Railroads of the Central Coast--An Overview

by MaryEllen Ryan and Gary S. Breschini, Ph.D.

The rapid development of major commercial centers at San Francisco and Sacramento following the Gold Rush, and the unlimited economic potential of the new state as seen by its predominately eastern leaders, intensified talk and plans of a railroad system that would draw the isolated country into the mainstream of trade and communication. Commerce within the state was dependent upon overland movement of goods from coastal and inland ports to widely scattered settlements along the major river valleys. The wagon roads serving the valley towns were flooded each winter, and farmers and merchants paid upwards of $1 a mile to move large freight shipments to markets.

The northern portion of central California was first to benefit from commercial rail service within the state. The Sacramento Valley Railroad constructed 40 miles of track from Sacramento to Folsom, making use of an idle locomotive that had been shipped around the Horn to San Francisco in 1855 and originally used to haul sand from the dunes of San Francisco. Within six years of its founding in 1858, the Sacramento Valley Railroad connected with several short lines serving much of northern central California. Freight charges dropped to 4 cents a ton/mile with the introduction of rail service, greatly encouraging agricultural and commercial development.

One of these early short lines was the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad, incorporated in 1860 by three San Francisco entrepreneurs. At a cost of $2 million, Peter Donahue, Timothy Dane, and Henry Newhall brought passenger rail service to the San Francisco Peninsula on June 6, 1864. The railroad was an instant success, since it reduced the cost of passage between San Francisco and San Jose from the stage fare of $32 to $2.50.

Greatly encouraged by their success, the three formed the Southern Pacific Railroad on December 2, 1865, for the purpose of building a new line to the Colorado River. The development of this route was intended by Congress to bring some competition to the Central Pacific, which controlled the western portion of the nation's only transcontinental railroad. Aided by President Lincoln's Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and its generous amendments in 1864, the Central Pacific had received loans and gifts of public land to aid in financing the railroad construction from Sacramento to its junction with the Union Pacific in Utah. Upon the completion of the transcontinental line in 1869, the "Big Four" of the Central Pacific, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Collis P. Huntington, watched with some concern the successes of the upstart Southern Pacific. By 1868, the three Southern Pacific entrepreneurs had enjoined the help of William Ralston and were not only running scheduled passenger service on the San Francisco-San Jose line, but had formed a third railroad, the Santa Clara and Pajaro Valley, to lay track to Gilroy. From there they had surveyed a route from Gilroy through present San Benito County and Pacheco Pass, down the San Joaquin Valley and over the Tehachapis to join the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad at Needles. In 1870 the Central Pacific bought out the two operating and the third planned railroad, merged them under one company, the Southern Pacific. The new Southern Pacific then announced plans to build a coast route from San Francisco to Los Angeles, opening the entire western coast for settlement.

The coast route was extended from Gilroy to Hollister on July 13, 1871; to Pajaro Junction on November 27, 1871; to Salinas on November 1, 1872; and to Soledad on August 12, 1873. Southern Pacific ran one train daily in each direction on this route, consuming 6 hours 45 minutes for the one-way trip. In addition, by 1879 seven additional trains ran between intermediate points on the line. The same year that service was completed south to Soledad, construction for the southern end of the coast route was completed from Los Angeles to Burbank.

Meanwhile, work had commenced on the San Joaquin Valley route surveyed by the earlier Southern Pacific as the California Southern Route. Service was completed from San Francisco to Modesto by November 8, 1870; to Merced by January 15, 1872; to Fresno by May 28, 1872; to Tulare July 25, 1872; and reached Bakersfield November 98, 1874. Here the difficult two-year struggle to build through the Tehachapis commenced, completing the valley route from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1876. All construction and development on the Southern Pacific Line was concentrated on the San Joaquin Valley route and its branch lines between 1876 and 1886, intent on moving the products of the now fully developed agricultural wealth, its inland sea of grain, and the valley's other commercial and industrial products to market.

With market access still dependent on coastal steamers and overland wagon freight in the south central coast during this period, merchants took the Southern Pacific's disinterest as the go-ahead to seek efficient transportation on their own. Port San Luis had been an active commercial port since 1866, when John Harford built his first wharf out from the shoreline at the early Spanish period landing that had served Mission San Luis Obispo. Although most advantageously situated for oceangoing vessels, the deep water wharf was two miles from the nearest town, Avila. Harford and his partner, Captain I.M. Ingalls, arranged for construction of a horsedrawn tramway from the wharf to San Luis Creek along the coastal bluffs. By 1872, the tramway was extended to the stage stations of Sycamore Springs and Miles Station. With this extension, passengers and freight could be moved efficiently from the ocean steamers to San Luis Obispo and points south.

On April 16, 1873, the San Luis Obispo Railway Company was incorporated, with San Francisco capital and a board of directors representing both San Francisco and San Luis Obispo interests, to construct a rail line from Port Harford to San Luis Obispo. Even with the donation of five miles of right-of-way by Miguel Avila (for which his family was entitled to unrestricted passenger travel), the company was unable to raise funds for construction. A second group formed under John Price of Pismo Ranch, calling itself the San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria Valley Railroad. They absorbed the San Luis Obispo Railway April 22, 1875, and completed the track to San Luis Obispo in August 1876. The company then turned towards its original goal, Central City (now Santa Maria), and proceeded to build along rights-of-way donated by ranchers. The completed route was announced in the Central City Times of April 22, 1882, with the following description of the route from the Santa Maria River to the Arroyo Grande of San Luis Obispo:

The road crosses the Santa Maria River above the line where the bridge is to be built, the track, for the present, being laid in the bed of the river. Its descent and exit from the river is by easy grade. Beyond the river the road runs up a delightful little valley that stretches up beyond the old ranch house on the Nipomo, then crosses the summit a little west of the county road. On crossing the summit the cars rush down the descent of one of the most beautiful landscapes to be found in southern California, every turn presenting kaleidoscopic change of beauty, and passes out to the Arroyo Grande through the Los Berros Valley. The road throughout is one of the most interesting and picturesque on the coast, and the excellency of its construction reflects great credit on the engineering abilities of Superintendent Masterman and those under him.
The same month the line was completed to Santa Maria, the Pacific Coast Railroad Company incorporated in San Francisco for the purpose of constructing a narrow gauge railroad from the southern terminus of the San Luis Obispo & Santa Maria Valley Railroad to Santa Barbara, a distance of 80 miles. By 1882 the route had proceeded eleven miles towards its destination, to Los Alamos, and in that year both companies merged to form the Pacific Coast Railway Company. The following year the Pacific Coast Railway Company and the Pacific Coast Steamship Company passed to the control of the Oregon Improvement Company of Seattle, which would later become the Pacific Coast Company. The narrow gauge rails reached Los Olivos on November 17, 1887, where the southern terminus of the Pacific Coast Narrow Gauge remained.

Stirred into action by the competition, Southern Pacific again resumed work on both ends of the coast route in 1886. Between May and July reports were circulated in San Luis Obispo that 1,500 Chinese were at work on the tracks from Soledad to Kings Ranch. In early October ranchers at Estrella could hear blasting from the approaching construction, and on October 18, 1886, the long awaited rail service was brought into San Miguel. Two weeks later the line was completed to the El Paso de Robles Resort Hotel, and construction track was laid to Templeton, a completely new town subdivided by the West Coast Land Company out of San Miguel Mission rancho lands. The West Coast Land Company, conceived by promoter and land agent C.H. Phillips, had as its directors the owners of the Pacific Coast Railway and Pacific Coast Steamship Companies--the Oregon Improvement Company. Phillips sold town lots and blocks of acreage for residential, commercial and colony development, and advertised the establishment of a Swedish Colony two miles north of the town site. The town was well supported by Southern Pacific, which constructed the depot, freight warehouse, a roundhouse and a turntable there. For several years much of the activity at Templeton was devoted to trying to live up to its promotional claims by constructing hotels, a school, and basic commercial enterprises. Quite suddenly, much to the chagrin of businessmen in San Luis Obispo, who felt their town was next on the route, Southern Pacific stopped construction on the northern portion of the coast route and concentrated on the Burbank-Chatsworth link at the southern end.

Southern Pacific also felt the breaking of its monopoly on transcontinental routes in 1885, when the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe entered California through a compensating purchase of Southern Pacific's Mojave-Needles route, and brought its line into San Diego. From 1885 to 1898 the Santa Fe developed a network of branch lines connecting the southern California agricultural counties. The Santa Fe then bought Southern Pacific's only competition in the San Joaquin Valley, Spreckels' San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley "Peoples Railroad." Rate wars became the order of the day to the immense benefit of valley rail users who were offered lower fares and transcontinental service.

Businessmen in San Luis Obispo formed a Board of Trade in 1886 to promote their town and offer inducements to the Southern Pacific to continue construction. In August 1887, Southern Pacific completed the line from the south into Santa Barbara, but still announced no plans to close the gap from Templeton to the northern terminus of the southern section, routing freight and passengers through the San Joaquin Valley instead. Promoters along the expected Southern Pacific route through San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties sold lots and acreage for the towns of Santa Margarita (the old Mission San Luis Obispo Asistencia), Arroyo Grande, Grover City, Nipomo, Pismo, Los Alamos, and Los Olivos through the late 1880s. In 1888, investors in San Luis Obispo tired of Southern Pacific's delaying tactics and proposed a Port Harford-San Joaquin Valley Railroad. In 1889 Southern Pacific brought its line to Santa Margarita, promoted land sales, but went no further. Collis Huntington arrived on the newly complete line shortly after its termination. In San Luis Obispo he made it known that if the Board of Trade would secure rights-of-way through the numerous small landowners along Cuesta Grade as well as through the city, bearing the costs itself or taxing the county landowners, the Southern Pacific would consider continuing its line. This monumental task was taken on and completed by 1889, but when presented with the rights-of-way agreements, C.F. Crocker announced that the Southern Pacific had no incentive to build an expensive mountain road paralleling its currently successful San Joaquin Valley road. Momentarily dismayed, the rail line promoters regrouped as the San Luis Obispo Railroad Committee, and in 1891 mounted a campaign to raise subscriptions from all potential users of the line, concentrating on San Jose, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara. By the end of 1891, the Committee had sufficient commitments to allow Southern Pacific to institute condemnation suits for the remaining land, and almost without announcement construction crews assembled camps at the first tunnel site along the Cuesta.

Bids for construction were circulated, and contractors appeared in the area in early 1892 from as far away as Denver and Seattle. Among these was a gang of 40 tunnel builders led by Emil Haltier. They were German, Russian, and Belgian immigrants who had been working under contract to Southern Pacific in Durango, Mexico. It was not until October 1892, that work began in earnest to construct labor camps and wagon roads to the tunnel sites. By February 1893, 200 men were engaged in tunnel work, progressing about 35 feet a week. In April 1893, Southern Pacific announced that it had 1,000 to 1,200 men employed on the tunnel work, but most were "trampers" who showed up for the first meal and left. Chief Engineer William Hood prepared the anxious populace for the next major labor commitment by publicly lamenting the poor quality of white labor for railroad work and stressing the necessity for using Chinese labor.

There was an ample local supply of Chinese labor for the arduous railroad construction over the Cuesta. As early as the 1860s Chinese had been coming to the San Luis Obispo area quicksilver mines as laborers, and were employed in various fishing activities along the coast. In 1873, Ah Louis acted as a labor boss and secured 160 contracted Chinese labors for the construction of the Pacific Coast Railroad. These laborers were the first of a sizable work force that stayed in San Luis Obispo, providing labor for road building, swamp draining, and, in 1878, "archaeologists" in a relic-hunting spree that followed the unearthing of an Indian cemetery on the Port Harford-Avila tramline.

In 1886, 150 Chinese were employed in the completion of the Southern Pacific line from Soledad to Templeton, and in 1887, 800 Chinese were still employed at $1.10 per man per day . Work progressed relatively quickly after the Cuesta was conquered--an impressive engineering feat. The steep descent from the summit to San Luis Obispo dropped 1,056 feet in less than 10 miles, requiring the use of the now famous horseshoe curve. A prefabricated steel trestle was built across Stenner Creek, and plans were made for a completion celebration on May 5, 1894. In order to meet this goal, 10,000 feet of track were laid on May 4th, possible only because the contractors allowed half the standard number of ties per rail length, and left the bed graded without gravel. The long awaited train arrived in town at 3:25 PM, to be greeted by a cacophony of whistles, sirens, and a wagonload of beer. In the midst of the enormous picnic barbecue celebration, four private railroad cars pulled up unannounced, and not only the chief engineer, general superintendent, and vice-president disembarked, but so did Collis Huntington and his nephew, H.E. Huntington. A three day celebration ensued, a fitting climax to the long wait.

In 1895 the 25 mile section from San Luis Obispo to Guadalupe was completed, and in 1898 the Southern Pacific Coast Route was completed from San Francisco to Los Angeles, although a temporary route through the Santa Clara Valley to the coast still avoided the difficult Santa Susanna Mountains at the southern end. Between 1895 and 1901, experimentation with oil as a fuel was completed, and conversion of the steam engines to fuel oil was begun, marking another era in transportation history .

The Southern Pacific began operation of the first scheduled passenger train over the route, known as the Coast Line Limited, on December 6, 1901. The Sunset Limited began service between San Francisco and New Orleans via the coast route, diverting service from the previous San Francisco-San Joaquin Valley Route to Los Angeles, then proceeding from Los Angeles to New Orleans. The route was so popular with passengers that the Southern Pacific rerouted a second San Joaquin Valley train over this line, the Sunset Express, in April 1902. With three trains running on the line--the Coast Limited, the Sunset Limited, and the Sunset Express--Southern Pacific completed the last arduous route through the Santa Susanna Mountains in 1904, replacing the temporary northern route, and joining the San Joaquin Valley route at Burbank to continue into Los Angeles. None of the "Big Four" were alive to see the culmination of the 34 year project, as C.P. Huntington, the last of the formidable businessmen, had died in 1900. With their passing had gone the monopolistic, exploitive, gold-rush-style ethics of the company, and the future operations of the Southern Pacific complied more closely with the public interest.

The new age of management concentrated on research and development, improving passenger equipment, increasing car length, adding seating, vestibules, safety features, steam heat and gas lights. Southern Pacific advertised the beauty of the Coast Route and touted its historic routing along the El Camino Real as well as its passenger comfort. The Coast Route soon became the favorite passenger route on the Southern Pacific line. In 1906 the all-parlor Shore Line Limited was inaugurated, zipping from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 13 1/2 hours. The Sea Shore Express was added December 6, 1906. The Lark, a first class night commuter train offering Pullman sleepers for businessmen, was inaugurated May 8, 1910. Between 1910 and 1917 a great many innovations in equipment designed for comfort of ride and efficiency of operation were introduced, including electric lighting with axle-driven generators. From 1917 to 1920 the federal government nationalized all railroads for the war effort, and utilized the Southern Pacific passenger trains for troop movement. Southern Pacific resumed control of its equipment in December 1920.

In 1923 the timetable for the Daylight was reduced to 12 hours 45 minutes. Service increased to daily runs July 12, with observation cars on every run. In 1924, the Daylight moved into all year service and became known, with its new 12 hour run, as the fastest train in the west. In December, 1927, the Daylight won the coveted title of the longest non-stop passenger train in the world, running 471 miles in 12 hours, 2 hours shorter than the 400 mile runner-up in Great Britain. Only two service stops were made along the route, at Watsonville and San Luis Obispo.

In 1929 the Daylight was no longer a Limited. It picked up passengers in important communities en route, but time was kept to 12 hours by improving the equipment. The effects of the Great Depression were not felt on the popular line until 1931, when some lines, as well as the heavier equipment and newest long cars were discontinued. Its popularity resumed at the close of the depression, and varied little until the Second World War, when the government again assigned the most efficient equipment for use in the war effort. The popularity of the Coast Daylight never again reached the heights it attained in the late thirties, when world passenger ridership records were broken two years in a row.

Several short haul railroads were active in San Benito County during the 1890s, but as they served specific industries they offered no competition with the Southern Pacific or the Santa Fe Railroads. A monorail serving the Cienigo limekilns from Tres Pinos was in use for one trip in 1891, but a boiler explosion put it permanently out of business. Granite Rock operated four steam engines over a 1 1/2 mile track at its quarry in Chittenden Pass in 1900. The San Juan Pacific Railway was operative May 4, 1907 and provided rail service from the San Juan Cement plant to the Southern Pacific siding at Chittenden off and on for just over 20 years.

A 22 mile short line of broad guage was routed up Indian Valley in southern Monterey County in 1907. The line ran from McKay Station on the Southern Pacific Route to the Stone Canyon Coal Mines high in the Cholame hills. The line climbed from an altitude of 500 feet at McKay Station to 1,800 feet at its terminus. The railroad crossed the Salinas River on a 30 foot high trestle. The entire line washed out during flooding in 1914, when an earthen dam above the mines overflowed, washing out 12 trestle crossings down Indian Valley. The wooden bridge at San Miguel also washed out in the 15 foot deep floodwaters, taking out the Stone Canyon Railroad trestle over the Salinas River as well, on its rush to Monterey Bay. The trestle was rebuilt with a 1,300 foot crossing in 1921, and new track was laid up the valley.

The demise of the western railroads took place after the temporal concern of this study, but it seems unfitting to leave the summary of western rail transportation without briefly tracing its final steps. Undoubtedly, the development of fuel oil resources in California and elsewhere, initially well supported by the railroads as an efficient low-cost fuel to replace the dwindling supply of cordwood, also fed the rise of the auto transportation and trucking industry. Diesels, efficient for long-haul freight service, lost passengers and small freight to the airlines and trucking industry. The concentration on long-haul freight led to the demise of the short lines, which had been dependent on a single industry or attraction to a local area. As roads were extended in the late 1920s, short line routes in California dropped from over 40 to 18. Federal support of the rail industry was even more telling of the demoted status of railroads: from the 1850s to 1945, Congress had appropriated a total of $126 million in various forms, primarily land, for the development and operations of railroads. In 1970, the annual budget for federal highways was $4.6 billion.


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