Times Past: Days of railroading and red light areas

Special to The TribuneAugust 25, 2012 

‘I can well remember galloping our stick ponies up and down the bank of the hilly area back of the Old Mission.”

San Luis Obispo was as innocent and pastoral a town as any in the American West during the 1920s and ’30s.

Peter Andre, beloved attorney and community leader, recalls his youth:

“We lived at the end of Dana Street, with San Luis Creek on one side and Stenner Creek on the other side.

“We were forever wading in the creek wishing there were big enough holes for swimming, such as the big kids had a block or two up Stenner Creek where they had made a dam with dirt-filled gunny sacks. My sister, Dolly, and I had to be content with our little hole down by a big rock at the corner of our property.

“I used to play a lot, and get in trouble with the kids up the street. These included Clarence Bello, a life-long friend, until he was killed at Leyte Gulf in World War II.

“There was Charles Burch, whose father I always admired because as a gas company employee he had to crawl under houses and turn off the gas when there was a fire.

“Emerson Bowles’ father and mother owned the fish market in back of their home on the other end of Dana Street and there was Bob Leitcher. “We all played together as cowboys and Indians with our little stick horses out in the back. Of course, these were in the pre-pony days. I can well remember galloping our stick ponies up and down the bank of the hilly area back of the Old Mission where later was constructed the convent.

“Also, we played on the old wall back of the Carnegie Library (now the County History Center), not realizing that was part of the structure of the old Mission and later the John Wilson and Doña Ramona Carrillo Pacheco Wilson home. That wall is still standing so I guess we didn’t do too much damage to it.

“In our era, San Luis Obispo was a railroad town with the roundhouse located about a quarter of a mile past the depot. Engines were repaired and rebuilt in this roundhouse, with several of them being able to be worked on at the same time.

“This was a division point for the Southern Pacific Company and we had a lot of railroaders who came into the (J. J. Andre) store as customers. They were the best customers, because they were paid by the railroad and they paid their bills on time.”

Many railroad workers were only in town between trains. This gave San Luis Obispo another aspect of railroader history: A red light district.

Pete recollects:

“I was working in the grocery store in the summertime. I must have been 16 or 17 then because I was allowed to drive the delivery truck, taking groceries to various households.

“There was a street of ill-fame called Sycamore Street. It is now known as Walnut Street. Sometimes the ladies of the night would call in an order for groceries.

“In those days, the bacon came in big slabs and we sliced it in the store according to the customer’s preference of thickness.

“On this particular day when I delivered the groceries in one of the wooden folding delivery boxes that were used, the lady of the night was so happy that it was sliced just the way she wanted it, that she gave me a big kiss right behind my left ear.

“As soon as I got back to the store, I went in to the warehouse where there was a sink and faucet and began scrubbing my neck with soap and water. When the clerk came back and asked me what I was doing, I told him that I was washing off the area so that I wouldn’t get venereal disease.

“Naive!!”

But that was the way things were in San Luis Obispo in times past.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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