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News & Stories from Avila Beach Golf Resort

The Storied Start to Avila's Railroad Era


The rich history of the railroad in San Luis Obispo County and the Central Coast begins with a literal bit of “horsepower” right here in Avila Beach.


Avila Beach belongs to a rich legacy of local history. At Avila Beach Golf Resort, we are proud to be a part of this history, and to share in the welcoming heritage of our community. In celebration of our 50th anniversary this year, we are pleased to launch a series of monthly stories that explore our region’s past and reveal the founding roots that endure to this day. 

Indeed, the origins of the storied Pacific Coast Railway started around 1873 when local entrepreneur John Harford established a horse-powered tram to ferry passengers and goods between Harford Wharf (now Port San Luis) and a wagon road in what would become known as Avila Beach.

At the time, San Luis Bay was a budding commercial epicenter, distinguished by its deep waters and centralized location. Popular early exports included hides and tallow from nearby ranches, while flour and sugar were among the regular imports. After the Civil War, agricultural exports began to take off as settlers arrived to work the fertile lands of the Central Coast.  

Two small wharves opened for business on the bay in the mid 1800s: Cave Landing (also known as Mallagh’s Landing and located the area of present-day Pirate’s Cove) and the People’s Wharf. Yet as noted in the seminal book The Pacific Coast Railway, “Anchorage…was precarious at both of these wharves, especially during the heavy southwesterly storms common along this coast in winter.”

Harford, who was an investor in the People’s Wharf, aimed for calmer waters in the late 1860s by building the new 540-foot-long wharf in the area of present-day Port San Luis. There was one hitch: it was 1.5 miles from the settlement that would become known as Avila Beach.

With necessity being the mother of invention, Harford alighted on the idea of the horse-powered tramway that would become one of the first narrow-gauge land railroads in California. Six horses would pull a train of three tram cars up an 80-foot bluff and through a short tunnel as they made their way toward the settlement. At the crown of the bluff, the tired horses were unhitched, and gravity did the rest of the work as the cars coasted downhill the rest of the way.

Harford’s big commercial bet on San Luis Obispo Bay paid off, and in the words of local historian Daniel Krieger, “Harford’s success attracted the attention of investors up and down the Pacific coast.”

The San Luis Obispo Railway was incorporated in 1873 to create a 10-mile railroad that would connect Harford’s tram line to a line that extended into San Luis Obispo. However, a powerful rival company soon emerged: the San Luis Obispo & Santa Maria Valley Railroad. The San Luis Obispo Railway folded in 1875 and its right of way was signed over to its competitor.

The San Luis Obispo & Santa Maria Valley Railroad soon laid a three-foot narrow-gauge track. A Baldwin 2-4-2T locomotive (named SLO&SMV #1, AVILA) was acquired along with 10 boxcars and a passenger coach.

The track roughly followed the path of what is today known as Avila Beach Drive and the Bob Jones Trail, with a cut-through across the area of Hole 11 at Avila Beach Golf Resort. There was a bridge over the mouth of San Luis Obispo Creek—just as there is today—and another over the creek along what is today Hole 10. There is a distinct notch in the terrain that is part of the playing experience at Hole 11—an enduring remnant of the railroad cut-through!  

The first “real trip” from Port Harford to San Luis Obispo occurred on December 11, 1876—and thus the golden era of the railroad in Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo County had begun. As the aforementioned book noted, “By 1878, the railroad between Port Harford and San Luis Obispo was a going proposition and a boon to the region.”

Nevertheless, some hard times befell the railroad—including an accident with the locomotive JOHN HARFORD near Avila—and a series of mergers ensued. In the early 1880s, the railroad reached new destination milestones in Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria and Los Alamos. These mergers and milestones ultimately marked the beginning of what would become the famed Pacific Coast Railway, which we will cover in a future story.

For now, the next time you drive from Port San Luis to Avila Beach along Avila Beach Drive, imagine what it would have been like 100 years ago, traveling by train along this very same path. As you cross the bridge at San Luis Obispo Creek near Avila Beach Golf Resort, you can imagine the thrill of newcomers as they traversed “Bridge #5” and laid their eyes on this beautiful seaside town that would one day become the Avila Beach we all know and love.

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Sources: The Pacific Coast Railway by Kenneth E. Westcott and Curtiss H. Johnson; An Industrial Village on The Pacific Coast by Daniel E. Krieger, Ph. D.