SLO Railroad Museum's grand opening set for Saturday

kleslie@thetribunenews.comOctober 10, 2013 

Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said that Southern Pacific Railroad, not Pacific Coast Railroad, built a line through San Luis Obispo in the 1890s.

It’s a dream 22 years in the making.

After years of hard work and financial finagling, railroad enthusiasts will finally be able to check out the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum this weekend. It’s the first such museum on the Central Coast.

“This is the most exciting event in our history,” said SLORM President Brad LaRose, who has worked on the project since its conception in 1991.

Located in a former freighthouse at 1940 Santa Barbara St. near the Amtrak station, the museum will hold its grand opening at 11:30 a.m. Saturday during the fifth annual Central Coast Railroad Festival.

Attendees will be treated to special tours of the museum, as well as lectures and presentations by railroad experts and enthusiasts.

Inside the roughly 5,000-square-foot museum, visitors can see artifacts from the golden age of trains and railroads. From train headlights used as spotlights to a 1,000-square-foot model railroad layout of the Central Coast (complete with a 13-foot long Harford Pier), the space has a little something for everything, LaRose said.

“It’s got all the bells and whistles, literally,” he said, noting that several antique train bells and whistles, weighing up to 45 pounds a piece, will be on view.

Besides the indoors exhibits, museum-goers will also have the opportunity to ride the rails in motorcars along nearly 850 square feet of railroad tracks running parallel to the existing Amtrak lines.

“We have a whole history with interesting stories available right here,” LaRose said.

Tracks of progress

That history runs deep in San Luis Obispo and the Central Coast, where railroads have played an integral part in the area’s growth.

According to local railway historian Andrew Merriam, the first step was the construction of the Pacific Coast Railway, which connected Port San Luis (then known as Port Harford) with San Luis Obispo in the 1870s.

The line was a huge boon to the local economy, Merriam said, because it easily transported people and goods from the busy port in Avila Beach.

Over the next few years, the Pacific Coast Railway grew, eventually extending as far south as Los Olivos.

San Luis Obispo grew as well, especially with the addition of another railroad, the Southern Pacific Railroad, in the 1890s.

The Southern Pacific Railroad built a line between San Francisco and Los Angeles that ran straight through San Luis Obispo.

San Luis Obispo suddenly became a way station between two major cities that had not previously been connected.

As it ran through San Luis Obispo, the train would pick up extra workers to help fuel so the train could make it over the Cuesta Grade, Merriam said.

At one time, almost 10 percent of all San Luis Obispo residents were employed by or associated with the railroad, Merriam said.

With 12 trains running through daily, San Luis Obispo was thriving on the railroad economy, carrying agricultural products, oil, people and, during World War I, military supplies.

By the 1950s, however, the golden age of railways ended as highways and airlines ushered in new and quicker ways to travel.

San Luis Obispo continued to have a deep appreciation for railroads though, Merriam said. “They were essential to this community,” he said. “They were critical. So today, I think there is tremendous nostalgia with railroads.”

SLO going

Despite the community’s deep roots in the railroad, it would take more than two decades for a museum honoring its history to be built.

“I was the youngest member when we started, but not so much anymore,” LaRose said of the project. “I’ve got gray hairs now.”

After a failed attempt to establish the so-called Avila Valley Railway Museum, LaRose approached then-San Luis Obispo Mayor Allen Settle about using a plot of land the city was about to purchase for additional Amtrak parking.

Settle was on board, but LaRose still had to convince the rest of the City Council, as well as other city representatives, that investing in the museum would benefit the local economy.

Besides gathering support, the museum also faced another large obstacle: an estimated $1.5 million price tag, but only $430,000 in grant money to accomplish it.

But the project went forward, and when the city ran out of grant money in 2012, the museum organization stepped in and began raising money itself.

Through work and materials donations from local businesses, the project ended up costing only about $700,000.

As construction was underway, museum members were also busy obtaining artifacts to exhibit at the site.

“We are constantly looking for historical items we can acquire,” LaRose said.

LaRose himself spent 17 years looking for a specific bell and pushcar that may have been a part of the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1940s.

That drive to bring in more artifacts will continue, LaRose said. There will be permanent exhibits at the museum, but most will change over time, he said.

“The entire museum is a work in progress,” LaRose said. “We have many artifacts and exhibits that we had to put up very quickly, but they aren’t all finished.”

Central Coast Railroad Festival

The grand opening of the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum isn’t the only exciting event at this year’s Central Coast Railroad Festival.

One of the big draws this year will be appearances by Grammy Award-winning musician David Holt, host of the PBS TV show “Great Scenic Railway Journeys,” as well as “Railway Journeys” creator Robert Van Camp, according to Festival Director Curtis Reinhardt.

Other activities include a children’s coloring contest at the San Luis Obispo public library, concerts by local musicians, documentary showings at the Fremont Theatre and the library, a train-themed art show at Art Central Gallery in San Luis Obispo, a walking tour of the San Luis Obispo Railroad District and model train layouts throughout the city.

Events run through Sunday afternoon. For more information, visit the festival’s website at www.ccrrf.com.

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