The Southern Pacific Historical & Technical Society just held a five day gathering at the the Embassy Suites Hotel in San Luis Obispo. The event program featured the logo from the now defunct Lark overnight train.
A spectacular accident halted rail service in 1959. If you need proof that we are mid-way between San Francisco and Los Angeles here is exhibit A. The northbound and southbound Lark trains collided on the Serrano siding about 8 miles north of San Luis Obispo. While the exact cause was still under investigation it is clear from the photographs and witness reports that the northbound locomotive came in contact with the last southbound coaches derailing both trains, ripping out 700 feet of track and resulting in five injuries. Remarkably there were no deaths.
The photographs were by reporter-photographer Walter V. Beesley who in later decades would be the Telegram-Tribune courts reporter.
TWO TRAINS COLLIDE ON CUESTA GRADE
Only 5 Injuries In Accident; Hundreds Aboard
By John L. Sarber
It is nothing short of amazing that death was escaped in the terrific impact and collision of the Southern Pacific’s crack Lark passenger trains on the Cuesta grade at 2:15 a.m. yesterday.
The accident occurred on the Serrano siding about eight miles northwest of San Luis Obispo on a steep slope of the Santa Lucia foothills overlooking the city.
The scene of the costly crash is a rendezvous point for trains meeting at the half way lap between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Five persons were slightly injured. All were riding aboard one of the four luxury coaches raked by the diesel locomotive units pulling the northbound train.
Three of the injured were passengers two were Pullman porters. One porter Bonnie Daniel, 64, was trapped for nearly two hours.
Daniel was trapped in a compartment of the coach in which he was employed, and suffered from smoke inhalation when a fire broke out after the impact. He was extricated from the compartment following quick work by the train crew in extinguishing the blaze.
Passengers remained calm and there was no frightening tension at the wreck scene.
Many simply remained in their Pullman berths. Others looked out at the wreckage and retained an orderly dignity.
Cooks aboard the dining cars could be viewed in their tiny galleys slicing bacon and buttering toast, completely unruffled.
S-P Porter, passenger Tell Of Narrow Escape in Train
“I thought we’d hit a tunnel.”
That is the way veteran Pullman porter described the collision of the north and south bound Southern Pacific Larks early Sunday morning at Serrano, about nine miles north of San Luis Obispo.
Daniel was in the second car from the end of the southbound streamliner, the most badly damaged unit. It took a rescue crew with acetylene torches nearly two hours to cut him free.
He related his moments of terror from a bed in French hospital yesterday.
“I had just stepped out of the corridor into bedroom A in the next to last car when the door suddenly came off and pinned me against thee wall of the bedroom,” said Daniel.
“My first thought was that we’d hit the tunnel. The door fell on top of me and protected me from flying debris. If it hadn’t been for the door, I hat to think what might have happened.”
Except for bruises, cuts and shock, Daniel escaped from the accident in pretty good condition.
“I knew the Lord was with me,” stated Daniel. “And I kept telling myself, “Now Daniel, just take it easy and those gentlemen will get you free. Now just take it easy and you will be alright.”
Daniel related that he could hear the workmen trying to free him and gained strength from their encouraging commands for him to be calm and they would soon have him out.
Daniel has been on the Lark run for two years and this is his first rail mishap in 34 years of service.
A couple of side notes, the paper was priced at 10 cents a copy and had 14 pages. The circulation was 12,978 and the name plate only took up four of nine columns. This era had a cramped design and usually made poor use of photos but in this case they recognized the size of the story and went big.
In another story a 3 year old boy was admitted to the county hospital with polio. Doctor H.O. Swartout advised parents to get their children vaccinated. What had once been a scourge was now preventable.
The baby boom was putting pressure on schools to expand and a bond issue was on the ballot for Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. Unlike Los Osos bond or tax elections in San Luis Obispo had passed in each of the five times they had come up since 1921. This one would fail by a narrow margin.
A desalting plant was proposed for Morro Bay. Water has always been an source of debate in the area.
In about a week I’ll revisit a previous posting on a 1915 Lark train wreck.