What would it have been like to travel by train from Los Angeles to San Francisco when the line first opened? I just unearthed essays written by my grandfather, A. Edward Telleen, who grew up near Paso Robles in the late 1800s. His description of the thrill of skimming the littoral between mountain and sea recalled my own love of this beautiful stretch of earth.
Here is an abbreviated version of Telleen’s “A Great Scenic Railroad,” penned about 1897.
“A direct coast line between San Francisco and Los Angeles has recently been completed. The almost insurmountable obstacles of mountain and canyon have been overcome. This line has been driven through a portion of nature’s wonderland as magnificent to contemplate as it was difficult to conquer.
Starting at the beautiful city of Los Angeles our train takes us through a country noted for its tropical fruits to the equally beautiful city of Santa Barbara. From Santa Barbara the line runs almost due west to Pt. Conception. It would seem that at some former period the foothills, which elsewhere give gradual approach to the coast range, had here been swallowed up by the sea.
Towering mountains rise directly from the boiling surf, and so precipitous are their sides at places that engineering skill has been taxed to its utmost to find a foothold for the road. The elevation of the train above the Pacific is just enough to afford the best light and the most desirable view, the angle of vision causing rainbows of every size to form in cloud of spray above the rolling breakers.
At Gaviota a large steel viaduct about 800 feet in length is crossed and the little Spanish town of shacks and cabins is seen nestling almost under the web-like supports of the bridge, which spans the entire town.
Beyond this village is one of the typical views of the line. A towering mountain comes down, as it were, into the sea. The train enters a shallow cut along the side of the mountain, and when a curve is round, away off across miles of water is seen the Pt. Conception light-house.
Further on near a place called Agua Caliente the mountain range seems to divide, and a canyon of great width and depth is spanned by another of those tremendous viaducts. With no support visible from the interior of the car, the tourist is whirled across the abyss a hundred feet in the air with nothing in view below but a narrow strip of sand, and the roaring surf of the Pacific.
It may be of interest to note that one of the largest railroad fills in the world is found on this line. The length of the fill is about 1600 feet, height 74 feet, and it required 275,000 cubic yards of earth and rock to build it.
At Surf one of the finest marine views in the world is to be seen. All the currents of the sea appear bent upon coming ashore at this point, and it is said to be impossible for any living creature to swim in its turbulent waters. The new government lighthouse at point Arguello is visible from this place.
An hour’s run north from San Luis Obispo, Templeton is reached. Not far from there are the Santa Ysabel medical springs to the number of a score or more. These waters are known to cure man of the ills of mankind.
The completion of this railroad is of the greatest significance, since it facilitates the shipping of fruit from the southern part of the State, and at the same time enabling the southern counties to compete with the northern to better advantage. It is also of great advantage to the tourist. Instead of traveling through a dry and barren country as formerly, he can now enjoy a trip of richest scenery the whole length of the state.
Thanks to the foresightedness of men and women over the past 125 years, this journey still features awe-inspiring beauty. Despite the intervening developments of automobiles, computers, and internet, you can time-travel back to the spectacular scenery that was and still is. As for the future, that’s up to each of us.”
— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.