You may have wondered about the mysterious henge looming beside San Luis Creek in Avila Beach.
It is one of the last remaining monuments to the dawn of modern Central Coast transportation, the Pacific Coast Railway. The concrete plinth was an underpinning to Bridge No. 5.
The narrow gauge rails were in use for 66 years, at the peak of operations connecting Port San Luis to San Luis Obispo and terminating in Los Olivos.
The venture originated with pier owner John Harford.
His wharf was the best in the region by sea, protected from weather. It was also one of the most difficult to access by land.
He solved his transportation problems with a gravity and horse-powered railroad, cars coasting down from a high point between the two locations.
The mile-and-half long railroad included a tunnel and five bridges. Operations began in September 1873.
These were the days when a heavy equipment operator consisted largely of a man, a mule and wheelbarrow.
Soon more ambitious plans were hatched and competing stock driven schemes were advanced.
Construction was difficult but Harford and later builders found that a labor contractor named On Wong [or Wong On in some accounts] was able to provide reliable workers who were up to the task. Harford renamed this contractor ‘Ah Louis’.
After hard digging to get out of Avila Beach the railroad arrived in San Luis Obispo in August 1876. It would expand south in stages ending in Los Olivos in November 1887.
The railroad was on a low budget; beach sand was used as rail bed ballast rather than the rock you see on most railroads. The railroad passed into the hands of a steam ship company which made sense in the era when ocean travel was the best way to get people and goods up and down the coast.
Improving highways, arrival of the Southern Pacific and the Great Depression would kill the little railroad.
By World War II the last of the P.C.R.R. rails were being pulled up and sold for scrap.
According to the book The Pacific Coast Railway by Kenneth Westcott and Curtis Johnson, bridge No. 5 was upgraded in 1881 when operations changed from horse drawn to steam engine.
Apparently at one point the beams had been coated with metallic paint leading to the mistaken impression that the bridge was steel. For at least two decades after the railroad folded the bridge was part of toll access to the privately held port.
From the front page of the October 30, 1981 Telegram-Tribune:
Railway trestle topples
The old Pacific Coast Railway trestle in Avila Beach is no more.
The 98-year-old bridge connecting Avila Beach to Port San Luis fell into San Luis Creek Thursday about 4 p.m.
“It just let go and came down with a loud thud,” said Tony Strong, a cook at the nearby San Luis Bay Inn, who noticed the bridge “swaying and creaking” shortly before it fell.
The bridge is now a pile of shattered wood. “You know what pick-up sticks look like when they fall?” Port San Luis Harbor Manager Bill King Jr. asked.
“That’s what’s in the creek.”
King blamed the recent rains for the mishap, saying the already-rotting wood of the bridge soaked up water and could no longer hold itself up.
The trestle was condemned in the late 1960s shortly after its concrete replacement; the Harford Drive Bridge was built in 1968. Plans for the antique, which is owned by Port San Luis, called for turning it into a bicycle path.
“We’ve been talking about that for many years.” King said. “We just weren’t quick enough.”
The Harbor Commission had filed an application with the Coastal Commission to rebuild the trestle’s east and west approaches, King said. The harbor board intended to apply later to build the bike path.
Now, the immediate problem is getting the wood pile out of the creek on Monday.
“We hope to build a new one on a smaller scale,” King said. “It had a lot of historical appeal.”
- Avila Truss Bridge No. 5 Pacific Coast Railroad
- Pacific Coast Railroad Bridge, Avila Beach 1966
- End of the line for the Pacific Coast Railway Company, World War II week by week
- Southern Pacific builds Stenner Creek Bridge, Cuesta Grade construction on the Coast Line
- Phillips Lane bridge over Southern Pacific tracks bites the dust