A 1953 photo shows the San Luis Obispo roundhouse filled with steam engines, turntable in the center.
Photo courtesy the San Luis Obispo County Historical Society
All that is left of the San Luis Obispo Roundhouse is the short Avenue that bears the name. To give you a hint of how important the facility was to the city, here are a few excerpts from the newspaper.
The new turn table at the Southern Pacific roundhouse will be put in place today. It is capable of turning the largest engines and the transferring of the monster from a framework of ties on which it rests to its place in the pit is not considered boys’ play.
An air motor will be used to operate this turn table. The air is compressed in the roundhouse. Greased railroad iron will be used on which to lower the turn table. It will not be lowered entirely to its place for several days, as it is necessary to wait for the hardening of the cement foundation. The turntable weighs about 80 tons…
Follows home policy
By Wilmar Tognazzini 100 YEARS AGO
Excerpts from The San Luis Obispo Tribune for the week of Dec. 12, 1904.
The improvements being made and the work that is being turned out at the Southern Pacific roundhouse in this city under the management of master mechanic W. A. Rideout is substantial proof of what push and energy can accomplish.
One year ago last June, when Mr. Rideout took charge of the work here, the lack of facilities for handling the locomotive repairs were indeed limited and very little, except the simplest kind of running repairs, were even thought of. When engines became disabled they were sent to San Francisco or Sacramento for the necessary repairs. This not only entailed useless expense but kept the needed power away from this point.
Realizing what might be accomplished by the installation of improved methods, Mr. Rideout immediately took steps to secure the necessary machinery. Orders were placed for new machinery and various kinds of hand tools. One year ago, a new 70 foot steel turn table was placed in position. All the pits in the round house were remodeled and a larger sewer system installed for the purpose of carrying off waste water.
During the past year, two new lathes, a large Radial drill press and a Sellers bolt cutter all of the latest and most improved type, have been put in operation. The latest and perhaps most useful machine has just been put in service. It is a combination stationery engine and air compressor. The many uses to which compressed air is put is indeed wonderful. By its use a 200-ton locomotive is made to revolve around on the big steel turntable as though it was nothing more than a toy. Compressed air is used for loading sand into sand boxes on engines; also for loading oil into the oil tanks. It is used in air hoister for handling heavy work, for operating air hammers, drill, motors and various other conveniences.
There are now, at all times, three to five engines lying in for general repairs, and the work turned out at San Luis Obispo has proven to be entirely satisfactory. …
If anyone doubts what is being done along this line, let them visit the Southern Pacific roundhouse occasionally and keep tab on what is being done here.
RECALLING AN ERA OF RAILROADS AND RED LIGHTS
Sunday, May 7, 2006
By Dan Krieger TIMES PAST
Peter Andre, a longtime San Luis Obispo attorney, recalled his youth during that time. Peter was the son of an Azorean immigrant, J.J. Andre, who after a successful career in Hanford established the Andre Grocery at Higuera and Broad streets.
“In our era, San Luis Obispo was a railroad town with the roundhouse located about a quarter of a mile past the depot. Engines were repaired and rebuilt in this roundhouse, with several of them being able to be worked on at the same time.
“This was a division point for the Southern Pacific Company, and we had a lot of railroaders who came into the store as customers. They were the best customers, because they were paid by the railroad and they paid their bills on time.”
Many railroad workers were only in town between trains. This gave San Luis Obispo another aspect of railroader history: A “Red Light District.”
“I was working in the grocery store in the summer time. I must have been 16 or 17 then because I was allowed to drive the delivery truck taking groceries to various households.
“There was a street of ill fame called Sycamore Street. It is now known as Walnut Street. Sometimes the ladies of the night would call in an order for groceries.
“In those days, the bacon came in big slabs, and we sliced it in the store according to the customer’s preference of thickness.
“On this particular day when I delivered the groceries in one of the wooden folding delivery boxes that were used, the lady of the night was so happy that it was sliced just the way she wanted it that she gave me a big kiss right behind my left ear.
“As soon as I got back to the store, I went in to the warehouse where there was a sink and faucet and began scrubbing my neck with soap and water. When the clerk came back and asked me what I was doing, I told him that I was washing off the area so that I wouldn’t get venereal disease.
When the steam engine was king San Luis Obispo was a major repair facility for the Southern Pacific Railroad. In the 1940′s the SP was the city’s largest employer. The town sported a roundhouse and turntable. The railroad tried to compete with the automobile by converting to easier to maintain diesel-electric locomotives. By the late 1950′s the roundhouse was torn down. All that was left was the turntable and by November 1993 that was gone too.
January 29, 1994
SLO loses a railroad artifact
Historic turntable torn out after city failed to protect it
SAN LUIS OBISPO — Just as civic groups were gearing up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the city’s first train, Southern Pacific tore out one of the most important historic artifacts.
The old turntable located along the tracks at the end of Roundhouse Avenue was quietly removed in November. The action shocked railroad buffs and city officials, who weren’t notified by Southern Pacific and didn’t find out until several weeks later.
“It happened right under our noses,” said city planner Jeff Hook. “It’s quite a loss to the city.”
The turntable, built in the early 1900′s to direct the old steam locomotives was a key piece to a sort of outdoor rail museum the city had been informally planning for many years said Hook.
But in an ironic twist, it was likely a city action that led to the turntable’s destruction.
And one railroad historian from Southern California said the city got just what it deserved, because it has never taken steps to protect the turntable.
Though Southern Pacific could not be reached for comment, it appears that the turntable’s removal was set in motion last June, when the city Utilities Department found that oil in the area was draining into the sewage system.
The department sent Southern Pacific a letter stating that the oil had to be stopped. There were other ways to take care of the problem, said Utilities Director John Moss, but he said they apparently chose to simply remove the turntable. The Utilities Department did not ask Southern Pacific to leave the turntable in place, he said, as the department’s role is simply to stop the contamination.
However, at the request of the city’s Cultural Heritage Committee, the Community Development Department did inform Southern Pacific of the city’s interest in preserving the turntable, said Hook. After city officials expressed concern about how the oil problem would be handled, a consultant hired by Southern Pacific assured Planners the turntable would not be removed.
“So it’s especially annoying…to have them turn around and remove it,” said Wendy Waldron, a member of the Cultural Heritage Committee.
And it is particularly frustrating because the city is planning a centennial celebration this spring to commemorate the arrival of the railroad to San Luis Obispo. The first Train Arrived May 5, 1894, and was greeted by the biggest crowd that had ever gathered in the city, according to Loren Nicholson’s book, “Rails Across the Ranchos.”
The town’s residents had waited many years to see this tangible connection with the rest of the world.
Benjamin Brooks, then editor of the San Luis Obispo Tribune, wrote of that day: “In the history of San Luis Obispo, then its next chapter is written, the bage which will stand out in gold will be that devoted to the Fifth of May, 1894.”
The turntable, said Hook, was a vivid reminder of that time, as it was the last working element in the city that was used during the steam engine era.
It was also one of the few remaining turntables in the state, said Waldron.
“It was one of the most significant features of the rail yard,” she said. “It would have been a key feature of the museum.”
Daniel Marnell, a member of the San Diego Railroad Museum’s Board of Trustees, couldn’t agree more about the turntable’s value. That’s why he is disgusted that the city or some private group didn’t take charge and preserve the turntable.
“There’s been a lot of bashing of SP over the years up there (in San Luis Obispo),” he said. “But it was the failure of your own people to save the artifact, to save their heritage.”
Hook said the city has made some efforts at preserving its rail heritage, such as purchasing the old water tower near the Amtrak station from Southern Pacific. But with the budget being trimmed over the last several years, preserving the railroad artifacts slipped well down the list of priorities.
Marnell is very familiar with the turntable because he tried to acquire it several years ago for the San Diego Railroad Museum. He said he went so far as to send engineers up to San Luis Obispo to figure out how to bring it back to San Diego. But he was blocked by the city, and ended up buying one in Fresno.
Southern Pacific could not be be expected to leave it there forever, he said, because it represented an attractive nuisance, and the company could have been sued if, for instance, a child were injured while playing on it.
Marnell said he understands why the city wanted to keep it, but they should have protected it.
“I’m all for local historical preservation on site–that’s probably where it really belonged,” he said. “But why didn’t they save it? Why didn’t anybody do anything?”
The two turntable photos were by Wayne Nicholls.
Next week, the most powerful man ever to visit the county by rail.