From the Telegram-Tribune May 31, 1990:
San Miguel: Like its namesake, a survivor.
In an earlier column, I called Mission San Miguel Archangel a survivor among missions. It had overcome neglect, vandalism, drought and time to become — almost two centuries after its founding — a vital, ongoing institution.
The same connotation can be used to describe the community of San Miguel as well. Disasters have struck and left the town reeling but have not destroyed it.
San Miguel originally filled the space between the mission and the Rios Caledonia. In 1860, fire destroyed practically the whole town. When it was rebuilt, it was moved north to its present location.
The 1890s were golden years for San Miguel. At that time all roads in the North County led to San Miguel. Situated as it was, on El Camino Real, the main highway between San Francisco and Los Angleles, its location was at a point where many valleys and canyons came down to the Salinas. The trails down the canyons became roads to San Miguel.
Indian Valley Road came in from the north, a rugged, dusty road that ran from Hollister by way of Bitter Water and Priest’s Valley. The road from Parkfield came down Vineyard Canyon. Settlers in Mahoney’s Canyon, San Jacinto and Lowe’s Canyon, Hog and Ranchita, as well as those along the Estrella, found it easier to trade in San Miguel than to go the nine miles to Paso Robles. Two stage lines operated daily, taking mail, passengers and express to Shandon, Cholame, and points in between.
Dr. Leo Stanley, in the Friends of the Adobe book, “San Miguel at the Turn of the Century,” describes the town as it was 100 years ago:
“San Miguel in the 1890s was a flourishing and prosperous town. It had three hotels, two livery stables, three blacksmith shops, five churches including the famous San Miguel Mission, 10 saloons or drinking emporiums where good old whiskey could be had at 10 cents a drink. And there were two houses behind high board fences where, we children were told, ‘bad women lived.’”
The coming of the railroad made San Miguel the center for receiving the tons of wheat, barley and other grains that were brought from the fields east of the town to be shipped to market, and for the thousands of cattle to be loaded for markets around the nation.
In 1897-98, disaster struck. A withering drought caused farmers to lose their crops, ranchers to see their herds of prime cattle die of starvation and lack of water. The town of San Miguel lost its livelihood. Stores closed, hotels were empty, and many families were forced to leave the area in order to survive. The town did not die, but limped along until the heavens smiled and rain came again.
Then on Sunday, April 7, 1901 disaster struck again. The April 8 edition of the San Luis Obispo Breeze, carried these headlines. “Flames Sweep the Town of San Miguel — A Devastating Fire Broke Out Early Sunday Morning Doing Great Damage.”
Details followed: “A great void has been made in the business section of San Miguel by fire. A number of buildings have been burned to the ground, including two hotels, the City Hall and the Methodist Church. The fire started in the rear of the Occidental Hotel about half-past one o’clock Sunday morning and had made considerable headway before it was discovered. Before any means could be taken to extinguish the fire, the whole building was enveloped in flames and there was no hope of saving it.”
The fire quickly spread to the City Hall and burned fiercelyl. An old paint shop was next seized by the flames and then the Methodist Church took fire. By this time the people of San Miguel were working hard to save property in danger of the flames, but the fire had gotten too big a start and spread in spite of the efforts of people to check it.
“Next the Levinger Hotel fell into the clutches of the fierce, driving flames and it was soon evident that its complete destruction was sure. By prodigious efforts most of the furniture and other movables were carried out. The Nash property, occupied by a saloon and a barber shop, was easy prey to the flames and an empty store adjoining also fell a ready victim.
“The fire now reached the Barry Building. This building is of concrete and proved to be an effective barrier to the devastating flames. All efforts now centered on the attempt to keep the fire within its bounds, but in fear of its further spreading people in the vicinity moved all their household goods to places of safety.
“A great and finally successful attempt was made to save Dr. Murphy’s house and drug store. For if these had caught fire it is thought that the greater part of the town would have been burned to the ground. As it is, the loss is much greater than the town can stand and it will be long before it recovers from the blow.
“Dr. McCarthy, who was manager of the Levinger Hotel, has moved what goods he saved into the Woodmansee Building and will there furnish his guests with the best accommodations possible under the circumstances. The property burned was all owned by non-residents and the greater part of it was insured.
“The owners of the property destroyed as far as known are as follows: Levinger Hotel, I. Levinger of San Francisco; Occidental Hotel, C.E. Davis, Petaluma City, City Hall, J.W. Goodwin, San Francisco; Methodist Church, Methodist Society.”
San Miguel survived this disaster, prospered during the influx of trainees at Camp Roberts during World War II (and their exodus afterwards), and remains a small but energetic town. At present, it appears that San Miguel is on the threshold of development which will change it for all time.
The article from the Breeze mentions a city hall in San Miguel twice. Can a north county historian help with this question? Was San Miguel incorporated as a city? The California Department of Finance link to a spreadsheet of California cities does not show San Miguel as an incorporated city or town.
A note on the photograph, looking at an enlarged detail of the movie poster the title appears to be “The Smuggler’s Daughter“. Several American silent films with this title appear between 1909 and 1915.