This is part of a continuing series of stories of Paso’s past from local storytellers. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent.
by Harold Franklin
Water has always been an issue in our Paso Robles area. Two prehistoric dams on the Rancho Santa Ysabel testify to that fact.
A quarter mile below the Rancho Santa Ysabel Spring were two dams. The remains of an earthen dam about 8 feet high and over 100 feet long lay across the canyon washed out in its center. At the canyon’s mouth was a 5 foot high earthen dam with a dead 300 plus year old oak tree sprawled across the dam with several 300 plus year old live white oaks. Virginia Peterson and I looked at both those dams in the 1960’s. We disagreed as she said the Indians do not show dam building anywhere in the state. I believe the Salinan Indians built these dams to have water in droughts.
Mission San Miguel records a water ditch to the mission from the Rancho Santa Ysabel. It is unclear if the ditch was on the west side of the Salinas River or alongside its eastern side, as is the spring. There was a lot more water in the side canyons in the past and it could be the creek coming down on the north side of Highway 46 and 101 was the source of this ditch. Some early folks said there were the remains of a water ditch beside El Camino Real. The Mission could have built a dam on that creek to feed fresh water to the mission.
History reveals that in the fall/winter of 1861 and spring of 1862 there was so much rain the Salinas River lapped at the edge of the city park. San Miguel mission had the water mark 6 feet high on its remains, then abandoned. Water was 12 feet deep over what is now Salinas with travel to Santa Cruz from Monterey only done by boat. The James Lynch Ranch by Bee Rock was settled in 1859 and they recorded 15 inches fell in one night in a bucket. Wesley Barnett had settled across the Nacimiento River in 1860 and he moved to Cambria and returned to Adelaide in 1868. The San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys were lakes 300 miles long.
18th and Spring Streets long, long ago. Photo courtesy of the Paso Robles Historical Society
It rained only .3 inch of rain in the fall of 1862 and no rain fell until the fall of 1864. The Spanish ranchos, including Rancho Santa Rosa at Highway 46 West and Highway 1, couldn’t stand the moaning of the starving, dying cattle standing huddled around. They couldn’t even sell their hides for $10. So the vaqueros drove them over the cliffs into the ocean to put them out of their misery.
The rains started in the fall of 1864 as normal. The pioneer settlers at the coast bought dairy breeds in northern California around Petaluma and started a great dairy industry on the grassy hills. That soil is made from serpentine rock which is 44 per cent silica and 43 percent manganese. Manganese is a natural growth inhibitor for our native oaks. Those hills have always been covered with grass and supported cattle along the California coast from Santa Barbara to Santa Rosa. The Swiss followed the original settlers and produced lots of butter and skim milk for hogs. Later milk and cheese was processed at Harmony. Today beef cattle graze the hills.
1882 to 1885 were very dry years for the farmers in the area. Many folks on homesteads moved out of the area seeking better places. Estrella School went from a population of about 80 to lower than 20. Those that eked it out bought the former farms and grew larger.
Photographs taken in 1890 at Templeton and Paso Robes across the river show the river bare of trees.
Now the river is full of trees and brush, waiting for another big flood to sweep it clear.
From my reading and talking to the old timers as I harvested all over the area from 1956 to 1998, we have always had droughts and wet years. My grandfather Abe Claassen arrived in Adelaide with his parents and siblings in November of 1896. Great Grandfather Jacob E. Claassen rented the 10,000 acre Godfrey Ranch, now Heritage Ranch. Their first crop failed as there was no rain in the fall of 1897 and winter of 1898. They cut down oak trees so their cattle could survive on the leaves, twigs, and lichen. They got a little hay from the Santa Maria Valley but not enough. All the local folks did the same thing. Oak Flat was all chopped down for livestock. Mr. Whitener was in Oak Flat felling trees when his horse kicked him in his head. He suffered the rest of his life from that injury.
Another drought in 1907 found Abe chopping down trees. His double bit ax blade went through his shoe and into his instep. The deep cut was length-wise so no bones were cut. They doctored it with home-made recipes and he eventually healed. In 1913 it rained so much that the river took out all the bridges across it, including the 13th Street bridge built in 1887. A steel girder bridge was built that lasted until 1966 when it was replaced by the present bridge to handle more traffic. The demolition crew had to dynamite it twice to get it down.
The fall of 1940 and winter of 1941 were very wet years with wonderful crops if they were planted. About 1950, a dry year, we harvested all day in third gear on our TD14 and John Deere 36A with a 20 foot header and got just 2 bins of barley. Dad got back his seed. We usually harvested in second gear or even slower in first gear. The fall of 1969 was a very wet year. The Salinas River rose so high the water lapped the bottom of the new 13th Street bridge several times that winter, closing the bridge. We had the “ Miracle March” in the 1980’s.
We have had virtually no rain this fall with 2 dry years preceding this year. Just wait.
About the Author:
I am Harold Franklin. I was born at home in Paso Robles on Creston Road, June 12, 1937, the first 2nd generation baby of Dr. Wilmer who delivered my mother, Hilda Claassen, on May 18, 1915. I am the oldest of 6 children of farmer and rancher Harold and Hilda Franklin. I rode the bus 5 miles into Paso Robles where I attended grades 1-12. I attended Westmont College in Santa Barbara 1955 to 1959 and obtained my California Elementary Teaching Credential. Mr. Speck hired me to teach fifth grade at Georgia Brown School where I taught from 1959 to 1976. In the summertimes I harvested barley until 1998. I taught fifth and sixth grade at the then Pifer School, now Lewis Middle School, named after my 7th Grade teacher. In 1978 and 1979 I moved with my family to Huehuetenango, Guatemala, where I taught 6th Grade in English at the Huehue Boarding School. I then moved to the new Flamson Middle School in 1981 where I taught 6th and 8th Grade science for eighteen years. I retired in 1997. I work at the Pioneer Museum as well as my church.
I attended the Willow Creek Mennonite Church from my birth until first grade in 1943 when the activity of WW II in the area hindered our travel. I then attended First Baptist Church until 1956 when we started Grace Baptist Church on Creston Road. After teaching for one year and one month, I was drafted into the U.S. Army on 25 October 1960 and served with Special Troops at Ft. Hood, Texas, in the Post Headquarters.
I returned to my fifth grade class in 1962 and on June 21, 1963, I married my wife, Karen Bergman, from Tulare, CA, a nurse. I have three children, Rebecca, Jonathan, and Sharon, 7 grandchildren and 4 great grand children that live in the area except for Becky, who lives in Spokane, Washington. My grandson Taylor is presently in Fort Richardson, Alaska, in the U.S. Army.