San Luis Obispo resident Andrew Merriam began recreating the area between Santa Margarita and Guadalupe 20 years ago. His work is on a 60-foot, circa-1953 model railroad layout from that area, and every detail is important — trees, signal lights; even a hobo sleeping with his dog in a culvert are included. It’s not just putting a train on a track and racing it down to the end of the room, Merriam said — building the layout is a totality for him.
“It’s ongoing,” Merriam said. “It’s not done by a long-shot.”
Merriam’s layout will be available for public viewing on Sunday during the third annual Central Coast Railroad Festival. The event, which runs from Oct. 6 to 10, is a chance for model train enthusiasts and fans of the railroad to celebrate and remember the history of railroads.
Festival director Curtis Reinhardt said the event is intended to promote these aspects of the railroad. The event drew approximately 5,000 people last year, he said, and he hopes it will bring more this year.
“It’s great for all the locals, but it brings the out-of-towners too,” Reinhardt said. “It’s fun to know history. It gives you a better grasp of who you are and where you came from.”
The festival will offer a variety of activities for everyone, including lectures on railroading and train modeling at the Quality Suites San Luis Obispo, an Amtrak Coast Starlight train ride up the Cuesta Grade to visit local wineries and model boxcar-building classes for kids at the San Luis Obispo County Library.
California musician Don Lampson will sing railroad and hobo songs at four concerts during the festival, and share stories with audiences afterward. Lampson grew up near the railroad in Newhall, Calif. and walked through two hobo camps or “jungles” to get to school. He’s always had a fascination with trains, and while he was growing up, steam trains were past their heyday.
Lampson said people aren’t fascinated with trains today because trains aren’t the same as they used to be — the romance of the railroad is gone, he said.
“The train came by all the time … I always would wish I was on it, that I was going where it was going,” Lampson said. “I realized I was very privileged to see an era disappearing.”
The festival also features a self-guided tour of model train layouts in towns around the Central Coast. Reinhardt said some layouts are owned by railroad organizations, such as the San Luis Obispo Model Railroad Association, and others by Central Coast residents.
Compared to previous years, the festival is more streamlined, Reinhardt said. The website has improved this year, and the event has also gotten more out-of-town advertising. Also, most of the activities at the festival are free.
One of the ongoing activities is the model layout tour. The tour was organized by Bob Chaparro, the moderator of Model Railroads of Southern California, an online organization with 1,400 members that shares information about model railroads and sponsors layout tours.
Chaparro said he heard about the second festival last year and noticed it didn’t have a layout tour, so he contacted Reinhardt and offered to set one up. The Central Coast Railroad Festival ranked with the better festivals he’s been to, Chaparro said. He recalled one man who owned a layout in Atascadero who had approximately 60 people come to his house during the festival last year and was ecstatic about it.
“You’ve got the beauty of the Central Coast, you’ve got the wineries. And you’ve got the general history of the Central Coast, which is different from the Bay Area or Southern California,” Chaparro said.
The festival is Reinhardt’s brainchild — he grew up in a railroad family and moved to the area approximately 12 years ago. He said he had a vested interest in local railroad organizations — he’s been the vice-president of the San Luis Obispo Model Railroad Association for several years and an active member of the San Luis Obispo Raiload Museum for approximately 10. Reinhardt has experience in promoting events like concerts and festivals, and said if he could organize an event that tied-in railroading with tourism, it could become a destination event and raise the visibility of those organizations.
“If you don’t have special events the tourism gets kind of stagnant,” Reinhardt said. “You need some extra event that gives people an impetus to keep coming back more frequently.”
Reinhardt also said railroads are part of our culture and history, and helped develop commerce and society all around the country. The Pacific Coast Railway really helped San Luis Obispo expand, he said — there was very limited access to the city from the north and the railroad brought goods from Avila Beach.
“It’s a diversion, it’s interesting, it has historical significance and it’s fun,” Reinhardt said.
One festival activity will be held by the History Center of San Luis Obispo County — they will offer festival attendees a chance to try out the Center’s podcast walking tour of the San Luis Obispo Historic Railroad District on iPods on Saturday.
Chief administrative officer Erin Newman said there is a sort of cult-following of people who travel around the country and attend these festivals, and specific kinds of histories, such as the history of railroads have a base of followers.
“San Luis Obispo as a city does value history tremendously,” Newman said. “The city of San Luis Obispo would not be what it is without the coming of the railroad.”