January 19, 2015

Photo Essay: A Taste of Orange Empire Railway Museum (Now Southern California Railway Museum)

[Last Updated 3/10/19 9:22 PM PT to reflect name change.]

I was complaining recently that LA didn't have a proper transit museum. Given the fact that LA used to be absolutely covered in trolleys and trains and incline railways, and how it is currently witnessing a resurgence of public transit with the Expo Line being built up above, and the Purple Line burrowing down below – why isn't there a place (like the NYC Transit Museum, or the London Transport Museum, both of which are magical places) devoted to LA's rich transit history?

When I posed this question to some local LA historians in the know, one of them said, "Well, there's always the Orange Empire Railway Museum."

But that place isn't in LA: it's in the Inland Empire, all the way out in Perris, far from any underground metro or Pacific Electric streetcar. Wouldn't it just have the normal, par for the course train museum stuff?

True, the Orange Empire Railway museum [Ed: Now called Southern California Railway Museum] doesn't have dedicated, interpretive displays about the history of LA public transit. But it has the trains – the red cars, the yellow cars – and even busses and cable cars from San Francisco and other streetcars (including one oddity that was actually horse-drawn).

Plus, it has some locomotives, passenger cars, freight cars, and even military trains – some of which are in working condition and go out on short excursions around the museum's huge 90 acre property, which is largely centered around the defunct gold mining town of Pinacate.

We got to ride the Ventura County Railway No. 2 "Praire"-type steam locomotive...

...and the LA Railway 525 "Huntington Standard," built in 1906 and the last wood-bodied streetcar to run in LA.

The first of four storage sheds for train cars, Carhouse #1 is dedicated to more artifacts from the LA Railway...

...and even includes the "Crane Car," built in 1912, electrically powered, and used for track construction.

Carhouse #4 is for railroad cars, diesel and steam locomotives – most of which are unrestored, and some of which have not been opened to the public for over 20 years.

I'd never seen so many wood-bodied train cars.

One of the most memorable was the Santa Fe "Foreman's Car," built in 1932.

It was used as a "Work Train" at construction job sites, storing supplies but also providing living quarters for the construction foreman.

It looks like somebody's house.

Some of the trains in the collection are used for storage...

...and others are empty and crumbling.

It felt like we weren't supposed to be inside of there.

But only a few of the trains were roped off, restricting access.

On the way to the Machine Shop, we passed through a storage area that's unfortunately closed to visitors...

...though it contains fascinating "chicken coop" train skeletons that sometimes get brought back to life in full restorations (though that is rare, as it is quite an undertaking).

The Machine Shop features some more relics from LA city transit...

...and a neighboring dining car still open to the public... known as the "Streamliner Lounge"....

...and "Streamliner Diner."

Next door in Carhouse #2, which is for the Pacific Electric Railway...

...we got to witness one of the PE trains in mid-restoration...

...and actually climb under it into the pit...

...where workers conduct mechanical repairs in a low clearance, dimly lit setting.

There are a surprising number of trains you can meander through...

...exploring every nook and cranny...

...even those that seem like they're not exactly stable.

It's best to try not to think about lead paint or other toxins...

...and just enjoy the beautiful decay...

...during an all-too-brief visit.

Even after nearly four hours we didn't get to see everything or ride every train, even passing up the opportunity to ride in the cab of one of those choo-choos.

But this is the kind of place you can't just go to once, and feel like you've "done" it. Places like this bear repeat visits.

Most people don't realize that there used to be so many ways to get around Southern California, before the horseless carriage took over, freeways were built, and people got in their cars to drive to the grocery store at the end of the block. People used to walk in LA. People used to take the train anywhere and everywhere.

There's currently no LA Metro subway line or lightrail close enough to where I live now to make it worthwhile to take (though the Purple Line is coming, eventually), and when I sit at the bus stop waiting for the bus on a Saturday night, passers-by ask me if I'm OK, and cabs and Uber drivers try to give me rides. Although I enjoy the safety bubble of my car, with all sights and sounds and smells my own, taking public transportation – wherever it is – always feels like an event, some grand adventure. I'd love to know what it was like back then.

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Photo Essay: Barstow's Harvey House & Railroad Museum
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Nostalgia Train Ride
Photo Essay: MTA Vintage Subway Train Ride for the Holidays
Photo Essay: Greyhound's Vintage Bus Fleet, Upon Its Centennial

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