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SLO Watertower

On my way back to the Bay Area from my Malibu adventure, I overnighted in San Luis Obispo. There was a water tower, across the line from the passenger depot that I wanted to add to my sketchbook. One of the few Southern Pacific water towers still standing in California.

I timed my visit with the arrival of Train # 14, the northbound Coast Starlight. This is an AMTRAK route that starts in Los Angles and terminates in Seattle, Washington.

I had about 20 minutes to sketch the water tower before the 14 pulled into San Luis Obispo. The train was already running 30 minutes late. I picked my position and started to sketch. A voice over my shoulder ask if was riding coach or had a roomette.

The voice belonged to an AMTRAK conductor who was about to board the train, SLO is a crew changeover point. I told him I wasn’t boarding the train, just sketching the tower. We had a conversation about other Southern Pacific existing water towers. He recommend a very large tower in the desert of Arizona that I should visit.

The Coast Starlight arriving at San Luis Obispo, 30 minutes late.

With the recent heavy precipitation over Donner Pass, I wondered aloud if the rotary plows at Roseville had been put to work to clear the pass. The conductor didn’t know. Before long the Coast Starlight pulled into the station and I looked down at my sketchbook and I hadn’t gotten very far but I had a nice conversation with a railroad working man. Two rail nerds chewing the fat!

SLO is was is called a stretch stop, also known in another time as a smoke stop, where the Starlight pauses for about 20 minutes so passengers can get out and stretch their legs, or poison their lungs with nicotine. This is also where crews, engineers and conductors, change over.

This photos says a lot. The conductor monitors the progress of boarding the train, baggage is being loading into the baggage car, and the engineers are changing over.

I couldn’t continue sketching because a double decker Superliner passenger car was now between myself and the historic water tower. So I watched the interactions on the platform instead. Passengers where doing laps, other where boarding, some hanging back from the train were vapping, and the train crew was in the process of changing over.

“All aboard!” And passengers filtered back into the cars. The locomotive sounded it’s horn. It was time for the Starlight to start its climb up the Horseshoe Curve on the Cuesta Grade and I watched the train slowly disappear around the curve.

I now turned back to the water tower and restarted my sketch.

The SLO 65,000 gallon water tower was built in 1940, at a cost of $2,130. The watertower was built across from the passenger station so steam locomotives could take on water without having to back into the yard further south down the track. At that time, ten passenger trains passed through SLO. The tank was in service until 1956, when steam was replaced with diesel on the coast line. The tower was preserved and restored by 1998.

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Southern Pacific Water Tower: Elmira

I planned to sketched the water tower at Black Butte, in the shadow of Mt. Shasta in Northern California.

I wanted to sketch this Southern Pacific water tower because of it’s historical significance and also because this is one of the few water towers still in operation as Union Pacific (it’s current owner) keeps this active to water any of UP’s heritage steam engines and other steam excursions that might pass this way. (SP 4449 topped up her tank here in the summer of 1991). The tower was built in 1926.

But not all plans come to fruition. I headed up to Weed to sketch the water tower only to find that the road leading to it was gated and all the signs around the area read “No Trespassing, Do Not Enter”. This area was still very much an active Class I railroad and I’m sure UP didn’t appreciated railroad gawkers and sketchers near their tracks.

So in order not to become a headline in the local paper, I chose to turn back towards Dunsmuir.

Steam engines cannot function without water. If water runs too low in the boiler it can result in a deadly boiler explosion. Therefore railroads built water tanks or towers near railroads, spaced out so there would be water along the line, when the locomotive became “thirsty”.

But I still wanted to sketch a more accessible Southern Pacific water tower so I did some research. I found that in the State of California, there are 16 Southern Pacific water towers still in existence. While I was not able to access one of those, there were still 15 left to find.

I hade seen the 65,000 gallon restored water tower across from the passenger station in San Luis Obispo. It was built in 1940 and was retired in 1956. I did have it on my sketch list but I didn’t get to it. One down, fifteen to go.

The restored Southern Pacific water tower in San Luis Obispo. This tower was slated to be torn down but local interests intervened and saved it from destruction.

I set my sights on the Southern Pacific water tower in the small Solano County town of Elmira (population 188).

Elmira was a major railroad stop in the early part of the 20th century as it was on the Cal-P line between Vallejo and Sacramento. At Elmira, there was a spur that went to Vacaville, Winters, and Rumsey as part of the Vaca Valley and Clear Lake Railroad. It is easy to understand why a water tower was built here because of the rail traffic and the spur.

Then U.S. Route 40 (now Interstate 80) was created as one the the first Interstate Highways in 1926. It was the first major east-west route, starting in Atlantic City, New Jersey and terminating in San Francisco. The route passed west of Elmira, through the town of Vacaville. Since that time the town of Elmira never recovered. As the population and development in Vacaville grew, the town of Elmira became a rural backwater with a shrinking population.

The same growth in the Nation’s Interstate Highway system also was the death knell for many railroads across the country with trucks and cars replacing freight and passenger service.

The last freight train to run on the spur to Vacaville was in 1985. After that the rails between Vacaville and Elmira were abandoned and then later removed.

The abandoned but still standing Southern Pacific water tower at Elmira. The tower is not fenced in and there are no historic signs about the tank. It looks to be similar to the 65,000 gallon tower in San Luis Obispo and I imagine that it was built in the 1930s or 40s and used up until the mid 1950s.

The passenger station is now gone but active double tracks still pass the abandoned and rusted water tower at Elmira. The Capital Corridor passenger service runs 16 trains every weekday. The 168 mile service runs from San Jose to the state capital in Sacramento. A few trains head further north to Auburn.

Looking north towards Davis and Sacramento. Two sets of polished tracks pass through Elmira. These rails get lots of use with 16 passenger trains on a normal weekday.
Westbound train number 729 passes by Elmira’s water tower at 9:28 AM on a Saturday morning at a rapid clip. There is no longer a passenger station in Elmira. The closest station is to the south at the Fairfield-Vacaville Station. On point is an EMD F59PHI with “California styling”.
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San Luis Obispo Station (Post #300!)

San Luis Obispo marks the midway point on the Coast Daylight passenger route between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The town is named after the Spanish mission that was founded in 1772 by Father Junípero Serra. It became an important railroad town because it was at the southern end of Cuesta Grade.

It was a division point on the then Southern Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific) and because of it, the town had shops to service the locomotives, a roundhouse to turn engines around, and a wye to turn the massive cab-forward around (because it could not fit on the turntable.) This large articulated 4-8-8-2 engine was designed to go through the long show sheds and tunnels over Donner Summit but later, in the 1950s, pulled freight over the coast line and acted as a help engine.

SLO Roundhouse

A quick brush-pen sketch of the site of the roundhouse and turntable. While now little is left of the roadhouse, at the height of operations, the yard employed 44 men. The pile in the foreground are rusted railroad spikes. The line of boxcars in the background have been waiting in storage on a track siding for three weeks.

It was here at San Luis Obispo that northbound Daylights took on a helper to make it over the Cuesta Grade and its where a southbound train had their helper locomotives taken off.

The passenger depot was built in 1943 in a Mission Revival Style, slightly echoing the Spanish Mission that the city is named after.

Across the tracks from the station is the 65,000 gallon water tower used to water the steam locomotives that worked this division. The tower was built in 1940 and has been saved from destruction by the city of SLO. Often engines and crew where changed here but the Daylight GS-4 locomotive would make the entire San Francisco to Los Angeles run without being changed out at San Luis Obispo.

The station is still used as a passenger station although freight trains over Cuesta Grade have stopped. Both the Coast Surfliner and the Coast Starlight stop at this station. But more on these routes in a later post.

Three hours after leaving Santa Cruz, I set up my camp/sketch chair across from the station and sketched an elevation view of SLO Station. It was a glorious morning!