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Looking Back to April 1954: Local man dies in gravel pit slide 

Looking Back Paso Robles

This look back at Paso Robles history comes from local newspapers in the Paso Robles Area Historical Society collection. News for this column is selected with the assistance of Research Director Jan Cannon. Newspaper photography by GiGi Green.

Excerpts from the Thursday, April 1, 1954, Paso Robles Journal

Ross M. Knoeppel dies in pit slide

A Paso Robles gravel-pit operator, buried alive Saturday afternoon under tons of rock that cascaded into a prospecting trench, died before a rescue crew, clawing frantically through the loose rubble, could reach the entombed man.

Rock shearing from the lip of Southern Pacific Milling Company’s excavation two miles south of Paso Robles, plunged thirty feet to the pit floor, snapping shut a slit trench in which Ross Knoeppel and George Leal were working.

Knoeppel, 42-year-old branch manager of the firm’s aggregate division, apparently was pinned by the collapsing walls. Leal, digging several feet in front of Knoeppel, made a desperate leap as the slide roared in on them and, although buried to the neck, kept his head clear as the gravel formed a three-foot mound over the head of his helpless companion.

Knoeppel’s body had been pulled from the slide when city police chief Elmer Morehouse and two volunteer firemen, Bob Muir and Allen Dale, arrived with a resuscitator. Knoeppel was pronounced dead when, after thirty minutes, he failed to respond to all treatment.

Paso Robles history

The victim’s body was taken to Kuehl Funeral Home. Leal, employed by Southern Pacific Milling Company as maintenance superintendent of the northern district, was able, after being treated for shock, to return to his home in Santa Maria.

Ross M. Koeppel, born in San Jose, California, June 21, 1911, and a resident of Paso Robles since 1935, had been employed by Southern Pacific for eight months. He, his wife Anne, and the couple’s two children, Ross Jr., and Gary, made their home at 521 Olive Drive. Surviving Knoeppel, in addition to his wife and sons, are his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Matth Knoeppel.


Masonic services were held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Kuehl Chapel, with the Rev. Gilbert Gray, pastor of the Methodist Church, officiating, preceding internment in the Paso Robles district cemetery.

Borrows car, $100 to run cigarette errand

Nowhere in Paso Robles could you buy a package of cigarettes last night. This was apparent when a hitch-hiker, who was given a buck and allegedly stole 99 more to make the purchase was found in King City after “borrowing” his benefactor’s car in Paso Robles to run the errand, according to local police reports today.

Report of the car theft came in at 7:45 p.m. yesterday from George Myers who was visiting with his sister, Mrs. Robert Horton of Paso Robles.

Myers told police that he had picked up a hitchhiker in Ventura late Tuesday afternoon enroute to this city. The “thumber” was later identified as James Butler, 24, no address given.

Upon arrival in Paso, Myers invited Butler to wait for him since he would be continuing on a trip north. The youth then asked if he could “borrow” Myers car “to go downtown and get some cigarettes,” Chief Elmer Morehouse said the victim related.

Butler readily accepted a dollar bill from Myers for the cigs and the culprit went merrily on his way downtown, stopping only on his way out of the Horton home to filch $99.50 from his hostess’s wallet, according to Morehouse.

No cigarettes

The errand led to King City where police there had received a teletype message of the stolen car. Butler was arrested and the cash loss recovered as well as the automobile. He told police he was on his way to Santa Cruz and to top it all off—he couldn’t produce a cigarette.

Butler, police said, will have a chance to see what brand of cigarettes the district attorney smokes today in a session at San Luis Obispo. He was charged with care theft and a possible larceny account may be entered against him following his tete-a-tete with the D.A.

Read previous Looking Back articles

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About the author: Reporter Jackie Iddings

Jackie Iddings is a contributing reporter and photographer for the Paso Robles Daily News.