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John Harford's Railroad.

By Randy Hees

T he California coast line has few natural harbors and the European settlement of the areas between was dependent on the sea for transportation of people, manufactured goods and farm products. This slowly changed with the coming of the railroads (to San Luis Obispo from the north in 1894 and to Los Angeles in August 1900) and then eventually with the coming of improved roads. San Luis Bay, was one of the few sheltered spots along the central California coast which offered a place to build a wharf where ships could call to load or unload freight and passengers. The earliest landing was built at a site known as Cave Landing in 1855. The landing was about a mile and a half south of Alvia, at the mouth of San Luis Creek, with a stagecoach to carry passengers inland to the village which had developed near Mission San Luis Obispo. After more than 10 years of operation, and several changes of ownership, the site became known as Mallagh's Landing.

In 1868, a consortium of local merchants lead by local lumber merchant John Harford, built a new wharf close to the mouth of San Luis creek at the site of what would become the town of Avilia. The project, named "The People's Wharf," included a narrow gauge horse powered tramway (possibly less than 1000' long) on the wharf to a warehouse on shore, in what would become Avila. The new wharf opened in September 1869. Due to existing contracts with the passenger steamers, the new wharf initially only served the lumber trade, and as a result failed by 1872. A new consortium, again lead by John Harford, this time including at least one Steamer Captain purchased the Peoples Wharf Co., hired Mallagh as manager, and the "Peoples Wharf" became the dominant local wharf.

As early as 1871, John Harford was working on his own project to build yet another new wharf, two miles north of San Luis Creek, in the protected lee of Point San Luis. It was this project that would eventually lead to what is known as the Pacific Coast Railroad. The new project was built slowly with limited resources. It included a 540' wharf that reached out to water 15' deep, with a 30" gauge from wharf end, to land. It then climbed to an 80' elevation in only 2,000', (a 4% grade) along the bluffs following the ocean, through a tunnel, then along a general level route to the Valley of San Luis Creek, then down to the Peoples Wharf warehouse. Rails and cars were delivered in June of 1873, and the wharf and railroad opened in September 1873. The railroad had 10 flat cars, one equipped with benches for passengers. Operations called for horses to pull trains, typically of three cars, pulled by 6 horses, to the high point on the line, where the horses would be unhitched, with the cars then drifting downhill powered by gravity. At the end of the line, passengers and freight would transfer to stage coaches, wagons, and ox carts to continue their journey inland.

By October 1873 at least 4 ships were calling on the Harford's new "railroad" wharf. The older "Peoples Wharf" was leased to Goodall, Nelson & Perkins with their 4 steamers. The result was a commercial boom for the area with no less than 8 ships calling regularly. Due to competition, freight rates fell by 50 cents a ton. The success of the new wharf and tramway brought new proposals and development. The first project proposed was the San Luis Obispo Railroad, proposed to be a 30" gauge railroad. This proposal called for 2 locomotives, 18 freight cars, 40 "timber cars" and a passenger coach, but it never went beyond the paper stage. The next railroad that was built was supported by local leaders and Goodall, Nelson & Perkins. The San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria Valley Railroad's 36" gauge line, was built at a town at the mouth of San Luis Creek, to be called Avila.

In the summer of 1874, John Harford sold his railroad and wharf to the SLO&SMV railroad and joined the new company as a director. A locomotive and cars for the new 3' gauge SLO&SMV railroad were landed at John Harford's railroad wharf on November 8th 1875 and service started in December. With the new railroad in operation along the beach, the old horse powered line high on the bluff was abandoned after just two years operation.


Revised: December 30, 2014.
Bibliography.
Best, Gerald M, Ships and Narrow Gauge Rails, the story of the Pacific Coast Company. Howell-North. Berkeley. 1964 (reprinted by Howell North, 1981, ISBN 9780831070427, and by Signature Press, 1998, 9780963379115)
Westcott, Kenneth E. and Johnson, Curtiss H. The Pacific Coast Railway, Central California's Premier Narrow Gauge. Benchmark Publications. Los Altos CA. 1998. ISBN 0-9615467-4-3

California \ John Harford's Railroad
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