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A look back at landmarks and events that shaped the Central Coast over the last 70 years

Diablo Canyon blockade
Posted at 3:44 PM, May 24, 2023

The Central Coast has a long history, but did you know that some of the landmarks people associate with San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties were only established in the last 70 years?

The 1950s was considered the golden age of television. In 1953, the Central Coast saw the on-air debut of its first television station, KVEC, or what we now call KSBY.


The years that followed marked a lot of development on the Central Coast. I went to the History Center of San Luis Obispo County to find out more.

Thomas Kessler, the center's Executive Director, described SLO County 150 years ago.

"We were a tiny, little world community," he said. "Fast forward to the fifties — it was starting to develop more."

Kessler showed me these aerial photos of the Atascadero State Hospital from the 1960s. The psychiatric facility opened in 1954.

Atascadero State Hospital in the 60s

"It was a source of jobs from a steady, reliable source from the state government. It was a sign that we really were a part of the state," Kessler said.

Fast forward to 1958, when Hearst Castle in San Simeon became a state park and opened to the public. The vast estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst boasts hundreds of rooms, gardens, terraces, pools, legendary art collections, and a now-defunct private zoo.

Hearst Castle under construction

"Hearst Castle is the number one visited state park of California. It's also the biggest revenue generator for the state parks. So it's a big deal. And the fact that it's in our county helps us," Kessler said.

In 1985, following nearly 15 years of protests, hearings and court cases, PG&E began operating unit one of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant along the coast near Avila Beach. The nuclear power plant has been controversial since PG&E announced plans to operate nuclear reactors in southern San Luis Obispo County in 1963.

Pecho Trail coastline before the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant was built

An anti-nuclear group called the Abalone Alliance started a 20-day blockade at Diablo Canyon on September 1, 1981, when the NRC approved a test license for the plant. The blockade brought more than 10,000 people to Diablo. Six-hundred police officers arrested nearly 2,000 people over the course of two weeks. The NRC was forced to pull Diablo's license when an engineer looked at the blueprints and realized supports for the reactors were built backward.

Kessler showed me the book 'Blockade: Direct Action at Diablo Canyon' by Eugene Phillips and Wayne Saroyan. "This book came out pretty much right away documenting the process that had taken place of peaceful, nonviolent protest, but blocking the paths and making sure that their voices had to be heard."

Blockade: Direct Action at Diablo Canyon by Eugene Phillips and Wayne Saroyan
Blockade: Direct Action at Diablo Canyon by Eugene Phillips and Wayne Saroyan.


Heading south from San Luis Obispo County to Santa Barbara County, I met with Judith Dale, former mayor of Buellton. She's written a series of newspaper articles showcasing Santa Barbara County's colorful history.

Completed the same year KSBY first hit the airwaves in 1953 is the Cachuma dam, renamed Bradbury Dam in 1971. It's a primary water source for the south coast communities of Santa Barbara, Goleta, Montecito and Carpinteria.

Camp Cooke

"The Bureau of Reclamation made a deal, so they have to keep the water level at a certain height. And Cachuma is a plus — number one for recreation for the area, but also obviously for flood control and for water," Dale said.

Also during the 1950s in Santa Barbara County, Camp Cooke was renamed Cooke Air Force Base. A year later, it was redesignated as Vandenberg Air Force Base. In 2021, it was renamed Vandenberg Space Force Base.

Camp Cooke

"Without Vandenberg Air Force Base, my family wouldn't have been as prosperous as it is, because at the time we owned a nursery and we landscaped and sold nursery plants to many, many of the houses in Vandenberg Village. So it was definitely an economic boom to this area," Dale said.

Missile base announcement at Camp Cooke

The unique geographic location of Vandenberg makes it a safe and ideal setting to test intercontinental ballistic missiles and launch satellite payloads into polar earth orbit.

Dale added, "It's definitely a major economic driver as well as defense driver in the county, as well as the state, as well as the nation."

On December 16, 1958, Vandenberg sent its first missile up into the sky and the rest is history.