‘Due to wartime priorities, all train travel must be booked five days in advance.”
This is what was written on the sign in the doorway of San Luis Obispo’s new mission-style railroad depot in 1943.
Gasoline and tire rationing meant that you had to take the train. The depot was the busiest place in town during World War II.
Lucille Sanders of San Luis Obispo worked in both the old and the new Southern Pacific depots.
She recalled seeing “wives and sweethearts running after the train, waving to their loved ones and not knowing if their men would return.”
She remembered the depot as being “so packed you literally couldn’t get into it sometimes.”
And she noted that even during her 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, there were so many soldiers jammed together that individual service was impossible. So, for example, she would shout, “How many going to New York?” Then on the basis of the response, she would make out that number of tickets.
The old depot was dirty and had mice. As early as June 24, 1941, the Telegram-Tribune, in a front-page editorial, called it “a singularly drab, cold and colorless railway depot.”
The City Council voted to urge a mission-style design for a possible new depot. This was over the objection of Councilman Joseph Leary, who declared, “People are tired of these Mexican-style buildings.”
Mayor Fred C. Kimball said, “The mission-style is traditional to San Luis Obispo.”
He urged residents to send letters to Southern Pacific in support of that style of architecture.
The effort was successful, and on Oct. 15, 1941, the newspaper reported that construction was expected to begin in 60 days on a new depot that would be in the mission style. It went into operation in 1943.
The local transportation picture was already transformed. In its Jan. 1, 1942, edition, the Telegram-Tribune noted, “SLO went ‘big time’ ” on the 20th (of June) when the green buses of the Jones Transportation Company began to operate on scheduled routes.”
It was our first real bus system.
San Luis Obispo also had an all-girl taxicab business. On July 11, 1941, the San Luis Obispo Independent reported that the City Council awarded the franchise over the objections of Councilman Leary, who “questioned the propriety and fitness of women as taxicab operators.”
Croatian immigrant Steve Zegar, William Randolph Hearst’s favorite driver, continued to provide taxi service. Granny Orr, public health nurse and lifelong observer of public affairs, recalled: “He was so kind, squeezing six or eight people into his taxi at once, often letting the soldiers and tired nurses go free to save them the walk to the hospital. He was so tired himself, driving day and night.”
If the taxis were rolling, many private automobiles were immobile. In a Page 1 story on Dec. 31, 1941, the Telegram-Tribune reported that tire rationing would begin the next day. And soon the newspaper was printing the names of those who were allotted tires. For example, a Page 5 story on March 24, 1942, revealed that “George E. Pounder got one tire and the California Division of Highways and the Dewey Auto Wrecking Company each got two.” A number of tireless automobiles went up on blocks for the duration.
Forrest Coyner, a half owner of the Kimball Tire Co. said he could barely keep up with the military’s needs for recapped tires: “For six months we literally worked shifts around the clock without stopping to meet the Army’s need for tires. We’d get used tires from the troops in the South Pacific, retread and recap them and send them back. And we did the same things for Camp Roberts and Camp San Luis Obispo.”
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.