Did a runaway truck crash through downtown SLO?

Posted by David Middlecamp on January 10, 2014 

LEWIN BUILDING CONDEMNED...For many years an old landmark, adjoining the Old Mission church in San Luis Obispo, the Lewin building at the corner of Monterey and Chorro streets has ben ordered torn down. The old wooden-frame structure, an undertaker's parlor 65 years ago, is owned by Mrs. Hilda H. Howell of San Luis Obispo. (Telegram-Tribune photo)


Surfing the microfilm, in search of the elusive white whale.

The mission of Photos From the Vault is rediscovery of great local stories. One I have been tracking for years is the runaway truck.

As regular readers know, the further back in history a story is, the less likely can be found in an index or a folder.

Sometimes story dates can be reverse engineered through Google searches or book indexes.

When that fails all that remains is a sifting search, page by page, through microfilm.

One great story, often repeated is the runaway Cuesta Grade truck.

It is plausible.

In theory, before the freeway was built in the 1950s, brake failure could bring tons of metal careening through downtown via Monterey Street.

Unfortunately, newspaper articles and books differ on specifics and are hazy on the details.

One story published Nov. 14, 1970, by the usually reliable Elliot Curry tells the story of how a runaway egg truck damaged a building and led to the eventual birth of Mission Plaza.

"In the case of San Luis Obispo’s Mission Plaza project, the eggs came first.
 An egg truck, careening out of control off Cuesta Grade down Monterey Street — then part of Highway 101 — bore through the Mission Garage building."

Curry's article claimed the egg truck accident happened in 1954, but other sources scatter the event throughout the decade.

Curry could write about the truck accident from memory — the long-serving editor and reporter worked at the paper from the 1940s to the 1970s.

The problem with writing from memory, however, is that details are often not as accurate as articles from the time of the event. Curry was relying on memories of events well over a decade earlier.

Sometimes errors creep into the narrative.

An example from the Daily Telegram in December 1907: The story of the Oilport pier in what is now Shell Beach, wrecked by storm. A story is headlined with the words "tidal wave." The error is repeated over the years taking on the patina of fact, though pier was not wrecked by a tsunami.

My interest in the Mission Garage building, formerly at the corner of Monterey and Chorro Streets, stems from it's history. It was one of the early homes of the San Luis Obispo Morning Tribune. In the late 1800s the newspaper was upstairs in the Lasar Building, over the Chicago Brewery.

Since the books I have read differ on the date and details, I was hoping serendipity would reveal the original truck story.

Often the microfilm reveals clues when searching for other stories.

My first break came a few weeks ago.

The story was not focused on the Lasar building but the building across the street.

However, the Lasar can be seen in the process of demolition at the left hand corner of the photo.

Over the next few weeks this will be an intermittent online feature as the microfilm reveals the secret of the runaway truck.

Call me Ahab.

From the Telegram-Tribune, Feb. 28, 1955:

City Moves To Clear Church Site

Ruled unsafe by San Luis Obispo building inspector Seth Kinney, the ancient Lewin building has been condemned. The owner has 120 days from tomorrow to have the building torn down.

Prominently obscuring the old Mission church front courtyard for many years, the building has been found to be structurally weak and dangerous. Kinney and city engineer Homer Hamlin reported that both west and north walls are dangerously dilapidated and unsound.

Owned since 1936 by Mrs. Hilda H. Howell, daughter of the late M. Lewin of San Luis Obispo, the property was an undertaker's parlor some 65 years ago. For years it was headquarters of the San Luis Building and Loan company.

It is now the real estate office of Bernard Lewin, and the upstairs contains rented rooms. Church attempt to purchase the property in former years were dropped due to lack of funds. The property extends 35 feet on Monterey street and 65 feet up Chorro street.

Backtracking through 1955 I couldn't find any other connected stories.

Curry's story said the wreck was in 1954.

It ought to be a simple search.

How hard could it be?

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