Looking Back: The Cambria Sesquicentennial Story

Photo Courtesy of the Cambria Historical Society

When Cambria, California was established in 1866, it is likely that no one was certain of its future. In those days, it was not unusual for towns to dry up and disappear with very little warning. Residents were forced to move, picking up their entire lives only to settle down in another area of uncertainty. However, Cambria still stands today, a little-known coastal marvel along scenic Highway 1. The U.S. government officially recognized the town of Cambria in January of 1870. If the people of this burgeoning settlement were anything like the people that live in Cambria today, the resilience of this town should come as no surprise as we celebrate the Cambria sesquicentennial.

Cambria was nearly wiped out more than once. From 1860 to 1889, four different economic booms swept through town almost simultaneously: quicksilver mining, lumber, whaling and agriculture. By 1880, Cambria was the second largest town in its county, serving as a thriving center of industry, reflective of the trends of that time period. It was also a prosperous commercial hub, with bustling saloons, merchandise stores, hotels and churches.

Great Fire, 1889
Photo Courtesy of the Cambria Historical Society

In 1889, a fire destroyed over half of the town, decimating not only buildings but the hopes and dreams of the residents, many of whom moved away. Not everyone left, however, and those who rebuilt experienced more ups and downs over the coming years: a dairy farming boom, a severe flood, the construction of Highway 1, the development of a resort destination west of town, another severe flood, a ranching boom, the sinking of an oil tanker by a Japanese submarine in World War II, the construction of Hearst Castle and Highway 46 West. The population fluctuated over the years, until 1955 when Hearst Castle and Highway 46 brought many new jobs, and citizens, to Cambria.

Throughout 2016, Cambrian natives and visitors alike have been looking back, taking stock of the last 150 years and celebrating how far they have come. Cambria’s history is significant because the personality of this unique town is a byproduct of its past. The people who live in Cambria have always been strong, creative, multi-faceted and innovative – exactly what a town needs when the only constant has been the necessity to overcome and adjust. The Cambria of today is a more peaceful place: a haven for artists, cyclists, antique-seekers, history buffs, lovers of the great outdoors and, really, anyone who happens upon this small gem on the Central California Coast. In many ways, it looks different from the Cambria of 150 years ago, but some things never change: anyone who sets foot in this town knows it is something special.

Photo Courtesy of the Cambria Historical Society

As the Cambria sesquicentennial year has progressed, there have been many occasions to celebrate. In March, an official proclamation at a town hall meeting announced the sesquicentennial. The Cambria Historical Society’s Heritage Day celebration featured demonstrations, exhibits and activities highlighting Cambria’s illustrious history. The Celebration of Cambria Authors on Saturday, July 2, showcased local writers, as well as authors who have written about the town. There are more events to come throughout the year, each emphasizing the sesquicentennial theme in its own special way. A Speaker Series with various dates throughout the year offers guests the opportunity to learn more about interesting historic points in Cambria’s past. The Harvest Festival on Saturday, October 8, will be sesquicentennial-themed, as will the Pinedorado Parade on Labor Day weekend.

The celebration of Cambria will continue long after 2016 is over. The sesquicentennial marks an important moment in the passing of time, but it is only a brief chapter in the story of Cambria. This little-town-that-could has flourished against all odds – one needs only to visit to understand the appeal. Moonstone Beach, olallieberry pie, Fiscalini Ranch, the absence of chain stores, unique restaurants and luxurious lodging properties all make Cambria one of the Central Coast’s most desirable destinations. See for yourself. Cambria will be waiting, for at least another 150 years.

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