Los Angeles Railroad Heritage – in Alhambra?

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.

Alhambra – Atlantic Blvd. and Main Street; 10-19-41. Pacific Electric car No. 1004. Alhambra Movie Theater playing Dr. Jekyll anThat 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.

Alhambra Passenger Depot – Southern Pacific – August 1937. Craig Rasmussen Collection – Los Angeles Railroad Heritage FoundationAlthough 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.

Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation headquartersLocated 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.

Alhambra – Main Street 1920s – Pacific Electric car No.803 coming from Los Angeles to Alhambra and San Gabriel. Craig Rasmussen 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. 

4 thoughts on “Los Angeles Railroad Heritage – in Alhambra?”

  1. Your observation about the Main Street Pacific Electric Line in Alhambra is accurate as far as it goes, but is only part of the story.

    The Pacific Electric lines were the creation of real estate developer and Southern California Edison Company co-founder Henry Huntington. Huntington purchased the Shorb estate north of Alhambra after the subdivision of the latter and created San Marino, replete with the famous Huntington Library.

    The Alhambra-Temple City line was a branch of the Pacific Electric backbone which crossed Soto street and came along Huntington Drive. The backbone also had branches into Pasadena and Sierra Madre before continuing east.

    The advent of the automobile led to a decline in usage of the “Big Red Cars” for passenger service. The Pacific Electric was sold by Huntington to the Southern Pacific (of which his uncle Collis P. Huntington was a co-founder)and was treated by them as a feeder source for freight traffic at night. Its passenger services were never profitable after WW1 except briefly during WW2 when gasoline as being rationed.

    In 1951 California was already building freeways before the Federal Interstate program came along. They wanted to build freeway lanes out of downtown Los Angeles where the Pacific Electrics backbone rails for the San Gabriel ZValley and Whittier lines were. It would have cost around $10 million in 1951 dollars to move them – neither the Stste, City or Southern Pacific were interested in that kind of spending. As a result, on one fsteful day in 1951 the backbone and all relted rail lines were abandoned.

    Before the cessation of service a cameraman traveled all the northeast Pacific Electric lines and recorded the view from the cars. This historic record was later converted to videotape and was (still may be) made available through the Orange Empire Trolley Museum in Perris, CA. Restored and maintained “Big Red Cars,” over sixty years later, still operate there on weekends.

    As a final note, the Southern Pacific also had a freight only branch out of Alhambra of its own. This extended roughly up Raymond in Alhambra through South Pasadena alomg the east side of Arroyo Seco Parkway to Green Street in Pasadena. Traces of the roadbed still exist at some points beneath utility transmission lines. It was abandoned some time around the Viet-Nam war.

  2. Imagine if Main St through downtown is as wide as Main St from Fremont Ave to Huntington Dr! Sandborn maps from 1920s show many more lines through the city.

    It’s ironic that 60-70 years ago people were busy dismantling light rail lines, only to have them come back, sort of. Perhaps we may not see light rail lines in Alhambra, but I’m glad that light rail, in general, is an option.

  3. Interesting article about an interesting organization and subject. Just a couple comments if I may.

    The photo captions of the two trolley-car photos are reversed:

    The upper photo with the trolley making the curve is looking east on Main Street at Atlantic. On the right (the southeast corner) is the Alhambra Theater, now the Edwards Cinema, and on the left is the old B L Hoag Plymouth dealer, now the site of the Alhambra Car Wash.

    The lower trolley photo is APPARENTLY looking west on Main Street from either Garfield or Stoneman. There’s some conflict about that though, as the two businesses whose names are readable have even-numbered addresses, so should be on the south side of the street: “S J Pohl Furniture” was at 12 E Main Street, and “Garnett Hardware” was at 44 E Main Street, both according to the 1927 Alhambra City Directory. That would suggest we are looking east from Garfield, but the buildings and construction in the distance, and the building shadows, all suggest we’re looking west. Any thoughts?

    Finally, and no dispute about this, the Alhambra Passenger Depot shown is the by-then-abandoned Pacific Electric “Red Car” station at the northwest corner of Stoneman and Main, where Rite-Aid now stands (previously Thrifty Drugs for many, many years). To the left of the station we can see the torn-up ground where there had been a side track for streetcars to reach a small rail yard behind the station to lay over at night. And looking up Stoneman to the right of the station, the two-story building with the brick roof was Alhambra’s long-time headquarters “Fire Station #1” which was in service until it was replaced in April 1968 by a new station at 1st & Woodward Avenue.

    Terrific article!

  4. It’s amazing to know that Main St. once had electric trains passing through our city. Could it ever happen again?

    Time has surely changed. We are bypassed from the Metro Gold Line as our northern city neighbors in SGV have better access to the light rail network. Opposition to the high-speed train is also high. And as the article mentions, we are only stuck with trains below-grade along Mission with their loud diesel engines. Hopefully the grade separation construction (ACE) scheduled this year near San Gabriel High School (Ramona crossing) will eliminate the need for those loud horns that keep Alhambra residents awake at night.

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