NARROW GAUGE ON CALIFORNIA'S CENTRAL COAST: A SAGA OF THE PACIFIC COAST RAILWAY
By Don M. Scott, Railroad Man (mostly)
IF YOU EXIT the 101 Freeway at See Canyon, just south of the town of San Luis Obispo, and drive a few hundred feet along the frontage road (the original highway), you will come to a creek and an out-of-service bridge. A parallel pair of rust colored deformations three feet apart protrude about a foot from the concrete on both sides of the road. They cross the old pavement at a 30-degree angle. If you look closely, you'll see they are the stubs of a pair of lightweight steel rail sections. You are standing at the point where the Pacific Coast Railway once crossed Highway 101 as it followed San Luis Creek from Port Harford (later Port San Luis) to San Luis Obispo.
That paved-over crossing is one of the few remaining tangible pieces of evidence of the PC in the San Luis area. In town you may still find a few traces of the right-of-way. For example, in a commercial neighborhood it is still possible to recognize a cut where the narrow gauge mainline once curved into the yard. Farther north, a gap still exists where the line ran through town, behind the Southern Pacific roundhouse, and onto an interchange track parallel to the standard gauge mainline.
One railroad warehouse still stands. It is now an upscale, yuppie, pseudo-something, shopping complex boutique. Charming.
THE SAN LUIS OBISPO TERMINAL
By the late 1880s, the Pacific Coast Railway had established itself as a main artery of transportation along California's central coast. The Southern Pacific served the north, east, and south but the cost of extending its standard gauge rails over the mountains to the central coast was formidable. It would take the SP another fifteen years to enter the area.
By contrast, the PC facilities in San Luis Obispo were substantial, especially for a small town. The depot and main office building was a boxy, un-railroady, two story structure. A few yards to the north was a car barn capable of holding two dozen cars. By the 1920s, more than five hundred feet of warehouses lined the PC's industrial sidings. And the engine facilities included the usual water tank and column, oil storage tanks and column, sandhouse, handcar sheds, rip track, and weigh-in scales.
The yard had more than fifteen separate tracks going to, among other things, a classic 45 foot wooden gallows turntable and an eight stall roundhouse complex including locomotive shops, a powerhouse, and paint shop.
MOTIVE POWER AND ROLLING STOCK
The PC owned and operated about twenty locomotives over its more than half century of operation. Eleven were from the Baldwin Locomotive Works and at least three were from Thomas, Paul and Son, including a 4-4-0 and a pair of 2-6-0s.
The first locomotive was a 20 ton Baldwin 2-4-2T. It lasted eight years. Over time, a succession of Americans, Consolidations, and Ten Wheelers worked the line. So did three electric locomotives, a gas-powered Plymouth 2-4-2 switcher, and a homemade 1918 Ford Touring rail car. The railroad bought most of its motive power new but, in 1928, it purchased a pair of Baldwin 4-6-0s from the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad. When a locomotive wore out, the PC usually scrapped it. But the management did sell a few pieces to the Oahu Railroad in Hawaii, the Columbia & Puget Sound Railroad in Washington, and a few smaller lines.
The PC had twenty passenger cars from Carter Brothers, Kimball, and J. Hammond. They included coaches, combines, and baggage cars. Unless fire or an accident destroyed a car, the railroad maintained the passenger fleet up to the end. Records indicate the PC transported nearly 120,000 passengers in 1920 alone. As passenger traffic declined, some cars found their way to the rip track. But when the PC ceased operation in the late 1930s, the White Pass & Yukon bought four cars in good condition.
Freight cars really show the extent of the operation. The PC had 93 boxcars, including ten from Colorado's Florence & Cripple Creek and ten from the PC's own shops. The roster also included thirteen Carter Brothers stock cars, forty tank cars to service the southern oil fields, and more than 260 flatcars. Then came the fifty gondolas, two cabooses, and seven maintenance-of-way cars. That totals more than 465 pieces of freight related rolling stock and nearly 500 cars altogether!
Where did they run? South. And, next time, we'll look at that part of the line.