December 19, 2023

Photo Essay: The Retlaw1 Disneyland Railroad Rules the Rails at Santa Margarita Ranch

I knew that there were original RETLAW1 Disneyland train cars running on a railroad on the privately-owned Santa Margarita Ranch in the town of Santa Margarita, California. But I just hadn't been able to get to them yet. 

As far as I know, the trains of the Pacific Coast Railroad Company are only accessible by the public during Memorial Day Weekend's Best of the West Antiques Show, which was canceled during Covid and which I otherwise have not been able to make it to. 

They didn't participate in the Central Coast Railroad Festival, which I attended in 2021. And although I ziplined up and over the historic ranch back in 2020, I didn't even catch sight of any of the rolling stock during that trip. 
So I decided to take a quick weekend trip up to California's Central Coast for the (hopefully) first annual Christmas at the Ranch...

...featuring Christmas train rides on both the steam engine-pulled Disneyland RR cars and some open-top cars pulled by a 1940s-era diesel engine. 

Nearly all the steam train rides were sold out by the time I booked my trip, so I took what I could get—which meant a 5 p.m. diesel ride at sunset followed by a 5:45 p.m. steam train ride in the dark.

These were just two of the three total trains operated by Pacific Coast Railroad at Santa Margarita Ranch, a privately owned ranch with a history of cattle ranching, wine grape-growing, and railroading. (Southern Pacific Railroad even once owned the town of Santa Margarita.)
Their "Jingle Bell Express" was festive even during daylight...

...which we only had a few minutes of as we embarked on our "grand circle tour" of the ranch along the rails.
As the sky lit up in pinks and purples, we made our way past historic structures, like the old ranch house and tank house...

...old-growth oaks...
...and a 747 that had just landed from the North Pole, where elves were unloading wrapped gifts.

A few decorations and Christmas lights were scattered along the way—but it was clear that those weren't really the key attraction of Christmas at the Ranch. The trains were the main attraction.  

After about a half-hour or so, we disembarked at the historic barn—built around the stone and adobe walls of the former Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia, a sub-mission of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa on the former Rancho Santa Margarita.

Before collecting my free cookie and trying to catch a glimpse of Santa inside, I turned back for another look at the train I'd just ridden... glowing bright under the twilight-blue sky...

...and getting ready to return to the pickup point by the machine shops to bring another load of passengers around the ranch. 

The barn is over 200 years old, today the site for weddings and other rental parties.

During my visit, it was so dressed-up for the holidays, I barely noticed that I was standing amidst the ruins of an old mission that dates back to 1780. In the 1860s, General P. W. Murphy constructed the barn superstructure, which now protects the historic site.
I couldn't linger too long in the barn, anyway—because I had another train to catch! 

I boarded one of the unrestored, 1890s-style Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad passenger coaches (only No. 105 "Painted Desert" has been restored thus far)...
...where the only seat available was a sideways bench at the back of the car, giving me a good view into the car directly behind us as well as the scenery passing by (which I'd already seen in better-lit conditions during the diesel train ride). 

It's such a special experience to ride these 5/8-scale cars along the narrow-gauge track—particularly because they date back to the 1955 opening of Disneyland and operated there through the mid-1970s. There were only six of these RETLAW1 cars in total—four of them (Nos. 102-105) have been at Santa Margarita Ranch since 1998, No. 101 (the "combine car" for passengers and freight) is at Walt's Barn in Griffith Park, and No. 106 still operates as the Lilly Belle VIP parlor car (formerly known as the "Grand Canyon") on the Disneyland Railroad in Anaheim.

It now feels more urgent than ever for me to return and get this experience again, but during the daytime. 

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1 comment:

  1. I know I can't believe I missed it but I couldn't make it up in October 2022! Thanks for all you do and I look forward to returning to the region for more railroading!