The annual Central Coast Railroad festival gets underway in October and the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum will showcase its true-to-life model train that’s been under construction for the past five years.
Andrew Merriam, who is on the museum’s board of directors, has been working on the train for countless hours but he said it’s the history of the railroad that he gets most excited about. And he knows a lot.
“In the early part of the century into the 1950s there were up to 12 passenger trains a day including two mail trains that carried mail newspapers and thousands of passengers,” Merriam said. “It allowed SLO to develop and everyone was ravenously for railroads because it opened things up and meant people could come and go and get the goods and services being offered in the rest of the U.S..”
The railroad also brought jobs to San Luis Obispo. Merriam said, at its peak, the railroad employed 15 to 18 percent of the SLO workforce.
Today, railroad employment doesn’t even make the list of SLO’s top 20 employers.
But this was a different time, long before apps could summon an Uber or Lyft, riding the rail from L.A. to San Francisco was a faster, safer alternative to driving on the roads.
“(Roads were) dangerous and rough and subject to flooding and robbers and all kinds of other problems so the fastest way turned out to be to take the train to Avila and go by ship, which cut the trip down to a day, day and a half,” Merriam said.
Because of this popular route, Avila Beach boomed with business.
Other Central Coast cities along the train route, each of which is illustrated on the museum’s historically accurate model, also experienced growth.
“We start at Paso and a lot of the almonds and stock they had up there, comes down Cuesta Grade to SLO which is more of a commercial community with a lot of freight and general merchandise which came through the building we’re actually standing in where the model is,” Merriam said. “Then down to South County which is more ag and oil and big sugar beet refineries, then on south to the Lompoc area where there’s diatomaceous earth and military.”
The chug of the choo choo has all but fallen silent over the past few decades, but Merriam said the very existence of San Luis Obispo is rooted in the rail.
The model is expected to be completed in about five years, according to Merriam. The Central Coast Railroad Festival is set for Oct. 7.