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Isolation to innovation: How trains transformed the Central Coast

Posted at 6:00 PM, Oct 05, 2019

A hundred years ago, the Central Coast was an isolated, little-known place. The development of the railroad transformed this area into the region we know and love today.

This weekend, hundreds of people are learning about our local rail history at the 10th annual Central Coast Railroad Festival.


"All through my life, I just liked playing with trains," said train enthusiast and Arroyo Grande resident Doug Calicchio.

No matter your age, there's something about trains that is simply mesmerizing.

For Calicchio, steam engines light his fire in particular.

"You start the fire and all of the sudden it starts dripping water, it starts oozing the steam, it starts coming to life," he said. "They're just like living, breathing little engines."

Calicchio loves running his large-scale model trains at his neighbor's backyard track so much that he's building his own track next door.

"We're going to start laying track next year. We've been working on it for three years and we're finally at the point where we can lay track," Calicchio said.

The goal is to eventually connect Calicchio's backyard track to neighbor Karl Hovanitz's track, named the Bitter Creek Western Railroad.

"We've got bridges and tunnels and all sorts of interesting topography to play with," Hovanitz said.

KSBY first visited Hovanitz's home railroad back in June. It is the largest home railroad in California and perhaps the country with more than two miles of track winding through Hovanitz's Arroyo Grande property.

For Hovanitz, opening up his track to others is about sharing a hobby and preserving history.

"We have some historical models that we can actually operate to pull things," Hovanitz said. "We actually have some full-sized displays of some narrow gauged cars."

Bitter Creek Western Railroad attracts people from all over the Central Coast, state, country and globe.

However, the small-gauge railroad is at Hovanitz's private home so he can only open it to the public on rare occasions. So, he and fellow train lovers established a museum.

"We existed long ago as an HO hobby. We developed into live steam and many of the people developed into this railroad museum where we could have a more exposed to the people history," he said.


Hovanitz is a past-president and founding member of the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum, as is Brad LeRose.

"This is a 1940s era conductor's uniform, passenger uniform for Southern Pacific Railroad," LeRose said, showing off his authentic railroad attire as he gave KSBY a tour of the museum.

The historic freight house now houses artifacts from the Central Coast's pivotal railroad history.

"[The railroad] started with the Hartford Pier and gravity railroad, cars pulled by horse bringing in lumber from the steamers in Port San Luis or Port Hartford at the time. That was about 1873," LeRose said.

By 1901, the Southern Pacific Railroad had built rail-lines connecting San Luis Obispo to either end of the state.

"At that point you could make the trip to LA all the way up to San Francisco and back and anywhere that it connected," LeRose said.


Step into the museum's model train room and see the intricate work of master modelers. Volunteer artists work tirelessly to create elaborate displays of the rail-lines from Lompoc to Paso Robles.

As you walk into the model train room, you're greeted by a familiar building that still stands on Old Port Pier in Avila Beach. It was once a ticket office for the Pacific Coast Railway.

"If you were coming in on a steamer, got off the ship, go up the stairs, buy a ticket, take the train all the way into San Luis," LeRose said.


In many ways, the railroad made the Central Coast what it is today.

"This area is known as Cal Poly, as the Mission, it's the Central Coast of California," LeRose said. "Before there was a Cal Poly and when the Mission was in ruins before it was restore in 1894 with the [Southern Pacific] coming in, this is when the Central Coast blossomed."

Today, the railroad district in San Luis Obispo is a relatively quiet, quaint part of town but a century ago, it was bustling with activity.

"A hundred years ago, [the railroad] was the largest employer in town," LeRose said. "It had between 400-600 employees."

LeRose says preserving our railroad history is proving its importance, as train travel regains popularity in a more eco-conscience world.

"Back in the 20s and 30s when the only mode of transportation almost, the main transportation was railroads, there were a lot of trains coming through here," LeRose said. "There's a resurgence for a little bit more mass transit in California."


The railroad museum is full of hands-on exhibits for all ages.

Museum manager Diane Marchetti says the little ones especially enjoy the train tables.

"We have kids who are regulars. They tell their parents, 'I want to go to the train museum,'" Marchetti said.

Step outside the museum freight house and get up-close with four vintage rail cars and a locomotive.

Museum staff say these railroad relics spark memories for many visitors.

"We often learn things that we didn't know," Marchetti said. "We're here supposedly to teach other people about railroads but very often, they tell us things that we weren't even aware of which is wonderful. It's exciting to hear those stories."

From toy trains and small models, to small-gauge hobby trains and full-size cars, train enthusiasts are captivated by these symbols of engineering and innovation.

"We're like a big bunch of kids in here too. We run out and wave at the rain and the engineer going by and everyone coming from LA or San Francisco is waving back at us," LeRose said. "This is a gateway to the city and the Central Coast."

Our railroad history is stories and keeps chugging along as the Central Coast travels into the modern era.

The 10th annual Central Coast Railroad Festival wraps up Sunday with events across San Luis Obispo County.