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End of an era: How the steam engine disappeared from the Central Coast

Change may be the only constant, but some years have more than others.

A local historian may be hard pressed to find a year with more milestones than 1956.

Dial telephones were introduced, women returned to Cal Poly as students after 27 years, Poly’s football stadium got lights, and steam engines were being phased out. And that is just the fall of that year.

The chuff of a steam engine had been part of the San Luis Obispo audio landscape for 80 years.

The first steam engine rolled into San Luis Obispo via the narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway line from Port San Luis in August 1876.

The PCRR had exclusive access to town and southward to Los Olivos for almost a generation.

Southern Pacific arrived in San Luis Obispo on the afternoon of May 5, 1894, after the engineering feat of crossing the Cuesta Grade via 8 tunnels and a trestle.

Roundhouse crew-S
The roundhouse crew of the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Luis Obispo gathers to have its picture taken when this new engine arrived to be put into service in 1913. File Tribune

For more than a century, steam had been the motive power for the world of commerce with the only change being the evolution from wood- to coal- to oil-fired engines.

The process was labor-intensive, with a large maintenance facility and roundhouse located in San Luis Obispo. At one time, Southern Pacific was the largest employer in town. Frequent stops for clean water and fuel were part of the inefficient process.

Many era-ending moments came with clear markers as a roundhouse was demolished or rails were torn up, but letting the steam out of the old way of running engines was slow, in part because of the logistical challenges of keeping a railroad running while changing systems, negotiating with unions and clearing regulatory hurdles.

The Coast Line was the last in the system to convert. It made more sense to begin converting to diesel in long-haul desert territory where water was scarce.

Perhaps the most famous railroad employee to work in San Luis Obispo was Beat author Jack Kerouac, who lived near the railroad station in 1953. The most famous passenger would be Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who visited in 1959.

Believe it or not, the last steam engine may have not yet departed. Rail fans come out in droves to see when a special run is made by a steam engine from a museum.

Train derailment 1907
A Southern Pacific work crew gets ready to hoist a steam engine out of a ditch along the Cuesta Grade in a photo that A. Frossard, a longtime railroad employee, dated as 1907. The photo appeared in the May 15, 1956, edition of the Telegram-Tribune. File Tribune

Railroad aficionados can keep up with local events at the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum or Oceano Depot.

On the same day San Luis Obispo mourned the death of fire chief James Waldmeler from a heart attack, the Telegram-Tribune noted that change and layoffs were coming to the roundhouse.

The Associated Press story was supplemented with local details:

‘Readjustments’ and diesels cut S-P payroll by 45 men

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 3. — Because of dieselization and “readjustment of operations,” 45 employees have been dropped from the Southern Pacific railroad payroll at San Luis Obispo.

“However,” according to Robert A. Miller, superintendent of the coast division of the railroad, “every effort was made to place the men elsewhere on the division, and places were offered everyone.”

He reported that the present payroll at the San Luis Obispo yards of the Southern Pacific numbers 675 employes.

Included in the readjustment which brought the “reduction in force” at San Luis Obispo, was the change of service between King City and San Luis Obispo from local freight train to switching operation, Miller explained.

Affected in San Luis Obispo were 10 trainmen, 25 car department workers, nine roundhouse men and one clerk.

Southern Pacific reported that San Luis Obispo is now 90 percent “dieselized.”

It was not disclosed if a further reduction in S-P personnel here is planned as diesel locomotives take over the tracks exclusively. The roundhouse operation existing in the past will then be further minimized.

It was also not learned if the San Luis Obispo force will be reduced if the Starlight passenger runs through here are curtailed, as now proposed by Southern Pacific.

The matter comes up for hearing before the state public utilities commission on Oct. 15.

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

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