The Pacific Coast Company

by Gerald M. Best

Reviews of the Signature Press Printing:

Review from Railroad History, No. 179, Autumn, 1998

"The late Gerald M. Best was among America's finest rail historians, writing on a wide range of subjects in detailed but highly readable fashion. His outstanding 1964 Ships and Narrow Gauge Rails: The Story of the Pacific Coast Company has now been reprinted with a revised title by Signature Press. Its format is identical to the original, but the photographs benefit from lighter printing.

"The Pacific Coast Company operated from Alaska to San Diego, with ships, railroads, and harbor facilities under the titles Pacific Coast Railway, Pacific Coast Railroad, and Pacific Coast Steamship. Its railroads included narrow gauge, standard gauge, and electric traction. The earliest rail operation served a predecessor company' s wharf at San Diego. This short line used dummy steam locomotives to transfer cars because the wharf could not accommodate regular steam power. The wharf trackage was abandoned in 1917.

"The company is best known for its narrow-gauge Pacific Coast Railway, an 80-plus-mile line headquartered in San Luis Obispo, California. This railroad predated Southern Pacific's Coast Line, which reached that area from the north in 1894. Port Harford on San Luis Obispo Bay was connected to the city itself by the San Luis Obispo Railroad. The more ambitious San Luis Obispo & Santa Maria Valley Railroad was later completed to Los Olivos and merged with the earlier line as the Pacific Coast Railway. Around the turn of the century, a large beet-sugar industry and oil discoveries greatly expanded the original rural traffic base. The electrified Guadalupe branch, serving the sugar factory, offered interurban passenger service until 1928. Abandonments started in 1936, and by 1942 the Pacific Coast Railway was history. Some of its equipment served on, however, in Hawaii and Alaska.

"The Pacific Coast Railroad, formed in 1916, began as the Seattle & Walla Walla. Later mergers and expansions took place under other names, and portions of these lines were eventually used by the Northern Pacific, the Great Northern, and the Milwaukee.

"As always with Gerald Best's books, the roster information is detailed and complete. This book's unusual range of subject matter will appeal to both rail and steamship fans.."

-- James L. Martin


Review from Railroad Model Craftsman magazine, May, 1998

"This detailed account of the Pacific Coast Company's marine and rail operations was first published under the title Ships and Narrow Gauge Rails in 1964 and has long been out of print. As the original [Howell-North] version would have been hard to improve upon, Signature Press wisely left the book alone except for changing the title (to better describe its contents) and giving it a new cover and dust jacket. Everything else in the new printing looks exactly like the old one, examples of which were becoming increasingly scarce and costly on the second-hand market.

"With origins dating back to the construction of a wharf in San Luis Obispo in 1869, the Pacific Coast Company rapidly evolved into a sprawling transportation network at a time when travel by land along the Pacific Coast ranged from difficult to impossible. At its peak arou;nd 1915, the company operated a fleet of seventy steamships serving the entire coast from Mexico to Alaska, as well as several railway lines radiating out from various ports of call. And although the company dwindled in importance during the 1920s and '30s, it did not completely disappear until 1965, when the Pacific Coast Railroad in Washington state was finally absorbed into the Great Northern.

"What initially captured Gerald Best's attention was the Pacific Coast narrow gauge line from San Luis Obispo Bay through Santa Maria to Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez Valley of central California. This line was still operating when Best came to California in the 1920s and he personally witnessed its declining years until the last of its rails was pulled up in 1942. A lesser historian would have been content to write a book about this anachronistic little railroad alone, but Best realized that the story of the PC narrow gauge was inextricably entwined with that of the Pacific Cost Company's steamship line and its other railroads, so the book that resulted surveyed all aspects of the company's operations: the shipping line, the wharf railroad in San Diego, the Pacific Coast narrow gauge, and the standard-gauge Pacific Coast rail lines in the Puget Sound area.

"The history of the company and its various enterprises was a complicated maze, but Best unraveled it with exemplary attention to detail. He provided a copiously illustrated list of every ship the Pacific Coast Company ever owned; complete rosters of all its locomotives and rolling stock, both narrow gauge and standard gauge; even tables listing all of the company's presidents and railroad managers. His book also included an extraordinary array of historic photographs.

"All this information could easily have congealed into a dense and impenetrable mass, but Best organized it so effectively and wrote about it so lucidly that his account is relatively effortless to read. Few professional scholars manage complicated data so well--but then, Best was clearly an inspired amateur, and it's small wonder that, amateur or not, he was widely regarded as one of the most accomplished railroad historians of his generation.

"Readers with no more than a superficial curiosity about the Pacific Coast Company's quaintly antiquated railroad operations will doubtless find Best's book to be overkill. On the other hand, anyone with a serious interest in these little-known short lines, in obscure narrow-gauge railroads, or in Western railroad history in general has to regard the reprinting of The Pacific Coast Companyas long overdue. It's a landmark book in railroad history, perhaps as much for its comprehensiveness and clarity as for the subject matter itself."

-- Richard H. Hendrickson


Review from Vintage Rails magazine, May/June, 1998

"The Pacific Coast Company was an extensive rail-marine operation which served the West Coast of the United States and its territories, from San Diego to Alaska. Started as a series of horse-drawn railroads serving steamship piers, the Pacific Coast Company railroads developed and flourished along with the states of California, Oregon, and Washington.

"With well-written and informative text, plus 10 maps and nearly 200 black and white photographs, the late author presented a thorough look at this important operation. The Signature Press reprint is of excellent quality and presents the original Howell-North version without significant alterations (i.e. the reader will recognize the layout as that of Howell-North, which is a good thing in this reader's opinion). Although Best covered rail operations in San Diego and Washington, as well as the ships, he concentrated on the narrow gauge railroad in San Luis Obispo, California. Historians and fans of railroading in central California will welcome the opportunity to acquire this long out-of-print work."

-- Brian Jennison


Review in the The San Francisco Chronicle Book Section, Dec. 14, 1997

"An interesting story awaits about Richard Henry Dana's cousin, Captain William G. Dana, in The Pacific Coast Company. Dana, fresh from travels in the Sandwich Islands, obtained a grant of 37,887 acres near San Luis Obispo, built an adobe house there in 1839 and raised a family of 21 children. No word of Mrs. Dana's health is recorded, but author Best points out that Dana's son John sponsored a railroad in the area. That small event, combined with the creation of hundreds of trains and steamships from Vancouver to San Diego, eventually led to the incredible lacework of transportation called the Pacific Coast Company.

"With rare photos and a text that's persnickety in every detail, the book shows how the horse-drawn flatcars of the late 1860s carried cargo right off the ships to the outer end of the wharves by narrow-gauge railroads. As steam engines took over, the long trestles (you can still see the stumps at low tide in Avila Bay) carried cargo and passengers to the "rolling stock" of an expanding network of railroads and ships that by 1916 was gloriously efficient and invigorating for travelers and workers alike.

"Photos of the steamships, locomotives, double-enders, link-and-pin couplers, spark arresters, stub switches and abandoned roadbeds bring the nose to the page repeatedly in The Pacific Coast Company."

-- Patricia Holt