Dec 26

Avila Truss Bridge No. 5 Pacific Coast Railroad

Bridge construction Avila Beach 1966ish.

Bridge construction Avila Beach 1966ish.

This view over San Luis Creek in Avila Beach comes from a box that has mostly 1966 negatives. Unfortunately I can’t find the article, if anyone can determine the correct date I may be able to find the news clipping. There is no golf course or kids park but the Union Oil tanks are in full flower atop the hill.
It looks like construction has begun on the new bridge, this would fit in with the new nuclear power plant construction getting underway in this general time frame. Two years later archeological studies were being done at the power plant site in advance of construction.

The remains of rail bridge Dec. 2009.

The remains of rail bridge Dec. 2009.

Avila Truss Bridge No. 5 was an artifact of the Pacific Coast Railroad. In an ironic twist of fate, a railroad killed by the automobile provided a bridge for cars to use. It is a measure of thin traffic counts and meager county road building funds that a 90-year-old right of way still being used.
The first train whistle to sound in San Luis Obispo came from a wood burning narrow gauge steam engine in August of 1876. What would come to be called the Pacific Coast Railroad had arrived connecting Port Harford’s steam ships with the county seat. Most other counties in the region had their eponymous city on the coast, San Diego, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco but San Luis Obispo proved to be an exception. Mission San Luis Obispo had the economic hardship of being 3 miles away from port and hemmed in on the other side by the Santa Lucia range.
Next time it rains try walking a dirt trail to Avila Beach. It won’t take long before the mud sticking to your feet is several times heavier than your shoes.
In the first week of October 1899 the Morning Tribune was positively giddy about the railroad in this item compiled by Wilmar Tognazzini in his 100 Years Ago column.

Never before have there been such scenes of activity as there are these days at Port Harford. Thousands upon thousands of sacks are piled there. Every vessel that can be utilized has been pressured into service to carry the grain away. And as fast as one pile is removed, another is dumped in its place from the cars of the Pacific Coast Railroad company……Excellent as the transportation and storage facilities (are), they are utterly inadequate. Both railroad companies, however, have increased their working forces and are working night and day to prevent any serious delay in shipments. There is no rest for the time being for the threshers, shippers and railroad men.

The rail line eventually ran south ending in Los Olivos. Dreamers and schemers floated plans to connect to Bakersfield and Santa Barbara but the rugged terrain made investors skittish.
My grandmother Mary (Patchett) Hill recalled setting out milk cans to send to the creamery in town when she was a child. The train crossed the family ranch south of where Cold Canyon Landfill is today. If you know where to look you can still find rail cuts in the hillside.
The rail line had some good years but the arrival of the Southern Pacific and the steady improvement of highways and automobiles would doom the little railroad. Some PCRR stories are collected here. The railroads crossed paths at the community of Edna and the older narrow gauge would force the Southern Pacific to build and staff the Hadley Tower to prevent train wrecks. Curtiss H. Johnson has an interesting slide show of the railroad’s brief life.
By 1941 after many years of cutbacks on the Pacific Coast Railway, all service was abandoned and the rails were soon pulled up to provide steel for the war effort.

Southern Pacific took their time completing the coast route, though the narrow gauge spurred them to greater effort. The SP predecessor Central Pacific had completed the transcontinental link with Union Pacific 7 years before the Pacific Coast Railroad came to San Luis Obispo. SP would finish links to Oregon, Los Angeles and New Orleans before turning their full attention to the coast line. The Southern Pacific would arrive from the north with service to San Francisco on May 5, 1894. Even the mighty rail giant struggled to complete the coast route to Santa Barbara working from both ends, closing the gap in March 1901. (Even then there would be changes in the route with new routes being constructed Bayshore cutoff into San Fransico, 1907 and the Montalvo Cutoff built through the Santa Susana Mountains to Los Angeles finished 1904.)
The little railroad would change the local landscape on a cultural level as well as an economic level. Much of the difficult construction had been made with Chinese labor and Historian Dan Krieger wrote just before a monument was dedicated in San Luis Obispo.

Sunday, March 5, 2006
In our region, much of the economic development — from the first county roads, the Pacific Coast railroad that stretched to the Santa Ynez valley, the construction of the piers at Port San Luis, Cayucos and San Simeon, the mercury mining that kept our county’s economy healthy during the 1870s, the origins of the local seed farming industry and the truck farming of vegetables later carried on by Japanese-American farmers — all can be tied to one man.
Wong On left his village near the city of Canton in the late 1850s. He paid his own passage to America and was free to travel wherever he could get work. By 1870, he arrived in San Luis Obispo, attracted by the climate that was good for his chronic asthma. He found work as a cook in the French Hotel, which faced the Old Mission at the intersection of Chorro and Monterey streets.
Within several years he formed a series of partnerships that made him the principal Chinese labor contractor of our region. Captain John Harford, the “father” of Port San Luis, gave him the name Ah Louis. The Ah Louis Store at Palm and Chorro streets is constructed from bricks fired in Ah Louis’ brickyard. It is one of the oldest buildings in California still owned by the family of the original builder.

Sadly the Tribune of that era failed to recognize the Chinese contributions and began running stories that favored limits on Chinese immigration even as it touted the economic benefits of the railroad. These will be the subject of future posts.

Related posts:

  1. Southern Pacific Railroad Depot Destroyed
  2. Closing the Gap, Cuesta Grade and the Railroad
  3. Sinking of the Queen of the Pacific
  4. West Coast Land Company, when land was $15 an acre
  5. 1913 Pacific Coast Amusement Co. Pool Hall