Photos from the Vault

From stagecoach robberies to railroads, SLO’s new train tracks signaled end of an era

About a dozen people pose for a photo with a six-horse stagecoach outside the Ramona Hotel in San Luis Obispo on May 5, 1894. The last stagecoach over the Cuesta Grade departed as the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in town.
About a dozen people pose for a photo with a six-horse stagecoach outside the Ramona Hotel in San Luis Obispo on May 5, 1894. The last stagecoach over the Cuesta Grade departed as the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in town.

In the photo, a dozen people pose next to a six-horse stagecoach outside an ornate hotel. Etched into the negative in capital letters are the words, “THE LAST TRIP MAY 5.”

The coach waiting outside San Luis Obispo’s Ramona Hotel, the grand but short-lived destination near the corner of Johnson Avenue covering the block between Higuera and Marsh streets, represented the end of an era.

It was the last stagecoach to head over the Cuesta Grade as the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in town on May 5, 1894.

Whistles and sirens were going off all over town but San Luis Obispo city’s engineer was afraid to ring the City Hall bell. He had to be reassured that it was indeed a historic day.

Steam whistles at the Electric Light Works, Waite & Ryans and the big siren at the narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway depot all sounded.

The excitement began when the steam engine of the Southern Pacific construction train passed over the Monterey Street bridge for the first time and the engineer pulled the train whistle. That day, The Tribune reported, J.C. Castro brought up a wagonload of beer for the thirsty tracklayers near the bridge.

Tunnel No. 10 on the Cuesta Grade, seen in this Feb. 27, 1971, photo, was shut down and bypassed after a cave-in made it unusable. It is now sealed up. Jim Hayes Telegram-Tribune

San Luis Obispo was finally connected to the larger world by rail.

The Santa Lucia Range had terminated the line five years earlier in Santa Margarita.

The 17 miles of track Southern Pacific built over the Cuesta Grade would be the highest elevation and most expensive 17 miles on the Coast Line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Estimates vary but the track cost the railroad between $1.5 and $3 million to build.

The original tunnels removed 1,100,000 cubic yards of rock from under the Santa Lucia Range. A later expansion removed more rock, making the amount of earth moved similar to the amount removed for the footing of the Hoover Dam.

The Sept. 21, 1950, edition of Engineering News-Record called the work “a world’s record for hand-drilled tunnels that may well still be unbeaten today.”

Cuesta Grade 1922.JPG
A photo from the former California Division of Highways, now Caltrans, shows a dirt road built to replace Stage Coach Road in 1915 and improved in 1923. The photo is from about 1922. Caltrans once reported 71 hazardous curves on the highway north of San Luis Obispo. Courtesy photo

It required seven tunnels, a large and small horseshoe curve and the longest bridge on the Coast Line, the 931-foot-long Stenner Creek Trestle.

Two of the tunnels have since been bypassed or daylighted, but the remaining five span more than a mile underground. The longest tunnel, No. 6, is 3,610 feet long.

Why work so hard? The original wagon road was a fright.

Travelers crossed the Cuesta Grade via Old Stage Coach Road, which even today it is an adventure. The dirt track hugs the canyon above San Luis Creek up the west side, below the rails, as Highway 101 sails up the other side on a bed of concrete and asphalt.

Freight wagons, which required six or eight horses, could take eight hours to cross the grade with the teamster jamming his foot on the brake on the road down.

Old Stage Coach Road was built with Chinese labor and a $20,000 county bond in 1876. It was an improvement over the bottom-of-the-canyon padre’s trail between the Mission and Santa Margarita.

1876 07-26 Stagecoach detail.JPG
In this advertisement from the July 29, 1876, San Luis Obispo Tribune, the Coast Line Stage Company offers connections from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Tribune

Stagecoaches were attractive targets for robbers.

Stagemaster Tom Johnson’s recollections were published in the May 7, 1956, Telegram-Tribune:

“It was during the years I was driving the stage over the 60-mile route from San Luis Obispo to Pleyto (near present day Lake San Antonio) that Dick Fellows, the notorious bandit was on the job. For awhile he kept up a sort of game of hide and seek with the stage drivers. One night he attempted to rob George Richmond, the driver on the line from San Luis Obispo to Santa Maria.

However, he was on foot so Richmond whipped up his horses and drove on. This made Fellows so furious that the next night he stole a horse and stopped Richmond, relieving him of the express box, and for his extra trouble he said he would take Richmond’s gold watch.

One night Mike Livingston, a shoe drummer, rode north with me. He said, ‘You know Jim Myers was robbed last night, but I’m ready for any robber who stops us tonight and I’ll shoot him too.’

Whereupon he displayed a tiny, little pistol, nothing more than a toy.

Stenner Creek bridge construction is illustrated in the San Luis Obispo Tribune Souvenir Edition from May 1894. The Southern Pacific conquered the Cuesta Grade and opened rail traffic to San Francisco and the the United States. The Traveller can be seen hoisting girders into place while material is transported via rail on the bottom of the canyon with cable power from a stationary engine. Building materials took 50 rail cars to deliver. The Tribune

About 15 minutes later as we started up a mountain we were held up and had to hand over the express box. Mike was scared stiff, to put it mildly. As soon as he could stop shaking sufficiently to speak he said, ‘Johnson, Johnson, what vil ve do if ve are robbed again and ve ain’t got no box to give ‘em?’ ”

Ed Hecox, a well-known stage driver in the 1890s, saw that change was coming and got a job on the railroad as fireman stoking engines for Southern Pacific. He was later promoted to engineer.

Commercial stagecoaches ran from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara and to Cambria for many years, but the only coaches that went over the Grade were nostalgia excursions.

The Coast Line connected to Los Angeles in 1901.

Improvements to the Cuesta road would wait for the 20th century and the era of the automobile. And even those improvements could not prevent runaway trucks.

Want to learn more about San Luis Obispo County’s railroads? The Central Coast Railroad Festival will take place Oct. 4 through 6; for more information, visit

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune