History of Paso Robles
Paso Robles began as a natural hot springs destination, eventually grew into an agricultural economy, and during the 20th century began to evolve into one of the top wine tourism destinations in the country, if not the world.
Whether by design or happy accident, Paso Robles has applied its old-fashioned agricultural work ethic to creating a way of life that now includes a mix of great food and wine (and beer and spirits), fun events and a strong respect for the past, present and future.
Paso Robles, California has a rich agricultural history beginning with the native Salinan Indians who inhabited the land thousands of years before the Spanish mission era, drawn by the region’s abundance of fertile soil and the healing benefits of its therapeutic hot springs. As far back as 1795, Paso Robles had been spoken of and written about as “California’s oldest watering place” - the place to go for springs and mud baths. Formal farming techniques, winemaking and cattle ranching were introduced in 1790 by the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan missionaries (Mission-era wine fermentation vats can still be seen at nearby Mission San Miguel).
The area became more populated by the mid-1800s when European settlers joined the Native American, Mexican and Spanish residents, and tourists came in greater numbers to enjoy “El Paso de Robles Hot and Cold Sulfur Springs and the Only Natural Mud Baths in the World.” During this time, Paso Robles also grew to be known as the “Almond City,” as it possessed the world’s largest concentration of almond orchards, a title that would remain until the Central Valley gained access to irrigation water.
Paso Robles Rancho (also known as the Paso de Robles Land Grant) was originally granted to Pedro Narvaez, who bequeathed the estate to Petronilo Rios. In 1857, the entire rancho was purchased by partners James H. Blackburn, Daniel Drew Blackburn, and Lazarus Godchaux for $8,000. In 1860, the partners divided the estate, with Daniel Blackburn taking the hot springs and a league of land surrounding it. In 1865, he sold a half-interest to a Mr. McCreel, who in turn sold out to Drury James, a brother-in-law of D.D. Blackburn and uncle of the famous outlaw Jesse James.
In 1864, a correspondent to the San Francisco Bulletin wrote that there was every prospect that Paso Robles hot springs could become the watering place of California. By 1868 people were traveling from as far away as Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, and even Alabama to visit Paso Robles’ hot springs. Besides the well-known mud baths, there were the Iron Spring and the Sand Spring, which bubbled through the sand and were said to produce invigorating sensations for those that availed themselves of the Springs’ therapeutic waters. 18
In 1873, J.H. Blackburn bought back a quarter interest in the hot springs, making the city the joint property of the Blackburn brothers and Drury James. Even at the inception of the town, the partners realized the potential of the hot springs and proceeded to develop them into an attraction.
In 1882, Andrew York, a settler from Indiana, introduced commercial winemaking when he planted vineyards and established the Ascension Winery (later renamed York Winery) at what is now Epoch Estates Winery. The winemaking industry would expand in the early 20th century under the guidance of several vintner families, including the Nerelli’s, Dusi’s, Martinelli’s, Busi’s, Vosti’s and Bianchi’s.
By the time the railroad arrived in the late 1880s, Drury James and the Blackburn brothers issued a pamphlet advertising “El Paso de Robles Hot and Cold Sulphur Springs and the Only Natural Mud Baths in the World.” They attracted investors to help establish the beginnings of a town with cosmopolitan amenities including first class accommodations, a reading room, barber shop, a telegraph office, a general store, a top-of-the-line livery stable, and comfortably furnished cottages for families that preferred privacy to the bustle of the hotels.
Two weeks after the first train arrived on October 31, 1886, a three-day celebration was held for prospective land buyers arriving from San Francisco, who toured the area and enjoyed daily barbeques. On November 17, 1886 the “Grand Auction” was held, resulting in the sale of 228 lots. At the end of one year, records showed 523 residents and 100 buildings in the city.
Paso Robles became incorporated in 1889 and improvements in city services became a reality. The town’s City Park (then fenced by a hedge of cacti) was created, and in 1890 a bandstand was built with money raised by private theatricals. An extensive bathhouse over the sulfur spring was built in 1891, as well as the three-story Hotel El Paso de Robles, known today as the Paso Robles Inn.
Still more attention was drawn to the region in the 1920s when Ignacy Paderewski, the famous Polish statesman and concert pianist, purchased 2,000 acres and planted Petite Syrah and Zinfandel on his Rancho San Ignacio Vineyard in the Adelaide area. With his performances at the Paso Robles Inn, he became a fixture amid the inn’s glittering social scene, which entertained the likes of Jack Dempsey, President Theodore Roosevelt, Douglas Fairbanks, Boris Karloff, Bob Hope, Clark Gable, and even the professional baseball team the Pittsburgh Pirates during their spring training.
By 1940, there were 3,045 residents in the city and Paso Robles was known worldwide as a “health resort.” In November of 1940, construction began on part of the Nacimiento Land Grant for the new Army base Camp Roberts, which opened in 1941. Changes in Paso Robles came through the influx of workers, Army officers, trainees and United Service Organizations (USO) entertainers. The USO was an active place in Paso Robles on 10th Street between Park and Pine Streets.
The famed California Mid-State Fair began in 1946 and continues to be a vibrant part of the community.
Growth gradually began east of the Salinas River as various sections of land were annexed to the City. Sherwood Acres, the first airfield, was the first to be annexed in March 1952, followed by the Orchard Tract in 1957. By 1980, Paso Robles had 9,045 residents, and grew to 10,000 in 1982 and 21,000 in 1992.
The 2020 census estimates 31,000 residents now reside within the city limits of Paso Robles.
Today, Paso Robles has a population of 31,500 residents. There are more than 300 wineries on 26,000 vineyard acres. Locals and visitors can still take hot springs treatments at Paso Robles Inn, Franklin Ponds and River Oaks Hot Springs Spa. The Downtown City Park remains the heart of the community, hosting events all year and surrounded by restaurants, wine tasting rooms, and small family-owned businesses.
The City of Paso Robles is looking to the future with the development of a Spaceport designation for its airport and a Tech Corridor to attract and serve technology-related businesses to the region. New housing is being built to help accommodate planned growth.