A Railroad Runs Through it: The San Luis Obispo Southern Pacific Railroad Historic District

by Robert Pavlik

In 1993 Amtrak and the City of San Luis Obispo proposed changes to the city’s train station. The scope of Caltrans responsibilities extends beyond highways and roads. Their interest in mobility includes multiple pathways for human transportation such as railroads, bike paths, and pedestrian corridors. Caltrans’ involvement in this project enabled a review of the new train depot in San Luis Obispo that included an architectural evaluation of the station and its appurtenant structures. The completion of this study resulted in a determination by the State Historic Preservation Officer that the train station is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the Monster, the Colossus, the Octopus (from The Octopus, a Story of California – 1901, by Frank Norris)

A little more than one hundred years ago, on May 5, 1894, the first Southern Pacific railroad engine steamed into the town of San Luis Obispo, a tiny burg of a few thousand people situated in a serene valley on California’s Central Coast. For the city and its surrounding county, it was a momentous event. The arrival of the railroad effectively terminated the region’s isolation. The next ten years brought it within the economic spheres of the state’s two largest cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Prior to the railroad’s arrival, the region was, as one author described it, a “vast pastoral domain,” devoted largely to agriculture and mining, and to a much lesser degree, tourism. The railroad heralded the Central Coast’s entry into the twentieth century, lessening its reliance on coastal transport, and expanding its potential markets beyond the rather limited pre-railroad distribution days.

One of the most visible aspects of the importance of the railroad to the city of San Luis Obispo and the Central Coast (other than the tracks themselves), is the train depot and the appurtenant structures. In 1993 Amtrak and the City of San Luis Obispo proposed some changes to the station, and due to the nature of the funding, Caltrans became involved with the review of the project. In that year we undertook an architectural evaluation of these buildings, completing in 1994 a study that resulted in the State Historic Preservation Officer determining that the complex is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. I would like to share with the reader the story of the importance of the railroad to San Luis Obispo, the significance of the train station and the other related structures, and Caltrans’ role in their identification and recognition.

When compared to other regions of the state, San Luis Obispo County was a rural and economically insignificant area for the first twenty-five years of its existence. Following the devastating drought of 1862-64 the region was rewarded with several seasons of reinvigorating rainfall that prompted immigration to the county and the emergence of the important dairy industry on the central coast. The region’s benign climate and rich soils were highly prized by agriculturalists, especially the Swiss-Italian settlers of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Their profits were limited, however by isolation and long distances to markets. Because of the rudimentary nature of state and county roads, the local economy was largely dependent on coastal transport to export the region’s agricultural and mineral products, and to import much needed manufactured goods.

This situation was somewhat improved with the construction of a local narrow gauge railroad, the Pacific Coast Railway, in 1876. The “PC,” as it was known, ran from San Luis Obispo to Harford’s wharf at Avila Beach and, by 1887, to Los Olivos in northern Santa Barbara County. This local rail line further increased the marketability of the region’s agricultural goods, and fueled the additional development of farmland for the production of wheat, barley, beans, and peas, as well as the area’s prized dairy products.

The PC’s small operation and limited service area could not match the power, influence, and extensive operation of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Following the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and the merger of the Central Pacific with the Southern Pacific, the SP’s octopus-like network of rail lines began to extend north and south throughout the state. Because of the availability of government land, SP decided to build a line through the San Joaquin Valley first, before turning their attention to a coast route.

By 1886 the Southern Pacific Railroad had reached King City in the Salinas River Valley. Residents to the south were eager and hopeful that the giant transportation company would continue to extend its line southward, eventually connecting with the coastal line running from Saugus to Ellwood. Workmen continued to lay track up the Saunas River Valley, terminating at Santa Margarita in 1889. In April of that year, Collis Huntington rode the train from San Francisco to the end of the line. From there he boarded a stagecoach and descended the Cuesta Grade into San Luis Obispo.

At a town hall meeting he told the crowd, “Now, we are sixteen miles from here, and if you were to give us the right-of-way, and it was all straight and the title was perfect and the ground that we would want for the shops and depot purposes was provided, I expect we might commence work at the building of the [rail] road.” Both Huntington and Charles Crocker expressed concern at the difficulty and expense of building a line down the Cuesta Grade, with all of the attendant tunnels, bridges, and culverts that would be required. A committee of twenty-one prominent citizens was organized to try to persuade their fellow citizens to donate the right of way for the railroad, citing the economic benefits that would accrue to the region if the train ran from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the SP Railroad Company was in no hurry to further construction. Huntington was later quoted as saying, “the matter is in the hands of the people there. As soon as they have obtained the right-of­way for us, as they have promised, and made any arrangements to give us depot grounds, we will go ahead. Until then, our terminus will be at Santa Margarita.”

In short order, the committee raised the necessary money and purchased or otherwise secured the necessary right-of-way. An agreement was finally reached between the Southern Pacific Company and San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties on October 23, 1890, to finish the last section of the coast line. After what seemed like an interminable wait to the locals, work on the first Cuesta tunnel began in the fall of 1892.

On May 5, 1894, after the last tracks were hastily laid in preparation for the gala celebration, the first steam engine huffed its way into San Luis Obispo. The depot, roundhouse, warehouses, and shops were yet to be completed, but the era of the railroad had arrived, and the citizens showed their appreciation by hosting a three day celebration. The final gap between San Francisco and Los Angeles was closed in 1901.

The first permanent train station occupied a site adjacent to the present day depot building. In use by 1895, it was a large, rambling two-story structure of wooden balloon frame construction. The depot, with its steeply gabled roof and clapboard exterior, was typical of train stations built by the Southern Pacific Company at the turn of the century. Nearby, a brick roundhouse was completed by the Southern Pacific Company in November 1894. The SP warehouse was completed the following year, and in the ensuing years, other facilities for the maintenance and repair of the many locomotives, boxcars, and passenger cars that passed through San Luis Obispo were built in and around the area between Railroad Avenue and Roundhouse Avenue. Station plats, dating to August 1906, show the numerous facilities associated with the railroad operation: overnight quarters and offices for railroad employees, warehouses and lumber sheds, animal corrals, water and oil tanks, and the depot and roundhouse. The turntable that appears on the 1906 plat was replaced with a concrete turntable and steel turntable bridge in 1923 (Figure 1).

In 1940, a 65,000 gallon steel water tank was erected across from the depot to refill the steam engine’s boilers (Figure 2).

As the size and complexity of the railroad operation grew, the need for residences for railroad workers and business buildings increased as well. The neighborhood immediately adjacent to the railroad station was developed with residential hotels and commercial warehouses, as well as California bungalow style houses that found favor with railroad employees. By 1942 SP’s payroll in San Luis Obispo was $1.7 million, numbering about 535 employees.

In March, 1930, when railroad employees spread the rumor that the company was planning on moving the old depot five feet in order to accommodate a second set of tracks, the local newspaper and various civic groups jumped at the opportunity to ask the SP Company to tear down the “dingy old wooden thing that the railway officials call a passenger station,” and replace it with something that would give passengers some indication of the “modem hotels, the many paved streets, the beautiful homes, [and] the early day history of the city” of San Luis Obispo. Despite the editorials and the letters from the Rotary, Kiwanis, and others, the old station was moved, new track laid, and nothing more was said about these issues during the duration of the depression.

Keep in mind that the SLO train station was the terminus for many of Hollywood’s denizens who were making the trek to William Randolph Hearst’s estate at San Simeon. So it was not only the average train rider, but the likes of W.C. Fields, Ralph Bellamy, Eleanor Boardman, Dolores Del Rio, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, as well as former President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, George Bernard Shaw, and Winston Churchill who were detraining in San Luis Obispo.

By 1941 the citizens of San Luis Obispo were getting REALLY tired of the old station. Local boosters saw the depot’s replacement as an aid to local commerce, and they encouraged the railroad company to follow the lead of the Mission Trails Association, an alliance of coast route chambers of commerce, who recommended that the new depot be designed in a “tradition-steeped” mission style. In a June 24, 1941 front page editorial, the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune contended that a Spanish Colonial style station “will tell the out-of-state visitor at a glance that he is in the land of romance and in a country well worth exploring further. We believe that a station done in typical Spanish architecture, with perhaps a cloister and all the trimmings, would not only enhance the San Francisco-Los Angeles trip for the train passenger, but would be of benefit to San Luis Obispo and the Mission Trails area and of immeasurable value to the Southern Pacific Company.”

Mission Revival style architecture gained widespread popularity in the 1890s with the completion of Stanford University in 1891, and the appearance of A. Page Brown’s California Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Mission Revival quickly found its application in educational, commercial, industrial, and residential venues as well. As architectural historian Karen Weitze has noted, “Mission Revival … offered much for the railroads. The Santa Fe expanded tracks into California between 1881 and 1896, while the Southern Pacific laid 4,500 miles of rail to California and within the state between 1887 and 1910. Both lines were thoroughly immersed in regional promotionalism: a mission style furnished appropriate imagery for the depots…. between 1900 and 1920 Mission Revival became the style not only for California stations, but also for depots erected throughout the Southwest.”

The subsequent Spanish Colonial Revival style was introduced in 1915 at the twin fairs held that year in San Diego and San Francisco, commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal. Pioneered by Bertram Goodhue and Carlton Winslow, the new style borrowed heavily from examples of Plateresque and Churrigueresque architecture found in Mexico and Central America. The new designs abandoned the heavy, austere forms of the Mission style, and further embellished the buildings with florid decorations surrounding the doors and windows. While the San Luis Obispo train station lacks copious amounts of such plaster ornamentation, its overall appearance, ceramic tile embellishments, and date of construction all place it within the Spanish Colonial style period. It was also deemed to be an appropriate style for San Luis Obispo, a mission city and the home of some fine Mediterranean Revival architecture. There was also a strong precedence for the construction of railroad stations in the mission and Spanish Colonial styles, evidenced in the railroad stations in such diverse locations as Burlingame, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Riverside, and Kelso.

Not everyone was enamored with the Spanish Colonial style, however. A resolution from the San Luis Obispo City Council requesting that the railroad “employ early California type of architecture in the construction.. .of its station” was passed on a split vote of 3-2. One of the dissenting council members, Joseph Leary, was quoted as saying, “people are tired of those Mexican style buildings.” The railroad opted for a tradition steeped style, and the Spanish Colonial Revival style won out (Figure 3).

The advent of World War II and other “priorities” held up construction for the next one and one-half years. My research in the Telegram-Tribune revealed the difficulty of securing materials for construction. On March 26, 1942, the Telegram-Tribune reported that “application for a project rating had been made to the War Production Board…. The project rating would be necessary before materials for the depot’s construction could be obtained.” The Telegraph-Tribune in an editorial urged the SP to revise the plans so that the station could be built in spite of wartime priorities. “The delay in building the long-needed station is due to an inability to obtain priorities for materials involved, not because the SP has ‘forgotten’ the project, as suggested in the [previous] editorial.” The SP responded by saying that “The War Production Board …placed a ban on certain material we planned to use and we have had to revise our plans. This happened three times. The necessary revisions were quite radical in each case and much time was expended submitting revised plans and securing the necessary approval…. Our Chief Engineer.. .made special trips to Washington, DC and New York for discussions with the Material Control Branch of the War Production Board.”

Work on the depot finally began on January 9, 1943. The depot was “of a Spanish type of stucco and frame construction with a tile roof.” The contractor for the work, Theodore Maino and Company, delivered the finished product in early September 1943. In 1994 I spoke with 80 year old Mr. Maino, and he told me that the train station “was a real good job–no difficulties at all.” He did not recall any shortages of materials or any problems of securing building materials. They tore down one old building and moved three of the large Canary Island palms to make way for the new station.

A large dedication ceremony was held on Sunday, September 5, to coincide with the arrival of the Coast Daylight train at 12:20 P.M. Nearly 2000 people turned out for the dedication ceremony. The Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event, and invited local dignitaries as well as SP officials and military leaders to attend. Mayor Fred C. Kimball dedicated the station to “the people of San Luis Obispo and the armed forces.” Camp San Luis Obispo Commander Colonel Henry T. Bull paid tribute to the role that the railroad had played in the war effort. Bull was quoted as saying, “It is a great railroad and has served us at Camp San Luis Obispo with wonderful ability. It helped carry our men to Kiska and Attu [westernmost islands in the Aleutians] and to many other points and did a magnificent job. It has a large influence in the war.”

Camp San Luis Obispo and Camp Roberts, in southern Monterey County, were two of the largest training camps for army troops in the United States, serving as training grounds for more than 500,000 military personnel during the war years. The nearby proximity of other military reservations, including Fort Hunter Liggett and Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg AFB) meant that many thousands of troops were pouring through San Luis Obispo’s train station daily. Many of the soldiers who passed through the Central Coast on their way to the war in the Pacific or in the European theater returned to settle in San Luis Obispo County. Moreover, civilians who came to work here during the wartime effort opted to stay and enjoy the small town atmosphere, geographical diversity, and beautiful scenery. Between 1940 and 1950 the county’s population increased by 50 percent, from 33,246 to 51,417. At the center of all of this activity was the railroad station, the depot and portal to the Central Coast.

Robert Pavlik is an environmental planner and historian with the California Department of Transportation. He received his MA. in History from the Public Historical Studies program at UC Santa Barbara.