Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

Bobby Boy Rides the Rails

Many years ago one of my colleagues had heard me talking about Orange Empire Railway Museum and came out to see what it was that made it such a part of my life.  After getting the VIP tour, my friend, who was originally from Mexico, said, “Among my people, we have a saying, Cada Loco con Su Tema. "  I told him, “I know enough Spanish to figure out what it means, but it’s probably an idiomatic expression that doesn’t translate literally.”  He said, “It’s ‘Every nut with his thing’.”  “Yep, that’s about how it is.”  But I also tell people that music keeps me from being a total “foamer” (obsessed railway enthusiast) and railroading keeps me from being a total fanboy.

Unlike many railfans who have gone from watching and riding trains and trolley cars to preserving historic examples of bygone technology, I went the other way, going from preservation to seeking out railway operations, especially those using old or unusual equipment.  One aspect of rail-fanning that I learned about after joining what was then Orange Empire Trolley Museum is fan trips. These are railway excursions that use special equipment or follow unusual routes, often tracks that are normally used only by freight trains. My first fan trip was on the Santa Fe-- what was then Orange Empire Trolley Museum had bought a Canadian Pacific Mountain Observation Car (which never ran on the museum railway) which was ideal for excursions.

Here’s a mate to the CP 599 that OETM had.  This is 598 at the railway museum in Squamish BC.  Last time I saw 599 was at the Sierra RR in Jamestown CA.

Note that there’s no glass in the window openings of the two end sections.  Great for photos, but on the faster parts of a trip, it gets windy and dusty in the open-air sections.

We left Pasadena early one Saturday morning in Jan 1967; this worked out well for those of us who lived in the San Gabriel Valley, and it meant that we didn’t have to cover the extra charges required when trains leave Union Station.  The idea of being able to ride an electric railway from Duarte to LA was in the unimaginable future or distant past.   Our train was powered by Alco PA locomotives, which were becoming scarce.  The only time I normally saw them was when I delivered the LA Times in Duarte, and would sometimes get up extra early so I could watch Santa Fe train #8, the Mail Train, which went through Duarte around 2:50 AM.  We ran through Azusa and Cucamonga, which still had agents on duty then.  We paused at San Bernardino, with its extensive repair shops and yards, then headed for Cajon Pass, the gap between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges.  Here the train was slowed down by curves and grades.  At Summit, I experienced my first “photo runby”, common feature of fan trips, in which the train stop, unloads those who want to get pictures or movies (no portable video cameras in those days), and backs around a curve.  After waiting for the shutterbugs to get in position, the train comes around the bend, usually with the engineer trying to generate as much smoke as possible.


Here she comes!  It took a bit hiking to get this camera angle.  The construction machines were grading the right of way for the Southern Pacific Colton-Palmdale Cutoff line, which would allow freight trains heading from Bakersfield to points east to bypass Los Angeles.  This would be one of the first major railroad construction projects through territory that had never seen a train before in many years, and it would be finished only 6 months later.

One of the sights at Summit was Descanso, a funeral streetcar from the Los Angeles Railway system.  It had been acquired by the Railroad Boosters organization, which by then was called Pacific Railroad Society.  It had been converted into a clubhouse for railfans to stay in during weekend trainwatching sessions at this busy location.

The old streetcar would soon leave the mountains— Santa Fe was closing the train order office at Summit, and with nobody to keep an eye on things, the PRS members feared that they’d come up some weekend and find their clubhouse burned to the frame.   They took a vote; one faction wanted to take it to Travel Town in Griffith Park, but the majority voted to bring it to Orange Empire.  Eventually it would be restored to its original appearance as a funeral car, complete with a sample casket provided by a local funeral director. 

Restored to its early 20th Century dignified appearance, Descanso is now inside the carbarn, and only comes out on special occasions.  It is nearly complete, but does not have traction motors, so it has to be hauled by another LA Railway streetcar.

We came down out of the mountains onto the high desert, where the track roughly parallels historic Route 66 through Victorville and Barstow.  Barstow has been a major junction point for the Santa Fe since the 19th Century, and became a servicing point for diesel locomotives in the 1940s.  Our train “swapped ends” at Barstow and headed back for Pasadena, because that was about as far as we could go for a practical day trip.  Santa Fe pioneered the use of diesels because going east from Barstow is the arid expanse of desert, and water for steam locomotives had to be carried in tank cars to the various watering stations where what little water there was available was full of minerals that were bad for boilers.  When I visited a preserved World War II submarine in Philadelphia back in 1990, the retired submariner was showing us the engine room, with four EMD power units.  He told us that before the war, the US Navy was planning ahead, and knew that diesel engines in both submarines and surface craft were going to be critical elements in the war they figured would be coming sooner or later.  So the Bureau of Ships went to the Santa Fe Railway, because they had more experience with diesels in the 600 to 1400 horsepower range than any other company.

Something special out in the countryside.  The mountain observation car gives us a chance to wave to the folks who turned out to watch our fantrip go by.

Going back to Pasadena, the lead locomotive had the most marvelous sounding horn— it was almost like a concert hearing the engineer blow it for the numerous grade crossings between San Bernardino and Pasadena. 

I don’t have photos available for the next trip, which was Los Angeles to Bakersfield and back on the Southern Pacific San Joaquin Daylight.  The usual rather short train would be augmented by the OETM mountain observation car and an SP articulated chair car (coach).  This would go around the legendary Tehachapi Loop, an engineering marvel of the 1870s that connected Southern California with the rest of the US railroad network.  But first we’d have to get out of the LA basin, and this meant going through Tunnel 25 between San Fernando and Newhall.  Building this tunnel was a major headache to the SP construction crews.  The mountain through which the tunnel was dug is full of inconsistent rock, petroleum and water, and getting through this geological dog’s breakfast took about a year, with a number of workers dying during the project.  The first train passed through the tunnel in Sept. 1876.  Had someone on the trip predicted that in less than 30 years, over two dozen commuter trains would be passing through this tunnel every weekday, he might have been asked, “What have you been smoking lately?” 

After going around curves and tunnels from Newhall (part of today’s Santa Clarita) to Palmdale, we had a fast run across the Antelope Valley to Mojave.  At either Palmdale or Lancaster, I got a glimpse of something that would soon become ancient history— a Railway Post Office car with a clerk grabbing the outgoing mail from the mail crane and kicking the pouch destined for the local PO out the door.  Leaving Mojave, we were soon climbing the grade into Tehachapi Pass, where men and mules once labored to build the railroad through rugged mountains.

 We arrived in Bakersfield shortly before noon, and had over two hours to explore the SP facilities there.  The rarest experience for me was a short cab ride in a German-built diesel-hydraulic locomotive.  These units were bought by SP, along with three that SP took off the Denver & Rio Grande Western’s hands, in the early 1960s, when SP was dissatisfied with the available diesels from American builders regarding performance in mountainous territory.  There were 21 of them, but by May 1967 time was running out, and in less than two years, nearly all of them would be scrapped.  I should mention here that all mainline locomotives in the US have been and are diesel electric, with the exception of a relatively small number of straight-electrics drawing power from overhead wires.  Like I explained to a neighbor who was a truck driver, when he asked “how do you shift gears in a locomotive?”  “It’s like a streetcar that carries the power plant on its back.”  The one hydraulic that survived was modified by SP to become a non-powered camera platform for shooting movies to be used in a training simulator.  It spent 18 years in this configuration, longer than it did powering trains.   It is now being restored to operation by the Niles Canyon railway preservation group, with help from German and French sources.

Saved from the scrap heap twice, SP 9010 is close to running on its own power for the first time in 50 years.  I only saw it once in its camera-platform days— back in the 1970, my older daughter, Kathy and I were on our way out to Orange Empire, and I stopped in West Colton to show her the then-new SP yard.  She was looking over toward the engine house, and asked, “What’s that funny-looking engine next to the building?”  She had spotted the simulator car!  Good eye!  (in those days I didn’t have a camera with a telephoto lens, so getting a photo was not feasible).

After this memorable experience, the trip back to LA was a bit anticlimactic.  But OETM scheduled another May trip in 1968, and like the 1967 trip I took movies.  I worked for a division of Bell & Howell at the time, and could borrow top-of-the-line 8mm movie cameras for these excursions.  After making it most of the way through the Tehachapis and circling the Loop, there’s one more feature that the train runs along before the terrain flattens out.  That’s the Horseshoe Curve at Caliente, where the view from the mountain observation car gives a nearly flat-side shot of the locomotive.  The 1967 trip was powered by streamliner diesels, with what my wife calls “proper noses”.  Railfans call them “F-units” or “covered wagons”.

An SP passenger train at Berkeley in Sept. 1967, with streamliners from the early 1950s “on the point”.

Southern Pacific’s new passenger locomotives, also in Sept. 1967— you can almost smell the fresh paint.  One of these was powering our 1968 trip to Bakersfield— with 3600 horsepower, our six-car train (no more Railway Post Office car) didn’t make it work very hard.  When our train got to Caliente Curve, I got a movie of the engine and when I received the finished films and spliced them together, I showed my daughters “where Daddy went a few weeks ago”.  They watched without comments until we got to the curve shot.  Younger daughter (six years old at the time) exclaimed, “Daddy!  That’s a freight train engine!” Her seven year old sister said, “I don’t like it.  It’s too square!” I should mention that their first mainline train ride was on the Santa Fe, with red and silver streamlined locomotives on the Chief.

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