Drive 3 miles, turn right on Prefumo Canyon. After 2 miles turn left to Squire Canyon. 300 Squire Canyon is on the right after 0.3 miles.
  • Take Monterey to Santa Rosa. Get on US-101 N, then CA-1 N toward Morro Bay. Exit Prefumo Canyon, turn right. Turn right to Squire Canyon. 300 Squire Canyon is on the right.
  • Head west on Monterey. Turn right Santa Rosa. Left on CA-1 N. Take Price Canyon exit to Prefumo Canyon. Turn right then left to Squire Canyon. 300 Squire Canyon on the right just past Dahlia Court.