When desk clerk J.H. Emsley discovered a fire on the second floor of the Hotel El Paso de Robles, he alerted guests in time for them to evacuate. But he couldn’t save himself (he suffered a heart attack and died immediately after). And he couldn’t save the grand hotel, which burned to the ground a week before Christmas in 1940.
When the hotel perished, so too did a significant chapter in Paso Robles’s history. Because while Paso was primarily a working-class farming community, the hotel gave it a touch of elegance. It was a place where celebrities like Douglas Fairbanks, Boris Karloff and Clark Gable stayed in between movie roles. And it was also a place that attracted regular people from around the country who sought relief from their pain.
“Paso Robles was known for its healing waters,” said historian Milene Radford. “A lot of people came just for the springs.”
Given its impact on the city’s early history, it makes
sense that the first several pages of “Paso Robles” ($20, Arcadia Publishing) are dedicated to the hotel.
A daunting task
The book is the latest local entry published by Arcadia, which has chronicled American life with more than 4,000 titles. Arcadia already has books on San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay and Camp San Luis. Some time ago, Arcadia approached Radford, a board member with the Paso Robles Pioneer Museum, to write a Paso book.
Radford happily took on the project, only to discover that it was a daunting task. Each Arcadia book, after all, features more than 200 photos capturing decades of history.
“After I got into it, I thought: What am I doing?” Radford recalled. “And then Andrea (Hobbs) came by the museum one day while I was there, and she said she was looking to volunteer. I told her about this project and said, ‘Is this something you’d be interested in?’”
Unlike Radford, who grew up near Paso (she attended a one-room school house for a while), Andrea Hobbs had moved to the area from Pacific Palisades less than three years earlier. Her knowledge of Paso was limited, but she did have a fondness for history, having volunteered at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica.
“I just gravitated toward the Pioneer Museum as soon as I had some time,” Hobbs said.
Being a relative newcomer, Hobbs came into the project with a fresh view of Paso, Radford said.
Hobbs once taught graphic design communication at Santa Monica College, and she had a consulting business that produced catalogs, brochures and advertisements for businesses. Radford is a former elementary school teacher, who retired after 36 years in the classroom.
Once paired, the two quickly got to work, collecting old photos and making outlines.
Tracking down the facts
For both writers, accuracy was important.
When Hobbs found a rodeo shot she liked from the Mid-State
Fair’s collection, she tracked down the bull-rider in the photograph but discovered that the picture had been taken outside of Paso. To make sure names were spelled correctly, Radford visited cemeteries to view the tombstones of some of the book’s subjects.
“I suspect there will be some information that isn’t correct in our book,” said Hobbs, noting that much of their findings rely on other findings before them. “But it isn’t because we didn’t try.”
The area’s earliest known history dates to the Salinan Indians, who took advantage of the springs in El Paso de Robles (The Pass of Oaks). The Salinans, under the direction of the Franciscan friars, built nearby Mission San Miguel, which was a significant early development in the area. But it was Drury James — uncle to famous outlaws Jesse and Frank James — who put Paso on the map.
Even before Paso was incorporated in 1889, James and the Blackburn brothers (Daniel and James) wanted to use the city’s hot sulphur springs to attract outsiders. The first El Paso de Robles Hotel, built in 1864, featured a hot mineral springs bath house.
Tourism opportunities would grow even more in 1886, when Chinese laborers brought the railroad to town.
Capitalizing on this, construction began three years later on a newer, bigger hotel. Built with more than a million bricks, the hotel (also referred to as the Paso Robles Hot Springs Hotel) featured a library, golf course and grand ballroom. Ironically, it was supposed to be fireproof.
That, of course, was proven to be inaccurate. A fire that began in a waste basket destroyed everything but the ballroom, which firefighters managed to save. (The book includes a photo of the inferno, plus a shot of the aftermath.)
Did you know ...?
What makes any history book interesting are those tidbits that most people don’t know about. And “Paso Robles” has a few of those.
Few know, for example, that the Pittsburgh Pirates once held spring training in Paso. The baseball team trained in the area from 1924 to 1935 — a period that included its 1925 championship season.
And many locals aren’t aware that world-renowned pianist and Polish statesman Ignace Paderewski spent considerable time in Paso. Suffering from painful neuritis, Paderewski came to Paso for its sulphur waters. Like the Pirates, he spent much time at the Hotel El Paso de Robles. (The book includes a photo of Paderewski with two Polish players from the Pirates, Adam Comorosky and Tony Piet.)
The book also spotlights much of Paso’s working class, the Pioneer Days Parade and the Mid-State Fair. Notable photos include Henry Twisselmann parked outside a grain store with his 12-horse team, and Ronald Reagan, then an actor, riding a horse in the parade.
There are a few key omissions, though. There are no photos of Drury James, for example. And photos of the Mid-State Fair seem limited, given the fair’s size and impact on the community.
Still, the book sets forth Paso’s history like no other, starting with the Hotel El Paso de Robles and ending with its replacement, the Paso Robles Inn.
While today’s Paso Robles is better known for wine than sulphur water, the 2003 earthquake unexpectedly resurrected elements of the city’s humble beginnings.
After the quake, the downtown area smelled strongly of rotten eggs for weeks. The temblor had ruptured a sulphur hole, causing 110-degree mineral water to bubble up in the City Hall parking lot.
Years before, the site had been the location of a bathhouse that was part of the long-gone hotel.
Hoping to draw from the city’s past, the Paso Robles Inn has restored the surviving ballroom and added mineral spa tubs to many rooms. The owners even added a Jesse James Building, in honor of the time the outlaw spent laying low.