December 27, 2016

Photo Essay: The Former Navy Surplus Annex That Became a Mini Railroad

In 1945, World War II was coming to an end, and the U.S. Navy had a logistical problem: surplus property. The war was still on, so when one naval district had property it didn't need, there needed to be a way to redistribute it to another naval district that did need it.

Thus, the Navy formed its Material Redistribution Center in Torrance, a 90,000-acre annex to the (now demolished) Long Beach Naval Station on Terminal Island, in October 1945.

But just months later with the war over, the focus shifted from redistribution to disposal—but, in effect, the Naval Annex ended up being a dead end for that surplus, where it sat in storage for decades until it officially closed in 1973.

There, a cluster of buildings—including 15 Navy surplus warehouses—stood abandoned until 1979, with the sale of partial acreage to the City of Torrance and the formation of Wilson Park.

Meanwhile, Southern California Live Steamers had started in 1941, two years into World War II, as a miniature live-steam engine club. They didn't have a track, or even a clubhouse. They met in their founder's backyard in Beverly Hills.

In 1948, Walt Disney and fellow Disney animator Ollie Johnston joined the club.

Once the club had become more established, they moved to Lomita, where "Little Engines" were being built and sold by fellow Live Steamer Irene Lewis (who'd been befriended by Disney, thanks to their common interest in trains).

By 1989, Wilson Park—envisioned as a “central park for all people”—had been open for a decade...

...but five acres in the back were still vacant, save for those old abandoned Navy warehouses.

The City of Torrance asked SCLS to come and operate a tiny railroad in their neck of the woods... the engine club laid 1000 feet of track along the newly-established "Crenshaw Line"...

...where their miniature trains would run—for free—at speeds of just 10 to 15 mph.

The City of Torrance has a rich history of railroads...

...including the Union Pacific Railroad...

... and the Harbor Subdivision, a historic line of the BNSF Railway that was built to connect the freight rail in Downtown LA to the Ports of LA and Long Beach.

The BNSF Harbor Subdivision still runs right next to Wilson Park.

The present-day SCLS home in Wilson Park features a number of tiny buildings in a kind of model train "village"... well as an almost full-sized depot.

Twice a month, the Live Steamers host public run days, which are still free—even if you ride all three of their trains in one visit.

And you might as well ride them all, too, since it's not just one track you're riding.

There's an inner track, and outer track, and a spur track...

...the latter of which is a straightaway along the perimeter of the park...

...that dead-ends, forcing you to get up off your seat, turn around, and sit back down facing the other way while the engineer turns the engine around on a turntable.

Running multiple trains at the same time means there's a bit of traffic on the rails—and sometimes you've got to wait for another tiny train to make the switch and pass before you can proceed.

But there's one train at Wilson Park that doesn't run at all—and it's not a scale model, either.

Some of the tiny trains run past it, but it never moves.

It's an old Red Car from the Pacific Electric Railway, which, in the 1920s, was the largest operator of interurban electric railway passenger service in the world. But it's not one from the PE Torrance Branch (a spur off the Gardena Line) that brought passengers from LA to San Pedro, right through Torrance (its station now known as The Depot Restaurant).

This car in particular, PE No. 4601, originally hails from the Bay Area as part of the East Bay Electric Lines fleet.

Even though this Red Car isn't a native Angeleno, its history is fascinating. According to my fellow blogger, The Militant Angeleno:
This Red Car shell, originally built in 1911 as a 72-foot "Blimp" style car which ran in the Bay Area, was purchased by the PE and was involved in a crash with a freight train in 1946. Torrance resident Forest Wilson purchased it from the PE for $50 and converted it into a 60-foot long (wrecked section removed) house where he lived with his wife until his death in 1986.
Legend has it that after Wilson's wife sold the "Red Car House" to the City of Torrance (for $1), it suffered invasions of hornets and vandals, the latter of whom broke the windows and did what vandals do (and hornets don't).

Now, it's somewhat protected behind a tall, double chainlink fence. It won't ever run again. No one will ever live in it again. It hasn't been converted into a diner. But hopefully it will be restored at some point, so people can once again climb aboard the Red Car, whose fleet is nearly extinct.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Griffith Park's Holiday Light Train
The Ghost Train of Griffith Park
A Travel Town Birthday in Griffith Park
Photo Essay: A Last Ride on the Last Red Car
Photo Essay: Abandoned Naval Housing, Western Avenue

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