Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

Bobby Boy’s Life List

A while back I did an article about Bucket Lists, things that people want to do before they “kick the bucket,” “cash in their chips,” “head for the Big Rock Candy Mountain” or become “late person.”   I consider that term rather morbid, and prefer to use “Life List,” which I borrowed from the birdwatchers or birding community.  What are some of the goals in life that we have reached?  The boxes we have checked off?  The been there, done that stories?


Pacific Electric Railway:  I’ve already covered PE fairly well, having lived next door to the Monrovia-Glendora Line for the first eleven years of my life.

Santa Fe Railway: My first main-line railroad trip was on Santa Fe Train 42, back in the mid 1940s. My parents took my brother and me on the above mentioned PE to Union Station from Arcadia.  This was back when the Jack Benny Show on the radio would, once or twice a year, have Jack going back to New York to take care of business.  He’d go to Union Station, where the PA announcer (probably Mel Blanc) would intone, “Train leaving on Track Five for Anaheim, Azusa and Cuuuuuuuc-amonga.” Train 42 didn’t go to Anaheim, but would stop at Azusa and Cucamonga.  But we only rode to Arcadia, never dreaming that someday the Santa Fe route would be transformed into an electric railway to…. Azusa!  Song: On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe from The Harvey Girls movie

A more up close and personal experience with steam power, albeit on a smaller scale, was an amusement park railway that was set up in the Five Points area on the east side of El Monte.  The steam engine was a one-third scale oilburner that had run on the Venice Miniature Railway as part of Abbot Kinney’s Venice development south of Santa Monica.  This was way in the past, and the 18” gauge train wound up at a place called Streamland just south of the Whittier Narrows Dam on the east side of Rosemead Boulevard.  The main thing I remember from the El Monte location was going through the tunnel and the smell of oily water vapor from the smokestack.  I would get this funky aroma years later when I had a Model A Ford with a missing floorboard.  Going through a puddle would cause the rainwater to splash on the exhaust pipe bringing back olfactory memories from the past.  Song: El Monte (there ain’t another place like it) heard on the Dr. Demento Show.

In 1951 came my first travel outside California, and it extended all the way across the US.  My mother and grandmother took Neale and me all the way to Boston by rail.  The first segment was on the Santa Fe, but it wasn’t on any of the trains that went through Pasadena and Monrovia.  We rode Train 24, the Grand Canyon, which went by way of Amarillo, Texas.  The top of the line trains, the Chief and the Super Chief, went over Raton Pass, out of Albuquerque, and Grandma’s doctor had warned about the altitude going that way, so we took the southern route, through the Texas Panhandle.  When we got to San Bernardino, we may have taken on a steam locomotive as a help to get us over the Cajon Pass.  I’m not sure whether this really happened, or was just my imagination, but some of the railfans I checked with said it was a possibility.  

 After spending my first night in a sleeping car, we were going through New Mexico.  Although we had a modern sleeper (probably handed down from the Super Chief) the next car was a relic of the 1920, what I would later learn was a “heavyweight” car— it was like stepping through a time portal.  We stopped in Clovis, years before it would become famous as the place where Buddy Holly recorded several of his hits.  After leaving Clovis, we crossed into Texas— there was a Welcome to Texas sign next to the road paralleling the tracks and I noticed that the road appear to be in better condition.  We went through Hereford, probable seeing some of the namesake cows.  We were in the lounge car for this part of the trip, and I remember looking out both sides and seeing nothing but flat land all the way to the horizon, a new experience for a San Gabriel Valley boy.  

We crossed Kansas at night, and at 3:45 p.m. the next afternoon, we arrived in Chicago.  This was back when Chi-town had over half a dozen railroad stations, so we rode in a Parmalee limo, with Neale and me in the jump seats.  Santa Fe used the Dearborn Street Station, which was not nearly as impressive as Union Station, and we were transported to LaSalle Street Station, to board the New York Central Lake Shore Limited. While we were on the ground, we encountered an organ grinder with a trained monkey— imagine what PETA would say about that!  But it was just a bit of big-city color for us suburbanites.  While we were waiting for the NYC train to be called, I could look out the window and see the elevated trains going by— another big-city sight I would not see again for 20 years.  

The Lake Shore was a step above the Grand Canyon; it even had an round-end observation car.  At one point in the trip, the conductor showed us how he could blow the horn from the rear of the train.  After another night in a sleeper, we arrived at Grand Central Terminal in New York around midday and checked into the Paramount Hotel on 46th Street.  This was my first time in a big-city hotel— we didn’t travel that much, and the only other lodging I remember is the Surf and Sand in San Diego.  I was impressed by the piped-in ice water but the room was rather close to the elevators.  Part of this adventure was seeing Time Square after dark; I particularly remember the Eveready battery ad with their trademark black cat jumping through a huge 9— their slogan was “The Battery with Nine Lives.”  Next day it was back to Grand Central for the ride to Boston   One rather eye-catching display at Grand Central was an animated ad for Hadacol, a patent medicine that originated in Louisiana.  It was said to contain vitamins, but the 12% alcohol probably did the most to make those who took it feel better.  It was a big deal in the summer of 1951, but by the end of the year the Feds had cracked down and put it out of business.

Song: East Side, West Side, All Around the Town.

From New York, we took the New Haven line to Boston, passing the AC Gilbert plant near New Haven, Conn, home of Erector Sets and American Flyer toy trains.  I remember being impressed by the electric overhead structures that provided power to the trains as far as New Haven, we were pulled the rest of the way by diesel power.  It’s only been in the last 20 years or so that the wires have gone all the way to Boston.  From Boston, we took a New Haven RR local to Norwood, where my mother’s Aunt Lizzie lived.  Many interesting experiences here, including riding the 2-foot gauge Edaville RR through the cranberry bogs of South Carver, Mass.  Back in Norwood, Neale and I went to the local forest preserve and picked wild blueberries, which were used for blueberry pancakes the next morning.  

Song: “Blueberries” by the Cheers, on Capitol Records.

I don’t remember the details of where we went, but one day we rode one of the Boston Elevated trains to downtown.  I also remember riding in a cousin’s Studebaker through Boston streets that were still paved with stone block and illuminated with gas lights.  When it was time to go home, we took the New York Central New England States, bypassing New York, and took the westbound Grand Canyon back to California.  After crossing Massachusetts, the NYC train went through Albany, and followed the Mohawk River upstream.  At one point a passenger show Neale and me a stretch of the Erie Canal. Songs: MTA by the Kingston Trio and Erie Canal  (traditional).

Bob Davis, intrepid news reporter...  well, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but one of my main activities at Monrovia-Duarte High was working on the staff of the Wildcat, our school newspaper.  It’s one of the reasons why I crank out this monthly meandering about eclectic events.  When our Editor invited me to join DaBelly.com, I imagined Mrs. Thompson, our journalism teacher to be smiling at the great newsroom in the sky.  One subject I’ve covered fairly well in previous columns is my interest in popular music in general, and rhythm & blues of the 1950s in particular.  I did some record reviews in the Wildcat, and turned pro by working as a part-time sales clerk at Johnson Music in downtown Monrovia.  I didn’t have to apply for the job— I hung around there so much, Mr. Johnson finally asked, “Would you like to work here?”  So began my first day job and learning the basics of retail trade at ground level. 

Song: Get a Job by the Silhouettes on Ember records.

In June 1958, I graduated from M-D High; one of my graduation presents was a Minolta “A” 35mm camera, which I used until it finally wore out.  My interest in trains was rather intermittent at the time, but I did take some photos like this one of the Pacific Electric local bringing an empty boxcar back from Arcadia.  This area, a few blocks from my home on 5th Avenue, is unrecognizable now— even where I was standing has been filled in to grade level, at least 8 feet above this spot. 

Shortly after I took this photo, I left for college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the only time  I have ever had a mailing address outside of the San Gabriel Valley.  This was my first time living away from home and also my only military experience, since I chose ROTC rather than Phys Ed.  When I uncover some photos, I’ll go into more detail, including such customs as going up to the Student Union on Fridaynight to watch Peter Gunn on the TV.  

Song: Bright College Days by Tom Lehrer.

I’ll fill in the details in another column, but to be brief, I dropped out of college, married Rosemary, my editor from the school newspaper and had two daughters, Kathryn and Victoria in the early 1960s. 

Song: Family Affair by Sly and the Family Stone.

In 1963, my dormant interest in railways was revived when I joined what was then Orange Empire Trolley Museum in Perris.  It was here that my boyhood dream of running a streetcar came true.  

Song:All That You Dream by Linda Ronstadt.

After an assortment of jobs as an electronic technician for local manufacturing companies (most of which no longer exist), I went to work for the Santa Fe Railway as a radio tech, working first at Los Angeles and then at the San Bernardino Radio Shop. 

 Song: (what else?)  I’ve Been Working on the Railroad (traditional).

In August 1970, I used my Santa Fe pass privileges to take Kathy and Vicky on their first visit to San Francisco.  Rosemary brought them out to San Bernardino, and I got permission to leave work early so we could catch the Super Chief-El Capitan to Barstow, where we would transfer to the San Francisco Chief.  This would be their first overnight train ride, and when we got to The City, their first stay in a downtown hotel.  We lodged at the Golden State Hotel on Powell Street and our room looked out on the cable car line.  I just about had to put safety harnesses on the girls so they wouldn’t lean too far.  When I look back on this excursion, I think of how if a dad did this today, he’d need a notarized letter from the mother certifying that the children were on a trip with her approval.  During the afternoon, I took them to the cable car barn, and we went into the lower level where they could see the winding machinery and the workshop where parts could be repaired and made.  We also rode the electric streetcars, which they had done at Orange Empire, but never in real city streets.  

Song: I Left My Heart in San Francisco by Tony Bennett.

Here are the girls, learning about railroading at the Santa Fe house track. 

That’s all for this month—we’ll add some more in April and maybe have a musical entry.

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