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Pacific Coast and Southern Pacific Railraod

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

Railroads were crucial to transportation within San Luis Obispo County, as well as communicating with the State and Country. The Pacific Coast and Southern Pacific Railroads strengthened the transportation system in San Luis Obispo County; however, this task could not be completed without the help of the Chinese laborers.

Wharf and narrow gauge railroad (Photo Courtesy of Elliot Gong)

Pacific Coast Railroad

1873 -

  • John Hartford, W. S. Chapman, W. L. Beebee, and L. Schwartz make plans to:

  • build a new wharf at the northern end of San Luis Bay

  • construct a horse car line from Port Harford to Avila

  • fare was ninety cents one-way, or $1.25 round trip

  • build a narrow gauge railroad from Avila to San Luis Obispo

  • the San Luis Obispo Railroad Company is formed

  • Ah Louis is the labor contractor

1874 -

  • A rival is found in the Santa Maria Valley Railroad Company

  • wanted to build a railroad from San Luis Bay to Santa Maria Valley

  • bought land parallel to San Luis Obispo Railroad company

  • acquired Chinese laborers with prior experience on building the Central Pacific railroad to work

  • way better than the ranch hands used by the Norcross on the San Luis Obispo Railroad line

1875 -

  • San Luis Obispo Railroad Company and Santa Maria Railroad Company merge

  • John Hartford sells the wharf and horse car line to the newly formed company for $30,000

1876 -

  • Railroad from Avila to San Luis Obispo is completed

  • costed $180,000, plus $30,000 paid to Hartford

  • fare was eight cents per mile for passengers

  • fare was fifteen cents per ton, per mile for freight

1881 -

  • Railroad to Arroyo Grande begins construction

  • Chinese track layers laid the tracks

  • Only 25 Chinese men were hired

  • They did not come into contact with the Whites

  • While Chinese labor was used on the railroad from Avila to San Luis Obispo, the railroad company tried to hire only White laborers to work on this segment of the railroad

1882 -

  • The railroad is extended to Santa Maria and then Los Olivos

  • The name of the railroad company is changed to Pacific Coast Railway

1883 -

  • The railway between Port Harford and Avila is rebuilt because the old horse car line was out of date

  • Chinese were the laborers

1887 -

  • The Pacific Coast Railway is completed to Los Olivos

  • Chinese labor was used to build the railraod, as well as build structures such as hotels

  • Likely contracted through Ah Louis

Southern Pacific Railroad

1885 -

  • Plan to build a railroad that runs through San Luis Obispo from San Francisco to Los Angeles

1886 -

  • Work on the railraod progresses rapidly, south of Soledad

  • 1500 Chinese laborers worked on the railroad

  • Railroad company announces they would "give employment to all white laborers desirous of working on the railraod extension from Soledad" (Ochs).

1887 -

  • One-third of the county's population work on the railraods

1888 -

  • Work is temporarily halted in Templeton

  • The Tribune prints a letter from the Southern Pacific Railroad company saying that if citizens would like the railraod, they must also provide the land

  • The response was favorable, so work continued out of Templeton

  • In October, 150 Chinese laborers and 100 White laborers worked on the railraod

  • In December, 800 Chinese laborers and only a handful of White laborers worked on the railroad

  • Chinese cooks were also present, feeding the laborers

  • There were so many Chinese laborers at the time because their contract with the Southern Pacific Railroad company was about the expire, but the company wanted the railroad finished by them through Santa Margarita.

  • This is because the Chinese were being paid $1.10 per day, but the company suspected the Chinese would demand $1.50 per day, a pay rate the company did not agree to.

  • Instead, they wanted to hire White labor instead - but the Whites were paid the larger amount.

  • From then on, evidence shows that the Chinese were still hired as cooks, but the press and railroad company made no mention of Chinese laborers, so whether or not Chinese laborers were hired to work on the railraods from 1890 on remains a mystery. Ah Louis said his laborers worked with the Pacific Coast Railway, but never mentioned the Southern Pacific Railroad Company.

To learn more about the Chinese Contribution to the San Luis Obispo Railraods, you can watch Elliot Gong's video featuring professor emeritus Dr. Dan Krieger and read more here. There is also evidence here that the Chinese built these railraods from Howard Louis and the Southern Pacific Railway Company. Interested in researching more? You can head over to the History Center of San Luis Obispo County, where the information from this blog came from.

Works Cited

Ochs, Mary "Master's Thesis" Cal Poly SLO, 1966, Ch. 4

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