Click image to enlarge.
Tribute to Trains That Built the West.
Historic Saugus Depot Restored as Memorial to an Era.
Los Angeles Times | Sunday, September 11, 1983.
The restoration of the once-busy Southern Pacific train depot at Saugus as a memorial to a bygone era of railroading by the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society is nearly complete. Three years ago, the station, which was built in 1887, was scheduled for demolition. The Southern Pacific Transportation Co. agreed to donate it to the society providing the structure was moved from its site.
"We had a new location selected," recalled Norman Harris, a vice president of the group. "It was three miles away on county land next to the William S. Hart Park in Newhall. The move cost $60,000, and raising the money was a massive community effort. Girl Scouts sold cookies, boys collected tin cans for recycling, senior citizens held a chili cook-off, and every service club in the valley donated funds."
The station's interior is furnished as it was in 1910 when numerous Southern Pacific trains followed this route. Saugus was then a busy shipping point used by local farmers and the oil industry. Travelers once warmed themselves by a large pot-belly stove in the corner of the waiting room. The two-story structure was built of redwood in the Western rural architectural style that was typical of many Southern Pacific stations.
The large freight storage room is now a community meeting hall. Another wing has been converted into a museum containing railroad memorabilia.
Standing on a siding outside the depot is a large Mogul locomotive, a gift from another railroad enthusiast, Gene Autry. During the age of steam, long before the coming of the diesels, it once pulled freight or passenger cars over the Tehachapis on the route to San Francisco.
The history of the building of that route dates back more than a century. The final rail was laid on Sept. 5, 1876, six miles down the track at an isolated point called Lang Station. The station house was torn down in 1971, but a plaque marks the site where Charles Crocker, Southern Pacific's president, drove a gold spike to mark the completion of the route. Another plaque was placed at Lang by the Chinese Historical Society on the centennial observance in 1976 honoring the several thousand Chinese laborers who had worked on the construction of the railroad.
The completion of the railroad was one of the most significant events in Los Angeles history, for the city was now tied into the transcontinental system, even if travelers had to go to San Francisco first to board a train that would take them east. The trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco took 24 hours and 40 minutes, including a 15-minute ferry ride from Oakland to San Francisco.
The construction of the inland route north presented engineering obstacles of a magnitude that Crocker had known earlier when he supervised the building of Central Pacific's railroad over the Sierra wall to join with Union Pacific at Promontory, Utah, on Sept. 9, 1869, thus completing the first transcontinental route across the United States. Crocker had recruited thousands of Chinese laborers to do most of the work. Now he hired 4,000 for the Los Angeles project. The most formidable problem was how to scale the Tehachapi mountains.
Crocker's engineer, William Hood, had studied the terrain. It was not feasible to drive a straight line of track because it would create a grade too steep for trains crossing the summit. Hood traced two large circles on his map, sketched a tunnel into the side of a ridge and drew a line around the crest of the peak and back over the tunnel. This would give the trains a gradual ascent to the summit without exceeding a 2.64-percent grade.
An army of Chinese workers labored with wheelbarrows and shovels to lay a roadbed over the grade that towers more than 4,000 feet at its highest point. Others drilled and dug tunnel after tunnel through the mountains. While Southern Pacific shoveled and blasted its way over the Tehachapi crest, crews from Los Angeles bored a 7.000-foot tunnel through the mountains near San Fernando.
On the completion date, Lang became the rendezvous point for a train filled with dignitaries and reporters coming from San Francisco to meet with a similar one from Los Angeles. The final tracks were put down. Several thousand Chinese were arrayed on each side of the roadbed holding their picks and shovels and wearing bamboo hats. A band played, and 1,000 spectators crowded around the two locomotives.
Charles Crocker, Southern Pacific's president, picked up a silver mallet. A Chinese worker positioned a solid-gold spike weighing 9¼ ounces. Crocker made a brief speech. In part, he said:
"Gentlemen of Los Angeles and San Francisco, it has been deemed best on this occasion that the last spike to be driven should be of gold, that most precious of metals, as indicative of the great wealth which will flow into the coffers of San Francisco and Los Angeles when this connection is made...."
Following the ceremony, the principals adjourned to Union Hall in downtown Los Angeles for a sumptuous banquet. A menu that survives lists 10 entrees including Ham de Mayence roast a la Jelly, Smoked Tongue en Arcade au Attele, and Turkey Truffee aux Papillotes. There were also 11 desserts and four varieties of salad, in addition to an assortment of garnishes like Noix de Veal a la Montmorency a la Jelly. The newspapers reported that 190 gentlemen attended the dinner. The chauvinists who planned the gala evening excluded women from the guest list.
Southern Pacific freight trains still follow the route engineer Hood traced over the Tehachapis. Under an agreement, Santa Fe shares trackage from Bakersfield to Mojave.
Outside the Saugus depot, the old Mogul locomotive glistened in the late afternoon sunlight. "An inspector looked it over recently," Harris said. "He told us it could be restored to working order. We've given it a coat of primer. Next, we'll paint it. Then we'll see what can be done about fixing the engine."
The Mogul will never travel Southern Pacific's main line again, but once there's a glow in the firebox and steam's up, the whistle may sound again. Residents of the Santa Clarita Valley may again hear the mournful wail that once echoed across the prairies.
William S. Murphy is a Los Angeles Times photographer.