One of the Southern Pacific’s last major routes constructed was on the Coast Line between Ellwood and Santa Margarita.
The railroad, founded as the Central Pacific in 1861 did not arrive in San Luis Obispo until 1894 and did not complete a San Francisco to Los Angeles Coast route until 1901. Further construction revised the route in 1904.
The railroad had other lines that took priority, connections to Los Angles, New Orleans, and Oregon all were seen as essential to the network while the incomplete link between Santa Barbara and Santa Margarita languished as an expensive project with a low rate of return. (Point of trivia, Coast Line trains leaving San Francisco were termed eastbound because terminus of the line was New Orleans.)
Ironically the last radio message from the Southern Pacific would be transmitted from San Luis Obispo. The SP had suffered a series of setbacks and was finally devoured in a series of corporate raids and trades.
Transcontinental Railroad rival, Union Pacific had acquired the SP. Though it would invest in improvements and continue service, the price was the death of the old nemesis including throwing out historical records.
Richard Orsi documents this in his book “Sunset Limited”; September 11, 1996 at 9 a.m. was the Espee’s time of death.
When the final freight train moving under the Southern Pacific name pulled into San Luis Obispo the engineer sent this message over the railroad’s radio network: “This is the last sunset for the SP. Good night SP and thanks for the memories.”
On September 18, 1980 Telegram-Tribune reporter Ted Jackovics wrote about what it was like to ride the rails with a freight crew, back when the caboose still marked the end of a train.
Rolling along with the train crew
As three 3,600-horsepower locomotives rumbled across Marsh Street at noon in San Luis Obispo, two trainmen did gymnastics routine, more than a half-mile away.
First Mike Feasby, a slender 29-year-old brakeman, then Jack Michaels, a 51-year-old conductor who looks a little like former football star Alex Karras, grabbed a railing on the moving caboose and vaulted aboard.
Feasby, Michaels, engineer Sellar Nugent and head brakeman Larry Bamino were the new crew for the Southern Pacific’s peddler.
The train, which left the sprawling, computer controlled freight yard at West Colton 11 hours earlier, was nicknamed for the many stops it would make before reaching Oakland.
By the time the caboose crept across the busy street, traffic was backed up for half a block.
One or two drivers, who perhaps had counted the 49 cars, waved at Feasby, who sat in the small bay window in the caboose at the end of the train.
Feasby raised a hand in return as Michaels talked on the radio to the engineer.
This could b fun, this job of riding around the countryside in a railroad caboose.
“We get to go places and see things no one else does,” said Feasby, who lives in Baywood Park. “It’s a special kind of experience to be out alone at night in the mountains or to ride along the coastline at dawn.”
The pay is pretty good too.
A brakeman beginning work after high school on the Southern Pacific Company can earn $1,600 t $1,800 before taxes every two weeks, with a little luck scheduling his trips.
For the 218-mile run from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles, for example, a brakeman earns $151.68, not including extra pay for time spend working and waiting at the freight terminals.
On this trip, Michaels will be in charge from his chair in the caboose until the train reaches Watsonville.
Most cabooses built in the first half of the century were a cozy combination of office and living quarters for train crews on the road.
One section was usually set off by a potbelly stove, another by well-worn benches and wooden desks lighted by kerosene lamps, and a third by a cupola where a trainman would sit on a narrow bench above the roofline to observe the train.
Today’s cabooses have the charm and appearance, inside and out, of a subway car.
Nine black, high-backed bucket seats, a dusty vinyl-covered bunk and a green metallic finish on nearly everything else in the caboose gives it a feeling of a rolling army command post.
Now that the train was under way, the crew’s main concern was safety.
As the train wound around the horseshoe curve behind the California Men’s Colony, Michaels received a radio message from the engineer that the train was about to pass a crew repairing the tracks.
Michaels and Feasby took opposite sides of the caboose to watch for a signal from the track crew that a brake may have locked on one of the cars, or that a wheel bearing had failed and an axel was on fire.
“We’re pretty free out here,” Michaels said as he stood on the rear platform of the caboose and received an all-clear sign.
Michaels looked for a pass through the majestic hills for a slice of a view of San Luis Obispo, now several hundred feet below and to the south of the train that crept up Cuesta Grade at 25 mph.
“Only thing is,” he added, “you have no social life.”
Aha. The big catch.
One of the ironies of being a trainman is that even at home, employees are bound to the railroad as their little, red office on wheels is to the shiny tracks.
Few freight trains operate on a daily schedule.
So the crews are on call 24 hours a day.
Sometimes they have only one or two hours’ notice to get to the freight terminal for a job that might include an overnight stay — maybe in Los Angeles, or for Michael’s crew, in Watsonville.
Last week, on Tuesday, Michaels woke up at 6:30 a.m. at home in San Luis Obispo to call the dispatcher to find out if it were his turn for an assignment.
The fog that rolled into San Luis Obispo had already lifted. It looked like a good day for Michaels, a seven-handicap golfer, to get out his clubs and head to the San Luis Bay Inn golf club, where he is a member.
“So the dispatcher says ‘Oh God, Jack, we’ve got a westbound leaving about 11:30 this morning,” Michaels said 12 hours later in his spacious trailer.
(To freight train employees, north is west and south is east.)
It was not 6:30 p.m. and Michaels was awaiting word about whether a hot-shot — a through freight train from Los Angeles to Oakland — would run later that night.
“And here I still sit,” Michaels roared, his ample belly heaving with laughter. “With the pleasure of my own company and the television.”
His wife, Ruth, had gone to Atascadero to visit one of their daughters when she heard her husband would probably be going to work that day.
“You can’t make any plans,” Michaels said, turning the sound down on a television movie.”
“If someone invites us to a barbecue Sunday afternoon, I ant tell if I can go until it’s time to leave, unless I take my name off the dispatch board.”
Going off the board means missing one’s chance in the rotation for a job call. Trainmen are paid only when they make a trip.
A number of trainmen carry pagers when they are away from home. Michael’s seniority earned him a spot on the conductor’s extra list, a group that substitutes for other crews. He knew he was next in line to be called, so he sat at home.
“The job is a lot easier than it used to be,” he said. “It used to be hard work. You’d have to repair the axel joints and bearings when they overheated, but now we just set the cars off the train.”
And while Michael’s wife has learned to keep herself busy while he is gone, he enjoys his non-structured job when he gets to work.
“I’d never make it in an 8-to-5 job—take 10 minutes for a coffee break here and 30 minutes for lunch there,” he said in a booming voice.
About 6:45 p.m. Michaels got up from the sofa to make another call to the dispatcher to get the latest information about a departure from San Luis Obispo.
Meanwhile in Baywood Park, Feasby got into his car for a 50-mile drive to Guadalupe, where he would board a freight train bound for Lompoc.
The recession has struck the Southern Pacific hard. About 20 brakemen have been furloughed. Feasby had been bumped off the trips from San Luis Obispo so the only route available for him was the smoky, a train classified between a peddler and a hot-shot.
Feasby has worked for the railroad for 10 years. He is accustomed to being moved around and furloughed.
His first year on the railroad he worked five months before being cut off. His second year, with a little seniority, he worked seven months.
“It sure screwed up my first marriage,” Feasby recalled. “My ex-wife and I could get accustomed to a certain way of life and didn’t put any money away.”
After Feasby returned from a tour in the U.S. Army, he worked and was cut off in San Luis Obispo, San Jose and Watsonville. In 1977 he transferred to Eugene and in January, returned to San Luis Obispo for the fourth time.
Feasby, who plans to get married in November, said he likes the county’s beaches and weather, and the attitudes of the people he works for here.
The railroad is changing, but not all for the better, Feasby said.
There are fewer of the old-timers who lived their jobs as freight conductors 24 hours a day and weren’t averse to taking a straggling worker behind the shed to straighten him out.
“Nowadays, in the larger areas, the railroad is being run by people from Stanford and Columbia and Harvard, rather than by people who moved up through the ranks,” Feasby said.
“That works the same way the Vietnam War went with second lieutenants fresh out of Virginia Military Institute.”
And getting a job with the railroad these days is different than it was 10 years ago when Feasby was hired in San Jose after a five-minute interview.
His father and brother worked for the railroad. The custom in those days was for the local trainmaster to favor relatives of railroad workers when a job came open.
Not so today.
“Today, an applicant is interviewed by a woman from Oakland,” said Michaels, who has on son who has been trying to get a job on the railroad for several years.
The Southern Pacific last hired brakemen in San Luis Obispo in 1979, when 13 were selected from more than 100 applicants.
William Giles, the San Luis Obispo trainmaster who is in charge of about 200 county railroad employees and operations from Santa Margarita to Chatsworth, made the final selection after the railroad’s personnel department narrowed the list of applicants to about 20.
Some of the trainmen tell the story about the time Giles jumped in a car and drove full blast to Santa Barbara County. The Sheriff’s Department there had received a report from an observant neighbor of the Southern Pacific that women were seen on a caboose.
When Giles showed up at the train and demanded an explanation from the conductor, the startled trainman did a double take until he realized that the women Giles was referring to were several children who had begged a tour of the caboose.
Giles who will be 53 Friday, has earned the respect of many of his employees for being consistent and for knowing the railroad.
“I like my work,” Giles said with a warm smile at the end of another 12-hour day.
To me this is a very enjoyable job. And anytime you enjoy your work these days, well that’s something. I’m not speaking just of the railroad, but of life in the United States in general,” he said.
Tall man with a full head of black and gray-flecked hair, Giles has worked in Fresno, Salinas, Tucson and Yuma. He says he wants to finish his career in San Luis Obispo.
Perhaps because he enjoyed life on the rails, as he does life in management, Giles finds the part of his job that requires he take disciplinary action against employees distasteful to talk about.
“Absenteeism is our most serious problem,” he said, picking up a folder of a trainman who showed up for work on 15 days out of 155.
Giles said he is looking for people who are trustworthy and enthusiastic.
“Any manager is always looking for people that show potential,” he said. “You never know when you might be looking at the Southern Pacific’s next general manager.”
In a little office below, a dispatcher called Michaels to tell him he was scheduled to report at the station at 10 p.m. to work the hot-shot that was headed from Los Angeles to Oakland.
For Giles and most of San Luis Obispo, another day was just about over.
For Michaels, a new day on the railroad had finally begun.