With an elevation of 1,295 feet the Cuesta Summit is the highest point and steepest on the Southern Pacific [now Union Pacific] Coast Line. In roughly 20 miles the road falls to 20 feet above sea level at Oceano, the lowest point on the line outside the San Francisco Bay area. The steep grade required helper engines and to that end a roundhouse was constructed in town along with a repair shop. At roughly the midpoint between San Francisco and Los Angeles San Luis Obispo became an important station on the line.
A century ago the leading employer in San Luis Obispo was Southern Pacific and the men and women of the dispatch office kept the trains from running into each other in the tunnels on the grade. There were more passenger trains at the time as well as specials, say when a president or captain of industry rolled through town.
The photo at right is from 1913.
Numbers for this blog post came from the excellent book Southern Pacific's Coast Line by John Signor.
The Great American Railroad Show is coming to the stage March 18-27, 2011 at Unity in San Luis Obispo.