Photos from the Vault

What’s a wigwag? Paso Robles had 1 of the last old-school train crossing signals in California

Wigwag signals were invented in 1909 to alert drivers that a train was coming to a railroad crossing.

The swinging lollipop-like disks were meant to mimic the motion of watchmen waving a red lantern from side to side to warn of danger. Wigwag signals are now nostalgic icons of an earlier era.

The Central Coast Railroad Museum in San Luis Obispo has a wigwag crossing signal on display. The museum celebrates the Central Coast Railroad Festival on Friday through Sunday at various locations; visit for details.

According to Wikipedia, the urban Pacific Electric Red Car line in Los Angeles had the first wigwag signal.

By 1914, the Magnetic Signal Company of Los Angeles replaced the gear-driven wigwag with a more reliable electromagnetic design.

As automobiles evolved, the wigwag became less effective at stopping drivers. The jolt of a rail crossing is absorbed by smoother riding cars, making it easier to forget to slow down.

Gradually, wigwags were replaced with crossing arms and many other crossings have been closed or bypassed.

Unfortunately, the replacement was often preceded by tragedy.

The wigwag on Highway 227 south of San Luis Obispo was bypassed with a bridge over the tracks, and the wigwag and old road grade crossing south of Los Ranchos School was closed after a fatal accident.

According to the state Public Utilities Commission, the last wigwag on a city street in California was on 12th Street in Paso Robles, Telegram-Tribune reporter Joan Denslow wrote in 1988. (After that signal was removed in 1989, there were still operating wigwags in Santa Cruz and Fresno, according to Michael Mariant and John Nist.)

The city wanted the crossing kept open for traffic circulation and had asked for 10 years to install crossing arms. It was one of only four railroad crossings at the time.

The Southern Pacific Railroad and state regulators wanted to save money and block off the street.

The project stalled.

The price of installing crossing arms was $150,000 with the Public Utilities Commission picking up 80% and the city and railroad each paying 10%.

In June 1987, Pam Dooley, 27, was killed when her car was struck by a freight train at the 12th Street crossing.

The wigwag signal was operating, but the crossing had limited sight lines and a train moving at 50 mph. Dooley’s car’s windows were up, and air conditioning was on along with the radio.

Pam’s sister, Wendy Muller, was active in the effort to upgrade the crossing.

The Telegram-Tribune published an April 7, 1988, story by David Eddy and a March 2, 1989, story by Denslow, both quoting Muller.

“There are crossing gates in the middle of nowhere,” Muller told the newspaper in 1988, “but not in the middle of downtown Paso Robles.”

“How many people have to die here before they put (gate arms) in?”

As she spoke, a car full of teenage girls went whizzing through the crossing, and Muller shook her head.

“Many people think it can’t happen to them,” she said.

Paso Robles put up stop signs to slow traffic but though the crossing, but could do little more without approvals.

When bureaucratic approvals were finally cleared, crossing arms were installed at the end of the 1980s.

Speaking to the Telegram-Tribune in 1989, Wendy Muller said, “Of course, I’m glad they’re being put in.” But, she added, “It seems to me they have to wait for a tragedy to happen before they do anything.

”Then, those who suffer from the tragedy have to push until something is done.”

Correction: An earlier version of the story said that Paso Robles had the last city wigwag in the California. The error has been corrected.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune

David Middlecamp is a photojournalist and third-generation Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black-and-white film now includes an FAA-certified drone pilot license. He also writes the history column “Photos from the Vault.”