Port San Luis Harbor is located about half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles on California's Pacific Coast. It is about 312 kilometers (200 miles) southeast of San Francisco and some 257 kilometers (160 miles) northwest of Los Angeles. The only community in Port San Luis Harbor is Avila Beach. While over 8500 people live in the hills and canyons surrounding Avila Beach, only 800 of them live in the town.
Portuguese and Spanish explorers used the Port San Luis Harbor hundreds of years ago for rest and fresh water. Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast, anchored there to escape high winds, to resupply, and to trade with the indigenous Chumash people.
Harford Wharf was built in Port San Luis Harbor in 1973 by John Harford to support trade. Harford off-loaded schooners and imported cargo that he sold in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County. Harford Pier was the stopping place for ships carrying passengers, supplies, and mail coming to Port San Luis Harbor.
The Marre Hotel was constructed in Port San Luis Harbor in 1876 to provide passengers with a resting stop between voyages. In the 1880s, a narrow gauge railroad was added for moving both cargo and passengers.
In the decade between 1893 and 1913, a breakwater was built with funds provided by the US Congress to provide a safe harbor. From Port San Luis Harbor, agricultural goods and cattle were sent to the region's big cities, and dry goods and lumber were imported.
During Prohibition, Port San Luis Harbor was a popular location for the movement of liquor. The illegal night traffic was hard to stop, as the whole community participated. A little west of Avila Beach, Pirates Cove was the site for landing huge amounts of liquor.
When the Great Depression hit, Port San Luis Harbor suffered neglect. There wasn't enough money to repair the old Harford Pier. Both the pier and the railroad were sold for about $17 thousand to Elton Tognazzini in 1942.
The citizens of San Luis Obispo County voted to create a Harbor District for Port San Luis Harbor in 1954, hoping to revitalize old port facilities and bring new commerce to the county. Port San Luis Harbor began a new life in the modern world when five Harbor Commissioners were elected. The next year, California's State Legislature granted local tidelands to the Harbor District in trust. The State of California owns the waters for three miles from the Port San Luis Harbor shores, and it normally manages the resources within that boundary.
In the late 1950s, Elton Tognazzini sold the Port San Luis Harbor's Harford Pier and property to the new Harbor District for $500 thousand, a handsome profit. The funds came from a State Department of Boating and Waterways loan.
Since its creation, the Port San Luis Harbor Commission has repaired facilities and brought economic viability back to the port. Today, the Commission focuses on environmental stewardship while also serving the general and boating public.
Avila Beach, the nearest town to Port San Luis Harbor, is an unincorporated area on the shores of Port San Luis Harbor. In 1842, Miguel Avila was granted Rancho San Miguelito. Later in the century, Avila Beach was created to serve as a shipping port for San Luis Obispo.
Modern Avila Beach has a functional commercial fishing pier, but tourism is its major industry today. Few historic structures remain from the old days. One of the oldest existing structures is the 1890 Point San Luis Lighthouse.
Port San Luis Harbor's Avila Beach is less than 800 meters (880 yards) long. Sheltered by Point San Luis to the west and Fossil Point to the east, Avila Beach is protected from northwesterly winds, making this Port San Luis Harbor beach warmer than many others in central California. The town is also popular for its hot springs and resort spas.
There are three piers in Port San Luis Harbor's Avila Beach. Avila Beach Pier is 513 meters (1685 feet) long and is used by tourists and for recreational fishing. Harford Pier is used by commercial fishing boats to offload their cargoes. The California Polytechnic State University Pier is not open to the public, as it is used for the University's marine research.
In the latter 20th Century, a huge toxic oil spill was discovered under Avila Beach, having been created by leaking corroded pipes. Unocal began to clean up the seepage in the late 1990s, transporting more than 6,750 truckloads of contaminated materials from the site and replacing the material with clean sand from the Guadalupe Dunes (the second biggest dune system in the United States). As part of the cleanup, many homes and businesses were destroyed, including all those on Front Street. After long discussions, Unocal agreed to a $30 million settlement to rebuild the Port San Luis Harbor town.