San Luis Obispo (; Spanish for St. Louis, the Bishop of Toulouse) is a city in California, located roughly midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the Central Coast. Founded in 1772 by Spanish Fr. Junípero Serra, San Luis Obispo is one of California's oldest communities. The city, locally referred to as San Luis, SLO, or SLO Town (as its county is also referred to as SLO) is the county seat of San Luis Obispo County and is adjacent to California Polytechnic State University. The population was 45,119 at the 2010 census.
The earliest human inhabitants of the local area were the Chumash peoples. One of the earliest villages lies south of San Luis Obispo and reflects the landscape of the early Holocene when estuaries came farther inland. These Chumash people exploited marine resources of the inlets and bays along the Central Coast and inhabited a network of villages including sites at Los Osos and Morro Creek.
During the Spanish Empire expansion throughout the world, specifically in 1769, Spanish Franciscan Junípero Serra received orders from Spain to bring the Catholic faith to the Natives of Alta California; the idea was to unify the empire under the same religion and language. Mission San Diego was the first Spanish mission founded in Alta California that same year.
On September 7–8, 1769, Gaspar de Portolà traveled through the San Luis Obispo area on his way to rediscover the Monterey Bay. The expedition's diarist, Padre Juan Crespí, recorded the name given to this area by the soldiers as llano de los Osos, or the level of the bears (Bear Plain), as this was an area with an abundance of bears. Since then, various translations of the Crespí Diary have called this area La Cañada de Los Osos (The track of the Bears) which has been further mistranslated as the Valley of the Bears. In 1770, Junípero Serra founded the second mission, San Carlos Borromeo, in Monterey which was moved to Carmel the following year. As supplies dwindled in 1772 at the then-four missions, the people faced starvation. Remembering the Valley of the Bears, a hunting expedition was sent to bring back food in the summer of 1772. Over twenty-five mule loads of dried bear meat and seed was sent north to relieve the missionaries, soldiers, and neophytes (baptized Natives). The Natives were impressed at the ease by which the Spaniards could take down the huge grizzlies with their weapons. Some of the meat was traded with the local people in exchange for edible seed. It was after this that Junípero Serra decided that La Cañada de Los Osos would be an ideal place for the fifth mission. The area had abundant supplies of food and water, the climate was also very mild, and the local Chumash were very friendly. With soldiers, muleteers, and pack animals carrying mission supplies, Junípero Serra set out on a journey to reach the Valley of the Bears. On September 1, 1772, Junípero Serra celebrated the first Mass with a cross erected near San Luis Creek. The very next day, he departed for San Diego leaving Fr. José Cavaller, with the difficult task of building the mission. Fr. José Cavaller, five soldiers and two neophytes began building what is today called Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and would become later the town of San Luis Obispo.
After Junípero Serra left, the difficult task of actually building the mission remained. The mission was built with adobe and tile structures. The mission included: the church, the priest's residence, the convento, the storerooms, residences for single women and families from Spain, soldiers' barracks, and mills. The mission also had land for farming and raising livestock, as the whole community of priests, Natives and soldiers needed to produce goods for their own livelihood.
When the Mexican War of Independence from Spain broke out in 1810, all California missions were virtually self-sufficient, receiving few funds from Spain.
With the independence from Spain there was little left of the thriving community of earlier times. Soon after Mexico won her independence from Spain (1821), the Missions were secularized by the Mexican government. However, the community remained in the same location of what is today San Luis Obispo.
San Luis Obispo once had a burgeoning Chinatown in the vicinity of Palm St. and Chorro St. Laborers were brought from China by Ah Louis in order to construct the Pacific Coast Railway, roads connecting San Luis Obispo to Paso Robles and Paso Robles to Cambria, and also the 1884 to 1894 tunneling through Cuesta Ridge for the Southern Pacific Railroad. The town's Chinatown revolved around Ah Louis Store and other Palm Street businesses owned and run by Chinese business people. Today, Mee Heng Low chop suey shop is all that remains of the culture, although a slightly Chinatown-themed commercial development is being planned. A display of some of the unearthed relics from this period can be seen on the first floor of the Palm Street parking garage, which was built over the location where Chinatown once stood. The San Luis Obispo Historical Society (adjacent to the Mission) also contains rotating historical exhibits.
San Luis Obispo was also a popular stop on both U.S. Route 101 and California State Route 1 with the rise of car culture. Due to its popularity as a stop, it was the location of the first motel, the Milestone Mo-Tel.
Among San Luis Obispo's historical buildings is the former San Luis Obispo Carnegie Library, located at 696 Monterey Street. The San Luis Obispo Carnegie Library was built in 1905 with a grant of $10,000 from Andrew Carnegie, who funded the establishment of 142 California libraries in the early 1900s. The Romanesque style building was designed by architect W. H. Weeks of Watsonville, California and was built by contractor Joseph Maino of San Luis Obispo. As one of numerous California public buildings designed by W. H. Weeks, it shares features with Carnegie libraries in nearby Lompoc and Paso Robles. The San Luis Obispo Carnegie building served as the city library until 1955, when a new public library was built at the corner of Palm and Morro Streets. It has been home to the San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum since 1956. The Carnegie Library building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
San Luis Obispo's largest and oldest voluntary organization is the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, which also is the oldest and largest voluntary organization in San Luis Obispo County.