Pismo Beach History
The history of people at Pismo Beach starts at least 9,000 years ago with the Chumash Indians, who referred to the area as a place to find pismu, or tar. The Pismo Beach region has an interesting history going back in time to 1769, when Don Gaspar de Portola and parties camped in the area. According to the diary of Costanso, a member of the Portola party, “The party continued over the sand dunes and then descended to the beach, along which they walked for several miles before camping for the night. Near their camping place was an Indian village of some forty people.” Undoubtedly, the beach walked upon by the Portola party was that known today as Pismo Beach. We invite you to take a look at our rich history.
The First Pismo Beach
The City is part of the original 8,838-acre Rancho Pismo. Rancho Pismo was granted to Jose Ortega by Manuel Rinemo Goriod on November 18, 1840. Ortega is thought to have built a small adobe that later became part of the Price Adobe. The rancho was later acquired by Issac Sparks. Some folktales relate that Sparks won the land from Ortega in a game of monte, but it appears from records kept by John M. Price that the ranch was purchased for 477 head of cattle. Sparks, in 1850, appears to have given John Price El Pizmo Rancho instead of paying him wages in gold, as the deed shows a cost of $1 for the property. Upon Spark’s death, John Michael Price and Captain David Mallagh received a share of the land. Price lived and worked on the rancho until his death in 1902. Price built up sizeable horse and cattle herds, which he moved onto the rancho. Mallagh owned a section of Rancho Pismo around the cave landing area (now Pirate’s Cove), where he established a wharf business. Price purchased some of the property in 1854. A portion of the southern part, which is now Grover Beach and Arroyo Grande, was sold to Francisco Branch. This left him with Shell Beach, Pismo Beach area and a large section running back into Price Canyon. In 1875, Price took the first step toward funding the community of Pismo Beach when he built a hotel on the road from Arroyo Grande to the People’s Wharf in Avila Beach. The hotel was not a success and Price had the hotel moved to the beach in 1884. In 1881, Price leased oceanfront land to the Meherin brothers to build a wharf and a warehouse. This wharf at the end of Main Street was successful and the hotel’s new location was next to this operation. The school district was founded in 1888, and the Post Office was also established then.
Parceling Pismo Beach
In February 1886, Price hired R.R. Harris to survey and design a map of the subdivisions of part of the Ranchos El Pismo and San Miguelito, and to also map out and draw a plan for a town to be called “El Pismo.” This was initiated in April 1886. A year later, the Pismo Beach Company again subdivided part of the community and recorded a map of the “Town El Pizmo.” It is interesting to note that the Pismo Beach Company is given credit by some for the founding of the present City of Pismo Beach.
Back in 1881, Pismo’s original wharf opened for business. Taking off from a point below the present Main Street, remnants of the pilings may still be seen at very low tides.
It was not planned for recreation as such — it was a commercial venture designed in part to save freight fees for South County products. Lumber was received as well as other commodities. Stock was issued to farmers and landowners for $20 a share and the wharf was built for $14,613. The Meherin brothers, Arroyo Grande merchants, started the venture. Most credit is given to D.J. Meherin for its inception, construction and maintenance. In 1882, a year after its completion, Meherin figured the wharf had saved the people of the county $35,000 in decreased freight rates compared with those of the steamer line they would have patronized. Thirty-eight vessels were loaded at the wharf in 1882. Two warehouses were built near the entrance where teams could move cargo in and out. A small hand car track led out to the end of the pier. The wharf was still active in 1890, but a few years later it gave way during a heavy storm. Probably contributing to the disaster was a load of heavy “bituminous rock” that had been dug in Edna and was waiting in sacks for shipment to San Francisco to be used as paving material. The new pier that replaced the original was built in 1924 and was much longer than it is today. Some can remember driving cars along its length, then backing out, or using the tight turn around at the end. It is said that it extended out far enough that Navy ships could tie up and the men could come ashore. The pier has sustained damage several times, but a major storm tore up the south side of the sea wall and about 500 feet off the end of the pier early in its existence. It was never put back. After a 1983 storm washed out most of the wharf, it was rebuilt in its present configuration in 1985-86. The state, county and city all have an interest in the pier. The pier at Pismo Beach continues to be one of the community’s major attractions.
John Price realized the potential Pismo had for tourism when he built the Pismo Beach Hotel. The Pismo Beach Hotel was sold to A.E. Pomeroy and Charles Stimson in 1887. They enlarged the hotel and renamed it the El Pizmo Inn. The hotel was sold and resold many times. In early times, the area was thought of as a place to spend several months, relaxing and enjoying the surroundings. Early advertisements for the El Pizmo Inn encouraged visitors to come and enjoy the “fine duck hunting and the pleasant surroundings.” The 1900s were wild times in Pismo Beach. Pismo was noted for having many saloons, along with several notorious brothels. Other amusement type businesses at the time, besides the hotels, offered a variety of entertainment, including a skating rink, a bowling alley, and a dance hall. The property directly south of Shell Beach now known as Dinosaur Caves, was the site of an amusement park, with a giant cement dinosaur to gather attention. H. Douglas Brown started building the dinosaur in 1948 and was stopped by local opposition. The headless dinosaur remained a local landmark until it was torn down in the late 1950s. Pismo Beach was also known to be a place to find booze during the Prohibition Era. The second El Pizmo Inn was built about the turn of the century and became so popular that a “Tent City” was erected for the overflow of tourists. They were clean, well-organized 18′ x 14′ tents that could be rented for $8 a week. Resting on wooden planks, the tents were located where the Clam Digger stands today. Eventually, the Tent City was expanded to where the theater now stands. “Tent City” lasted into the late 1920s. The Southern Pacific Railroad also helped tourism in Pismo Beach. It brought people from the San Francisco Bay area to Pismo Beach in one of the first “timeshare” operations. The people paid $30 for a ride down to Pismo Beach and then stayed in the Tent City. If the tourists liked the tents, the railroad would use their fare as a down payment on a tent for the people. If the people didn’t like the tent, their money was refunded and they returned to San Francisco free of charge. It was rumored that more people stayed than asked for refunds. In 1912, Highway 2, today’s Highway 101, was routed through Pismo Beach, giving automobile travelers an easy route to the beach. Highway 101 was not expanded to four lanes until the late 1950s.
Shell Beach and Sunset Palisades
Shell Beach was quite different years ago, when it was nothing but pea fields. The area was the site of a Chumsh village. Floyd Calvert bought and developed much of the land in 1926. He paid $45,OOO for 41 acres between the ocean and the highways. When Calvert first visited Shell Beach, there were approximately 50 residents in the area. Calvert sold lots in the area for as little as $195. A resident of Hollywood, Calvert was told about the area by a friend in 1925. When he first visited Shell Beach, there was only one street, Boeker Avenue, with a few cottages on it. Calvert was struck by the beauty of Shell Beach and bought a portion of it. In January 1926, he opened offices in the area, hired seven salesmen and began selling land to people seeking summer retreats from the hot valley. When the summer selling season was over that first year, Calvert had to close his offices. The depression, which was to hit hard in 1929, was beginning to be felt. Then Calvert had to devise a new way to sell his land. He offered it for $5 a month. Even then it was hard to sell. During the Depression, Calvert, who had been a builder in Hollywood, lost all his property except for Shell Beach. He had such faith in this area he thought if he could hold on to this land, someday people would realize its worth. It took Calvert 20 years to sell the first 456 lots on the Shell Beach land he owned. But shortly before and after World War II, Calvert began to have more success selling lots. During World War II, many soldiers had trained in California. They liked the climate and wanted to live in the area. It was then that Shell Beach changed from a resort area for residents of the San Joaquin Valley to a residential community. When Calvert began to break ground for building houses, he found skeletons of Indians who had died and were buried in the area. He also found copper bracelets, arrowheads, spearheads, and stone bowls, which had been used for grinding meal. Most of the Indian artifacts were found near the ocean between Placentia and Palomar Streets. Major archaeological sites have been noted in this area and that of Sunset Palisades. It was known as Oilport and was opened in August of 1907, quite different from today’s residential Sunset Palisades area. Built with investor funds, it operated for only one month. The plant, built by California Petroleum Refineries Ltd., was to be the most modern on the West Coast. Nearly 2.25 million bricks went into the construction of the facilities. Financed primarily by investors, it cost over $2 million to build. It was to be the most complete refinery on the coast. It was set up to produce kerosene, gasoline, lubricating oil, and oil byproducts. The refinery existed until just after World War II, when it was finally torn down. The land was sold, subdivided and replaced with housing.
1926 saw the first incorporation attempt in Pismo Beach. Though it failed, attempts to incorporate the city were finally successful in 1939, when Pismo Beach became a sixth class city by a majority of seven votes. In 1940, worries over increased taxes led the citizens to vote to disincorporate the city. The majority was eight votes in the election. The present city government dates from 1946. Pismo Beach is celebrating it's 75th anniversary in 2021