Building the railroad to Harford Pier

Posted by David Middlecamp on August 29, 2013 

From the front page of the June 5, 1875 San Luis Obispo Tribune, one of the earliest ads for Chinese labor agent Ah Louis. 6-5-1875


In the late 1800s it was rare to find a positive mention of the Chinese community in American journals, and in that respect the San Luis Obispo Tribune was fairly typical.

Labor bosses liked the work ethic of Chinese crews. They generally did not take extended weekends and return to work hung over; the boiled water for tea killed bacteria that decimated crowded and poorly sanitized work camps. In addition Chinese crews worked hard and cheap.

They were a favorite hire for the Central Pacific Railroad (later Southern Pacific) for difficult projects, but the insular community raised the ire of European settlers in California.

Articles would frequently ridicule burial customs (shipping bones back to China to ancestral burial grounds), braided hair, ethnic food, opium use and different worship customs.

More offensive to European settlers than the foreign language, dress and customs was being underbid for jobs by crews that would work harder.

This would become an acute issue from the 1870s on when the economy contracted and jobs became scarce as the gold fields played out.

In 1878 an editor of the Tribune, Oscar Fitzallen Thornton, would become the local president of the Workingman's Party, a racist, anti-Chinese party. This would lead to a break with the community and Thornton's ouster.

It would be overreaching to say that San Luis Obispo was an enlightened bastion of tolerance; more likely that local Republican businessmen did not want their favorite newspaper run by a third-party partisan.

But in 1875 the paper and town were desperate for a rail link to the sea. Statewide roads were pitiful; coastal steamer was the fastest way for goods and people to move.

The road to Avila and Port San Luis was horrible: gluey mud in winter, and ruts in the summer that threw unwary passengers off coaches. One story from the era noted that a trip to Avila could lead to broken bones.

Settlers had more than a century to build a decent road, but it took Chinese labor, carving and filling to build an all-weather path for commerce to the sea.

The story mentions labor from San Francisco but local labor contractor Ah Louis coordinated local Chinese employment and was wealthy enough to advertise in regularly in the newspaper.

Local lore has it that many were smuggled into the county at a secluded cove north of Cayucos now bearing the name China Cove.

Tribune senior owner, Horatio S. Rembaugh, had experience railroading during and after the Civil War. He is likely the author of this piece, though O.F. Thornton was editor at the time. The voice is that of the more deliberate Rembaugh rather than the excitable Thornton.

Desperate for the narrow gauge rail link to be completed, a rare positive editorial mention of the Chinese community is printed in the pages April 3, 1875.

How rare? It is the only positive column I have found so far from that era. Subsequent articles about railroad construction ignore the Chinese.

Avila — The Railroad.

Sunday last, we visited Avila, and made a personal inspection of the railroad now in process of construction from the Harbor to San Luis.

Only two days' work had been done up to the time we were there, but that was sufficient to show that an experienced engineer and road builder was in charge. We have seen railroad building in our day, and can tell whether things are moving toward a definite and fixed object or not. Mr. L.H. Shortt, the engineer and superintendent of construction, took us out to the first crossing of the creek and pointed out the heaviest work on the road, which is a short cutting just on the east bank of the creek, and near the Harford grade. The owner of the land at Avila, told Mr. Shortt to select the location for the depot, round house, shops, etc., and say how much they required, and he would make the Railroad Company a deed for the same. Appreciating this liberal offer Mr. Shortt restricted himself to the smallest possible limits, on the bottom between the wharf and creek. There were thirty men at work, and other gangs of thirty each will be put on as fast as the work can be laid out to make room for them.

The Company has a contract with a Chinese House in San Francisco to furnish 500 laborers as fast as wanted.

All the iron and ties are bought, and the first installment has arrived, consisting of 200 tons of iron. Mr. Shortt has had great experience in railroading having build the California Pacific, putting that road into Sacramento, and across the track of the Central Pacific, against all the opposition of that giant corporation.

There will be no obstacles to overcome in building the S.L.[O.] & S. M. V. R. R. that he will not surmount, and give us a road this season.

Avila is rapidly growing and will make as flourishing a town as there is in the county, when this road is completed. What is most wanted there now, is a first class Hotel to accommodate the rapidly increasing travel, and the great swarm of pleasure seekers, who go there from town, of a Sunday, for recreation and relaxation from business cares. Mr. M.A. Benrimo, Proprietor of the Bay Hotel, does all in his power to make it pleasant and comfortable for them now, but he lacks room. We hope Ben will take the lead in building to provide for the rush, as he will surely reap a golden harvest by so doing.

The Central Coast Railroad festival will be Oct. 10 to 14, featuring the grand opening of the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum on Oct. 12. For event details check their website.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that the name Pacific Coast Railway does not match the initials of the San Luis Obispo & Santa Maria Valley Railroad. The Pacific Coast Railway was the name the company assumed after corporate consolidation in 1883 and until its dismantling in the 1940s.

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