Port History

The Avila Beach area was used by the Spaniards and Portuguese many centuries ago. It is rumored that Juan Cabrillo came into the natural harbor for fresh water and to rest after a rough passage around Point Conception. Richard Henry Dana also used the natural headlands to anchor up out of the wind, resupply and trade with the local Chumash Indians.

In 1873, John Harford built the Harford wharf. Using horses, he offloaded schooners and imported cargo from the big city. He sold the goods in San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara County. Ships carrying supplies, mail and passengers laid alongside the Harford Pier. Harford eventually sold his enterprise to Charles Goodall for $30,000 including the land west of San Luis Creek all the way to the Port.

In 1876 the Marre Hotel was built at Port San Luis where passengers would rest up while waiting for passage on the next ship. The narrow gauge railroad was built in the 1880’s, carrying both passengers and cargo. Between 1893 and 1913 the federal breakwater, funded by congressional action, had been built to provide a safe anchorage at the wharf. Cattle and agriculture goods were exported to the big cities, lumber and dry goods were imported to the area. The narrow gauge railroad ran out onto the wharf to carry cargo back and forth to market.

Smugglers used the Port for illegal nighttime movement of liquor. The G-Men had a hard time catching the persons involved as it was a community effort and outsiders were not welcome. Large quantities of liquor came ashore in the area now know as Pirates Cove. The local commerce fell on hard times at the onset of the Depression and the Port fell into disrepair. The old wooden wharf (Harford Pier) was worn and there was no money to keep in good repair. The railroad and pier were sold to the Elton Tognazzini in 1942 for $17,265.

In 1954 the citizens of southern San Luis Obispo County voted to create and fund a Harbor District for the Port San Luis Area. It was hoped that this action would provide for a method to fix up the old facilities and create some commerce for the south county. Five Harbor Commissioners were elected and the harbor was given new life. In 1955 the State Legislature granted the Harbor District the area’s tidelands in trust. The State owns the waters out to three miles and usually manages this resource. Very few grants being given, this, indeed, was another chance to improve the Port’s dilapidated facilities. Tognazzini sold his property, including the Harford Pier, to the Harbor District for $500,000 in the late 1950s, using a loan from the State Department of Boating and Waterways.

The Harbor Commission has since sought to implement the original goal of the first Commission and vision of the Founding Fathers of the District. That is, to repair the facilities and become economically viable while serving the public. In the past ten years, the Commission have concentrated more on environmental responsibilities, while maintaining a balance to serve the boating and general public.

Teacher Resource and Information – ‘The History of Avila Beach and Port San Luis’ (PDF)