Sep 23

Closing the Gap, Cuesta Grade and the Railroad

Abandoned Cuesta Grade tunnel in 1979, photo by Tony Hertz

1893-11-2-rrtunnel.jpgMorning Tribune editor Benjamin Brooks must not have liked to mix his flavors. The front page was almost always reserved for big advertisers and national news. Big local news was almost always relegated to page 3. Many of the advertisers were the same from day to day saving typesetting time.
In 1893 San Luis Obispo wasn’t even a jerkwater town. Unless you count the narrow gauge railroad, the train had not arrived. The narrow line connected with the wharf at Port San Luis.
Roads were little better than cow paths.
When the Tribune picked up this two day old story from the San Francisco Examiner, the paper predicted the first train would arrive in spring. The guess was only off by a year and five days. Not bad for a huge construction project. The construction was difficult and had been hampered by an economic downturn. According to a story in the 1979 Telegram-Tribune it took 2,000 Chinese laborers five years to carve the eight tunnels using hand tools and dynamite.
The longest tunnel No. 6 was 3,610 feet long. An article in Engineering News-Record from September 21, 1950 said that 1,1,00,000 cubic yards of rock was removed, “representing a world record for hand drilled tunnels that may be unbeaten today.” The final cost was $1.7 million. By 1979 the number of tunnels had been reduced to 5 with a combined length of a little over a mile.
In addition a major trestle had to be built at Stenner Creek. The learning process for this project would be good practice for the coast route to Santa Barbara. The town referred to in the 1893 article as Ellwood is now inside modern Goleta. A refinery there was fired on by a Japanese submarine 1942.

November 2, 1893



Completion of the Coast line to Los Angeles Is Now Only a Matter of Time

San Luis Obispo is to celebrate May Day with the whistling of railroad locomotives. At that date the Southern Pacific company’s road will be completed from Santa Margarita to San Luis Obispo and the latter city will be in communication by rail with the rest of the world. The cost of preparing for this celebration will be about $1,500,000 and that doesn’t discourage the people of San Luis Obispo as they don’t have to bear the entire burden.
The contract for completing this section of the road was made yesterday at the Southern Pacific company’s office at the corner of Fourth and Townsend streets and work is to be inaugurated at once and will be prosecuted with all the vigor that men and money can assure.
H. E. Huntington, first assistant to the president of the Southern Pacific company, continued the news of the intended extension of the line as here announced.
“The distance from Santa Margarita to San Luis Obispo is only sixteen miles said Mr. Huntington, “but the work is very heavy and the contractors have no time to spare. There are seven tunnels to be pierced the grading alone will cost $1,500,000. When this link is finished the hardest portion of the road will be completed, and the work of closing the gap between Elwood and San Luis Obispo will be carried along as rapidly as possible.


“While the section between Santa Margarita and San Luis Obispo is the hardest nut to crack, the stretch between San Luis Obispo and Elwood is anything but easy. There are a great many deep canyons that will require high trestles, and the task will be tedious and expensive. The road may possibly be through to Los Angeles in a year, but that is problematic. Certainly it will be completed as soon as the company can do the work.
“It is believed that as soon as this line is completed travel between San Francisco and the southern part of the state will be greatly increased. It will be a coast line almost the entire length and will be more popular, especially in summer, than through the hot valleys by the inland route. The distance will not be much decreased. It is about the same as through the San Joaquin valley and around that way.”
Mr. Huntington said that 2,000 men would be put to work immediately grading the road and drilling the tunnels.


“Why couldn’t the unemployed now on the government sand lot in this city go to Santa Margarita and get work?” was asked.
“I see no reason why they shouldn’t go,” Said Mr. Huntington. “There ought to be work for a large number of men.”
From San Luis Obispo to Elwood the distance is about 100 miles, but with a force of 2,000 men at work the span will be closed in a comparatively short time once the engineering difficulties between Santa Margarita and San Luis Obispo are surmounted.
The coast road, so far as completed, has proved extremely popular for passenger traffic, and as for the most part the heavy grades of the inland route will be avoided it is estimated that there will be a saving on the operating expenses that will be more than satisfactory to the railroad company.
The reason that work was heretofore suspended on this part of the road, Mr. Huntington said, was a scarcity of funds during the financial depression that has for several months hampered the operations of the Southern Pacific company as it has in like manner diminished the resources of the railroad companies all over the country.


With President C.P. Huntington of the Southern Pacific the seashore line is a pet idea. He has looked forward to the establishment of this route. He expects to develop commercial relations between the northern and southern portions of the state that will be mutually advantageous and that the sectionalism sometimes indicated by the terms “south of Tehachapi” or north of Tehachapi” will be henceforth unknown.
San Luis Obispo, who’s inhabitants claim it for the title of the gem of the Golden State, is twelve miles from the seashore, and is connected with Port Harford on the coast by a short branch road. The people of San Luis Obispo have long been hoping for resumption of active operations on the road that is about the reach them, and when the whistling locomotives roll into the depot on the 1st of next May they will be joyfully greeted.
–San Francisco Examiner, October 31

Implied in the article is the subsidy that towns had to pay Southern Pacific to bring the railroad to their door. The article says that San Luis Obispo won’t have to foot the entire bill for the construction on the grade, it would be interesting to know how much the city fathers had to pay.
According to an article by Lura Rawson in the North County Tribune December 28, 1989 the original map for the railroad bypassed San Luis Obispo in favor of a coastal route through Morro Bay. Southern Pacific vice president Charles Crocker had a meeting with the San Luis Obispo city fathers where he demanded right of way, space for a depot and and work on the tunnels. Benjamin Brooks was among at least over 20 locals who went to convince the rail tycoon.
Crocker’s demands were apparently satisfied.

The internet sources disagree, the best I could find at this writing has the coast line completed to Los Angeles in 1901. This would put the completion of the line at least six years beyond what was predicted. It was a complicated construction project.  I would appreciate a comment if you have more exact information. Send me a link if you have one

The Central Coast Rail Road Festival is coming up.

Related posts:

  1. Cuesta Grade a formidable foe
  2. Southern Pacific Railroad Depot Destroyed
  3. 1890 Cuesta Grade Tunnel
  4. Southern Pacific Daylight Cuesta Grade
  5. Cuesta Grade Truck hangs in the balance