Nov 16

San Luis Obispo, Happiest place in America?

San Luis Obispo was not always known as the happiest place In America.

Turn the clock back to 1894 and the town of about 3,000 was seen through a different lens. Rural, isolated, no colleges, no military bases, no state prison, no oil development, no major railroad San Luis Obispo was lagging behind other  fast growing communities of California. The ports along the coast were the lifeline to brighter centers of commerce and education.

The business interests of San Luis Obispo desperately wanted the railroad, the big railroad, to come to town.

Morning Tribune Editor Benjamin Brooks had been one of the boosters from the early days of ownership at the paper but construction had been slow and the railroad was reluctant to climb a hill if there were scant dollars to be gained on the other side.

It is said that the most costly miles of Southern Pacific’s  Coast Route were between Santa Margarita and San Luis Obispo.

By March 24, 1894 construction crews were in sight from town, and steam whistles could be heard working on the Cuesta Grade. Excitement was rising and plans were being made for a grand celebration in town. Not everyone had the glowing opinion Obispans had of their town.

On May 24, 1894 Brooks reprinted this letter from an unnamed Paso Robles man to a friend in Ventura:


Some Paso Robles Man Gets In His Work On Us.

The following article appears in the “Daily Venturian” a paper published in Ventura and comes under the head of rather lively reading. If Paso Robles can stand it probably we can.

“The new coast line road, the completion of which is looked forward to with much expectancy in the way of better times, is fast nearing its end, and the following extract from a letter of a railroad man of Paso Robles, gives some information in regard to it which will be of interest to our readers.

“I am where I hear all the reports of work done day by day etc., and know how its going, pretty well. They run trains through all the tunnels, not construction trains, and they have the road built as fast as they get to it, but it’s only eleven miles that has taken all these years. Eleven miles through a mountain, so as quick as they are through the tunnel they are over a canyon, and bridge and are into another tunnel, and not a mile of what one can call ‘road’ in the whole eleven miles. The longest bridge is this steel one coming from Pennsylvania. It is worth a million dollars they say, and we know Huntington isn’t going to spend this $6,000,000 it has cost to cover this eleven miles and stop at San Luis Obispo with its 3,000 halfbreeds and ‘crackers.’ No town at al in fact for business. And Huntington himself is in San Francisco for the first time in a number of years, and said out loud the other day that he meant to put it through as soon as is convenient. I think it will hum this summer. The narrow gauge road from San Luis south has got to be bought and widened to standard gauge, in fact the Southern Pacific men have been over it and will have to change some curves and partly rebuild the road, and some say it will be cheaper to build a new road, and there is that forty miles over the mountains to Santa Barbara, and there we are.”

Though California has a cosmopolitan ethnic diversity, due in large part to the to the gold rush, to this day there can be friction between groups. It is jarring to read the headline and even worse discrimination was being visited upon the Chinese community at the time.

I have seen the $6,000,000 figure quoted in other articles for the construction of the Cuesta Grade and a future post will cover the efforts to build the bridge over Stenner Creek. The letter writer was wrong about merging the narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway with the Southern Pacific. The small rail firm would limp until the 1940s when it would finally go out of business. He also underestimated the effort it would take to get to Santa Barbara. The gap would not be closed for almost 7 years, in March 20, 1901.


Regular readers know we have been struggling with technical issues over the last week or so. We are still hoping to restore the lost material from the server crash but until then I will post a few mostly text blogs. Thanks for your patience.

Related posts:

  1. 1894 First Southern Pacific train service to San Luis Obispo
  2. San Luis Obispo Map, 1941
  3. San Luis Obispo Roundhouse
  4. Southern Pacific Dispatch Office, San Luis Obispo
  5. San Luis Obispo Gasworks