Huell Howser had what many would consider a dream job, travel, access to interesting places. He was producer and host of a series of shows that highlighted the nature and history of California. He made the most of his opportunities throughout the state with a sense glee that put his subjects at ease and made even obscure historical footnotes worth watching.
The television personality with the twangy Tennessee accent died, January 7, 2013 at the age of 67.
April Karys wrote about one of Howser’s visits to San Luis Obispo County in the July 2, 1994 Telegram-Tribune.
Spotlight on county
Train centennial, Grade get air time on TV
SAN LUIS OBISPO — The Central Coast will get to relive its Railroad Centennial celebration this weekend.
Public television station KCET, channel 28, will air a “California’s Gold” program about the festivities at 7:30 p.m. Sunday and on Saturday July 9, at 6 p.m.
The program covers California’s history, cultural diversity and natural areas. Producer and host Huell Howser has featured this county twice before, with one segment on Morro Bay and another on the Motel Inn, Pozo Saloon and Oceano dunes.
Sunday’s segment features Cal Poly history professor Dan Krieger, lifetime resident Howard Louis and San Luis Obispo Historical Society board member Bill Loper, who talk about the history of the Cuesta Grade and about how the Southern Pacific Railroad changed the county.
The centennial celebration — parade, ball and steam engine trip — was such a success that various organizers are considering putting on another. A steam engine may come to town next March to coincide with the start of San Luis Obispo service by Amrak’s San Diegan.
Part of Sunday’s KCET program will focus on the Cuesta Grade.
“Bill Loper volunteered to take me up to the top of the Grade,” Howser said from Los Angles. “He’s the one who gave me the history of the Grade and all that. Then I spend an afternoon with Howard in his store, talking about the contribution the Chinese had made to the railroad and work his dad did with the store.”
“He took pictures of the interior of my store for quite a while,” said Louis, owner of Ah Louis Store on Palm Street, which has been in business 120 years, 110 of those in its present location. “I gave him a history and showed him some items. He was very impressed.”
In addition to running the store, Louis’s father, Ah Louis, oversaw the Chinese labor crews who worked to build the railroad lines through the Cuesta Grade.
“He couldn’t get over it — we still have the records of the shipping bills of produce from China, like 14 thousand pounds of rice, during the building of that railroad,” said the 85-year-old Louis. “I have the freight bill…”
Loper gave Howser some history of the Grade, where Howser begins the segment.
“I found a spot where you could see the original stagecoach road, and also the present Stagecoach Road now.” Loper said, “You also see the 1914 old concrete highway, the present highway and the railroad, all from one spot. I took him up there, they filmed from there, talked about what you call the Grade, the impact of the Grade on the area, and the railroad…He and Dan Krieger had come down the railroad through the tunnels on one of the S.P’s trucks the day before.”
Krieger and Cal Poly economics professor Walter Rice took Howser down the Grade on the rail tracks.
“We spend about four hours filming in that truck along the Grade,” Krieger said.
On May 5, Howser boarded “The Daylight” to film the re-creation of the day 100 years before that the first Southern Pacific train pulled into San Luis Obispo.
“It was an amazing thing,” Howser said, “to be on that train and look out of the window there and see all of those people lined up along the road, just to catch a glimpse of it, as it was puffing by … Everybody had their kids on their shoulders. You know, all the way, all the way from Paso Robles, the roads were lined. It was amazing.
“We got to ride up in the cab with the engineer and get the feeling, what that was like.”
That engineer was Jim McIntyre, third-generation engineer, whose father was a passenger on the centennial train, Krieger said.
“I introduced (Howser) to a number of people who had been Southern Pacific employees back in the age of steam,” Krieger explained. “One of the great coincidences was that he had been interviewing Bob McIntire, who had been with the Southern Pacific for 45 yars. This was aboard the Southern Pacific’s President’s car, called the Sunset.
“And Bob said ‘In all the years I worked for Southern Pacific, I never dreamt I’d sit here in the president’s car.’”
Howser said that human connection is what makes “California’s Gold” segments such as Sunday’s come together successfully.
“The program features Dan, it features Bill, people on the train, some of former railroad employees; this is exactly the kind of programming we like,” Howser said. “Because it ties in the history of a community and takes things that many people see every day — like everyone who’s gone up and down the coast on (highway) 101 is familiar with that Grade. But very few of us, unless it was pointed out to us, would know the history of that Grade.
Howser said his only frustration is “there are a hundred times more stories than we have time to do. I guess you can call it job security.”
But despite the time crunch, the Central Coast will likely rate a fourth “California’s Gold” segment, Howser added.
“We’re coming back in September to do a piece on Avila Beach.”