Times Past

Loren Nicholson’s book tracks San Luis Obispo railroad history

Loren Nicholson
Loren Nicholson

“It was the biggest crowd ever gathered in our little town, and it was a multitude that required very little amusing …” wrote Benjamin Brooks, the editor of The Tribune.

Much of downtown San Luis Obispo “turned into a ghost town, bunting flapping in the breeze, as 5,000 people walked up to the Ramona Hotel and party at the tracks.”

The anticipated arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad traveling through the recently completed Cuesta Tunnels was a major moment in San Luis Obispo’s history. May 5, 1894, was “celebrated with a band, barbecue and cannon fire as the train pulled in. The evening finished with fireworks and a grand ball.”

Members of the Fred Steele Post of the Grand Army of the Republic began firing off “Big Bill,” the Model 1864 Dahlgren smoothbore 32-pounder U.S. naval cannon. The cannon’s report shattered windows throughout much of the town. The gun is now in the Odd Fellows-San Luis Cemetery at South Higuera Street and Elk Lane.

A home built by historian Myron Angel, at Garden and Buchon streets, caught fire. The resident, a mother with a child, tried to summon the firemen at the railroad party at the Ramona Hotel, but the fire raged on. The nearest hydrant was four blocks away and had no water.

Loren Nicholson, a retired journalism professor at Cal Poly, who died June 25, wrote about this.

“Rails Across the Ranchos: The Pacific Coastline of Southern Pacific Railroad,” published in 1980, is Loren’s best-known book among the several he wrote. It energized interest in the importance of two different railroad projects that essentially remade San Luis Obispo’s economy.

Loren begins by documenting how an earlier, narrow gauge railway created the economic environment necessary to attract the standard gauge Southern Pacific in 1894.

The narrow gauge tracks were 3 feet wide. The standard gauge rails were 4 feet 8 1/2 inches in width, which by no coincidence was the width of a Roman chariot axle. This was the width adopted by the major railroads of England, Western Europe and America. The arrival of the Southern Pacific connected San Luis Obispo to points like Chicago and New York City.

Loren followed Gerald M. Best’s 1964 book, “Ships and Narrow Gauge Rails, the Pacific Coast Company” (reprinted in 1997 as “The Pacific Coast Company”) in invigorating interest in the Pacific Coast Railway.

The railway stopped at Port Harford, the historical town and pier that is now part of Port San Luis Harbor, along a route connecting San Luis Obispo with Santa Maria and Los Olivos between 1882 and the late 1930s.

The railroad made San Luis Obispo the economic center of a region rich in agriculture and raw materials that extended more than 76 miles, with side runs to quarrying activities at Bishop Peak and Sisquoc, east of Santa Maria.

The railroad was used in filming several early motion pictures. Rail fans from throughout the West traveled to San Luis Obispo to ride the route during the last days of its operation. Loren’s and Gerald Best’s books brought the sons and grandsons of those rail fans to the Central Coast.

Through a series of twists and turns, Loren’s book, “Rails Across the Ranchos” led to the creation of the Bob Jones Trail along the Pacific Coast Railway right-of-way. It also contributed to the establishment of the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum, which honored Loren in 2010.

Loren also established “La Vista: A Journal of Central Coast History,” published semiannually by the San Luis County Historical Society (now the History Center of San Luis Obispo) between 1968 and 1974, with an additional issue in 1975. Loren served for a time as president of the historical society.

Pay tribute to Loren and his work by visiting the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum or walking or biking the Bob Jones Trail.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.