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SLO’s steam era ended when the roundhouse came down

The San Luis Obispo Southern Pacific Railroad roundhouse in 1953. The last of Southern Pacific’s steam locomotives pulled out of the roundhouse in September 1956.
The San Luis Obispo Southern Pacific Railroad roundhouse in 1953. The last of Southern Pacific’s steam locomotives pulled out of the roundhouse in September 1956.

Listen carefully on a windy spring evening and one can almost hear the whistle of a steam engine hurtling down Cuesta Grade.

Today, steam engines are gone and dreary diesel engines thrum. The area around the Amtrak station is an unmarked graveyard of historic structures after the original depot was demolished in 1971, followed by the turntable in 1994.

In San Luis Obispo, the steam era ended in 1959 when the roundhouse was torn down. Find the end of San Luis Obispo’s Roundhouse Street on Google Earth, and there is a concrete semicircle with grooves once filled with railroad track.

It was once the beating heart of the town’s major employer, Southern Pacific.

The first train arrived in San Luis Obispo from San Francisco in May 1894. Service to Los Angeles would not exist until the gap in the line was finished to Santa Barbara in 1901. The turntable was an essential piece of equipment to rotate the engine to turn it up Cuesta Grade. The turntable was expanded in 1922 to accommodate the longer Daylight engines.

Steam-breathing engines demanded constant maintenance and to climb the tallest hill on the Coast Line, engines needed power.

The original roundhouse was built with brick, likely made by Chinese businessman Ah Louis. Records show 10 drive-in stalls and two enclosed workshops built in the structure. In addition, there were seven whisker or “garden” tracks open to the weather for work.

A report by the California Division of Mines and Mining from 1896 said the Louis brickyard churned out about 800,000 bricks per year.

The April 23, 1910, San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram reported that six additional stalls were being added to the roundhouse with associated shops. Current research shows five were built in a wood addition to the original brick roundhouse for a total of 17 stalls.

The tone of newspaper stories in 1959 is a drum of progress, jets, rockets, nuclear bombs and freeways were all ascendant. Historic preservation was not a priority when the depot was demolished. One of the only buildings to survive was a warehouse, now a museum.

The San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. They will host San Luis Obispo Train Day on May 13, and details can be found on their website. Thanks to Brad LaRose, Andrew Merriam and Laura Emerson for sharing railroad history.

Telegram-Tribune reporter Walt Beesley wrote the elegy for the roundhouse on Aug. 17, 1959:

Railroad Landmark Being Demolished

Horses and buggies, bustles and railroad roundhouses are passe in this atomic age and the last of the above-mentioned items is fast becoming only a memory in San Luis Obispo.

Now only a tottering shell of its former busy self, the Southern Pacific railroad’s half-moon workshop where weary engines once found themselves refreshed after a long haul from San Francisco or Los Angeles, is falling into oblivion before the tools of the modern workman.

Within another six weeks, the place which 25 years ago teemed with the excitement of a typical railroad division point will resemble another parking area, a blank spot on the earth which holds cherished memories for only a few remaining railroaders who spent a good part of their lives in the stalls or in the “garden” of the roundhouse.

The “garden” is that part of the area outside the building which was beribboned with tracks but which served no other purpose than to provide the workmen with a place to stroll.

Long gone are the puffing steam locomotives which often extended themselves to reach “port” in San Luis Obispo for a boiler blowing job, a washdown and complete refueling before being allowed on the main line again.

Gone, too, are the veterans to whom the clicking of the rails was not a distraction but a soothing sound that assured the crew everything was running smoothly. A few are around to be sure, but the roundhouse and its roundtable bull sessions are part of the unwritten history which has surrounded every such installation since railroads became an integral part of the nation’s way of life.

The last of Southern Pacific’s steam locomotives pulled out of the roundhouse in September 1956, to mark the end of a busy life for the old structure which first began welcoming tired old mainline steel cruisers back in 1898.

Its walls were made of brick which still will take some pummeling to bring down, according to Ralph Cook, owner of the Cook Welding service of Downey, whose men are taking the old building apart a bit at a time.

“In another six weeks it’ll be gone,” Cook said. “I’m not familiar with the history of the place, but I’ll bet some of the oldtimers could spin a few yarns about it.

“One of the outstanding things about the structure is the brick that was used. It was made by a Chinese and he must have known what he was doing. Each brick is tree-eights thicker and half inch longer than the present day bricks.

“They’re still in good condition.”

One of a couple of longtime employees of the Southern pacific who still claims the yard as his second home is Willard H. Donaldson, a water service mechanic, who has seen the evolution of the locomotive to its present-day streamlined diesels which can go half way across the nation without refueling.

“I never had much to do with the roundhouse officially,” Donaldson said, “but naturally I was around it a good deal. It’s remarkable, as I look back now, at the changes that have occurred during the last 40 years.

“Just 25 years ago, I recall, the old coal-burning, steam locomotives used to come in here and roll into the roundhouse to get a complete going over.

“At that time there were about 75 men employed. The engine would get ‘the works.’ It was washed off by hand, its boilers were blown out and the men swarmed all over it like bees getting it ready for another run. With the news chemicals that are used today, a quick spray job or wiping is all that is needed for the diesels. Quite a difference.”

When the end is written to the San Luis Obispo roundhouse, all that will remain will be a few outside tracks to be used for parking freight or extra passenger cars or whatever happens to come along. The old turntable which used to take the locomotives off the spur line and direct them gently into the roundhouse will remain for a time, or as long as the spare tracks serve some useful purpose. But there isn’t anyone around at the moment who feels the turntable is indestructible. It, too, probably will go the way of the roundhouse. Such things are not only of little use but very expendable in the rocket age.

It’s “goodbye” to the Southern Pacific roundhouse, but its history makes up only a page of what could be a mountainous book of stories on roundhouse lore, yarns that eventually will fade without the benefit of a historian’s efforts to preserve the legends of the old workhorses that came to water.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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