As a child growing up in the Western San Gabriel Valley, Wendell Mortimer loved to watch the Pacific Electric passenger trains headed one way and the Southern Pacific, half a block away, headed in the other carrying its daily freight load.
That was more than a half century ago. Today most Alhambrans know of the city’s railroads only by the earthshaking rumbling of the anonymous trains thundering through the Mission Boulevard trench or by their body-rattling horn blasts. Few are aware that an Alhambra-San Gabriel Line served the city from 1900-1940, carrying nearly 2 million people at its peak along a rail transit line connecting Los Angeles to Temple City.
Although that sprawling Pacific Electric Railway system gave way to the freeways — and the Southern Pacific today is the Union Pacific — the area’s rich train history has not been lost. Alhambra is home to the 12-year-old Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation (LARHF), a repository of one of Southern California’s most comprehensive collections of books, photographs and materials detailing the history of railroading in Los Angeles. Mortimer, now a retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge and the organization’s president, sees it as an invaluable and often untapped resource.
Located on Alhambra Road, just west of Atlantic Boulevard, the archives are housed in a non-descript whitewashed brick building. Donald Duke, a railroad historian and photographer, donated it. Other than when the organization hosts an event or class, it doesn’t post any outdoor signage or otherwise advertise its presence.
But inside, visitors can look at model trains, browse through the library and the extensive collection of rail related materials.
Because Los Angeles is surrounded by mountains and the desert, accessibility to the relatively isolated city was a challenge. Only with the advent of rail travel did Los Angeles begin to be noticed by other cities. “That’s the primary mission, to explain and show how railroads influenced the growth of Los Angeles to a point where it became the second largest city in the United States,” said Josef Lesser, LARHF executive director and co-founder.
Lesser sees this philosophy as different from most other organizations for train aficionados that operate primarily for the benefit of their own membership, and instead is more of a public service institution. Lesser recalls being approached by filmmakers researching a private Van Nuys airport. In one of their interviews, a pilot who regularly flew out of the airport said he always saw the same train going by. He would dip his wings and the train engineer would wave in return. The film production company couldn’t identify train or its purpose, so they contacted LARHF, which was able to identify the type of train, when the train ran, and even found some footage of the same train running nearby the airport. The organization also plans several field trips each year, with destinations such as Metro Rail Operations Control facility and a visit to the Pacific Harbor Line at the Port of Long Beach. And it publishes railroad books, with its latest effort, “El Camino Real – Highway 101, Route of the Daylight”, due to be completed by September 2012.
A small but growing number of youth are becoming interested in LARHF. There is a Boy Scouts railroading merit badge class at the archive. In one recent instance, the parents of a 17-year-old member asked the foundation to help their son, who wanted to become a civil engineer specializing in railroad transportation, prepare for a high school presentation on the state’s plans for high-speed rail. LARHF matched the teen with a civil engineer with a railroad background, who was able to explain the complexities of rail planning. The teen is now civil engineering major at Cal State Northridge.
Of their efforts to reach and educate the public, perhaps their most effective tool is the use of off-site displays. The idea of displaying rail memorabilia at satellite locations came from Lesser’s consultation with the Getty Research Institute, which noted that satellite museums are commonly found in Japan. With permanent and changing displays, there are now seven satellite locations ranging from Riverside to Newport Beach, with their most popular display at Philippe’s Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, seen by potentially several thousand people each day. “The displays each tell a story of how rails were instrumental in developing Southern California,” said Lesser. “Not just railway trains, but also street cars, interurban cars and today’s city rail transportation.”————————-
As an archive, LARHF (www.larhf.org) is not open to the public on a walk-in basis, but visitors and researchers are welcome if they call for an appointment at 626-458-4449.