‘They could really pick up speed coming down from the hills . . . when those steam engines came through, the whole town would rock and roll.’
One of Dwight Ahern’s earliest memories is the roar of a Santa Fe train barreling down the hills and rumbling through the old town of Irvine. Ahern was born in 1912--20 feet from the Santa Fe tracks. His father, Phillip, was a Santa Fe section chief from 1910 until 1940, and his job was to make sure the 7-mile stretch of mainline through the Irvine Ranch was kept in good repair. The town of Irvine was a place of about 45 people centered around the depot, where trains picked up beans and dropped off tourists bound for Laguna Beach. A cluster of simple wooden buildings along the tracks, Irvine was no more than the depot, the section house where the Ahern family lived, the section gang’s quarters (shacks made out of railroad ties with dirt floors where the workers lived with their families), a hotel, a grammar school, a blacksmith’s shop and a group of storage structures.
The main road between Los Angeles and San Diego crossed the Santa Fe tracks at a dangerous angle in the middle of town, and as the years went by and traffic picked up, trains and automobiles smashed into each other all too frequently.
“Wrecks, wrecks, wrecks,” says Dwight Ahern, reflecting on his youth. “A lot of Tijuana traffic, for the booze.” Ahern--who now lives in a small, tidy house in Tustin with his wife Martha--remembers seeing a dozen or more people killed at the intersection in the 1910s and ‘20s.
There was the time the “bee man,” who came to town from Riverside to sell honey, hit a train broadside while crossing the tracks in his Essex sedan. Another day, it was the butcher’s wife and daughter. Ahern remembers that the butcher was so incensed by the tragedy that he tried to kill the engineer on the spot but was stopped by a worker on the section gang.
Today, what’s left of the town, first called Myford after one of James Irvine Jr.'s sons and renamed Irvine in 1914, lies just west of Interstate 5 where Sand Canyon Road crosses the Santa Fe tracks. Still standing are the blacksmith’s shop, now a Knowl-Wood fast-food restaurant, and the storage structures, which have been converted to a La Quinta Inn.
For 30 years, Phillip Ahern started work at dawn six days a week with a section gang of six to 15 workers. They straightened track, tightened rail joints, repaired the roadbed and, in bad weather, cleared debris from the tracks on the mainline. The section crew also was responsible for keeping up about 10 miles of branch-line track.
Trains heading from Los Angeles to San Diego routinely reached speeds of 70 m.p.h. on the mainline through the town of Irvine, rattling dishes and setting the dogs howling.
“If a train had to make up time, that’s where he’d do it,” Dwight Ahern says. “They could really pick up speed coming down from the hills. The ground isn’t too stable around there, and when those steam engines came through, the whole town would rock and roll.”
On hot days, the track workers stood close to the passing trains to catch a cooling breeze. Ahern often went out with his dad on handcars loaded with the tools of the trade: spike mallets, spike pullers, shovels and tamping bars, which were used to raise the ties and pack dirt underneath them.
“My dad was a hard-working Irishman,” Ahern says. “He didn’t expect much entertainment.”
BY THE TIME Ahern’s father went to work for the Santa Fe Railroad, trains rumbling through the Irvine Ranch were a common sight. But it hadn’t always been that way. Years earlier, in 1877, James Irvine Sr. was determined not to let the Southern Pacific Railroad, then the only line in what was to become Orange County, lay track through his land.
The Southern Pacific, perhaps the most powerful political and economic force in California in the second half of the 19th Century, never did get its railroad through the Irvine Ranch, which offered the most direct route from Los Angeles to San Diego. The Santa Fe was granted the right of way. The Southern Pacific would reach San Diego only by a circuitous route through the Imperial Valley--and that wouldn’t happen until the 1930s.
According to legend, the feud between the Southern Pacific and the Irvines began in 1849 when Collis P. Huntington, founder of the railroad, and James Irvine Sr. met on a steamship passage from the Isthmus of Panama to San Francisco, the last leg of a return journey from the East Coast. The two apparently took an intense dislike to each other on that voyage.
The Southern Pacific arrived in Anaheim in 1874 when a branch line was extended from Los Angeles as part of a bigger plan to construct a transcontinental line along a southern route. The first transcontinental line connecting San Francisco with the East Coast was completed when the Central Pacific Railroad, building east from California, met the westward pushing Union Pacific in Promontory, Utah, in 1869. Orange County was linked to San Francisco and the East by 1876, when the Southern Pacific line between Los Angeles and San Francisco was completed. For the first time, local farmers could sell their oranges, walnuts and other produce to markets outside of Southern California.
Collis Huntington had great hopes of extending the Southern Pacific from Anaheim to San Diego along a coastal route that would take it through the almost-110,000-acre Irvine Ranch. The boundaries of a 47,000-acre portion of the ranch had been disputed years earlier. Although an 1856 court ruling had upheld the boundaries, the Southern Pacific in 1876 convinced the federal government to reopen the case, saying that squatters on the ranch claimed the land was theirs. A favorable ruling would have given the Southern Pacific large chunks of land on each side of the tracks for development, but a court ruled against the suit and the ranch remained intact.
A little more than a decade later, the Southern Pacific was more eager than ever to extend a route to San Diego because the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, which arrived in Santa Ana from Riverside in September, 1887, was threatening to take much of the Southern Pacific’s business.
Because the Irvine family steadfastly refused to negotiate with the Southern Pacific, the railroad simply decided to lay the tracks anyway. Starting at the line’s terminus in Tustin, workers hurriedly laid tracks to the edge of the Irvine Ranch one weekend in 1888. The plan was to lay as much track as possible over the weekend, while the courts were closed. It was a common tactic used by many railroads of the day to bully landowners and farmers. The tactic often worked because many farms were small and railroads were powerful. “The railroads did things that by today’s standards wouldn’t be considered very nice, there’s no disputing that,” says Gerald Pera, a spokesman for the Southern Pacific Transportation Co.
The Southern Pacific, however, underestimated the moxie of the Irvine ranch hands. At the edge of the Irvine Ranch, the track gang was met by angry, gun-toting ranch workers who threatened to open fire if any track crossed Irvine property. They never had to use their guns; the track layers abandoned their chore.
On the following Monday, the Irvine Ranch obtained a court order blocking any encroachment on the ranch. The tracks to nowhere, put down so feverishly, remained in place until 1910.
Perhaps as a result of that incident, the Irvines quickly struck a deal with the Santa Fe, which was also suing for a right of way through the land. For $4,500 and the right to build roads over the railroad at the Irvine family’s discretion, Santa Fe got its right of way. The line to San Diego was completed that year--the same line that Phillip Ahern worked on for 30 years and the same line that today carries Amtrak trains through Orange County.
In the meantime, the Southern Pacific was building a branch line from Anaheim to Tustin. The line was extending toward a point where the Santa Fe also was laying tracks. A race to the crossing developed as the two construction crews came within hailing distance. The loser would be required to maintain the tower and the crossing, which today can be found in Anaheim, south of Cerritos Avenue, between Lewis Street and State College Boulevard.
According to an account in the May 31, 1888, edition of the Anaheim Gazette, the Southern Pacific’s answer to winning the race was simple: cheat. Railroad workers skipped a mile and a half section of track, had rails brought in by cart and proceeded to lay track at the crossing. The Southern Pacific would have won the race anyway: The workers went back and filled in the gap and the railroad still got its engine to the crossing first.
RAILROADS WEREN’T THE only ones competing in those days; communities offered land and cash to the railroads in return for a depot. A town’s inability to get a depot was a certain consignment to Orange County’s economic backwaters.
Once having reached Anaheim, the Southern Pacific made it known that it really didn’t matter whether the next stop on the line was Tustin or Santa Ana, according to railroad historian Stephen Donaldson. Santa Ana won the depot, beating out Tustin, but at a considerable price: $10,000 cash, land for a depot and a free right of way through the town.
The railroad came to Santa Ana in 1877, when the town had a population of 500, and the Southern Pacific, with a monopoly on service, charged dearly.
Townspeople complained about the high price of a ticket--the three-hour round trip to Los Angeles cost $4--and farmers and merchants claimed that the railroad was gouging their businesses. The Southern Pacific had put a stranglehold on the local economy by charging exorbitant freight rates to farmers and merchants. But by the late 1880s, competition between the two railroads was such that the price of a one-way ticket from points as far east as the Mississippi River was as little as $5.
Now, railroad links to the East were bringing in a flood of settlers. The Santa Fe created the county’s first real estate development company, the Pacific Land Improvement Co. New towns were given names and mapped out, if not actually built. Some, including Fullerton and Buena Park, still exist. Others, such as Fairview, located about eight miles southwest of Santa Ana, have long since vanished.
The railroad also created a Colonization Department to entice European farmers to settle the West. Agents traveled across the Atlantic, luring prospects with inexpensive leases and promises of fertile land. Many settled in Southern California, according to Michael Martin, a Santa Fe spokesman.
IN THE 1890s, Orange County was home to several local train lines that hooked up with and ultimately merged with the large railroads. One of the most important of these smaller lines was the Santa Ana & Newport Railway.
Built by the McFadden brothers, owners of the Newport Wharf and Lumber Co., the rail line connected the Newport wharf--at the site of today’s Newport Pier--to downtown Santa Ana. The 11-mile line was completed in 1891. The train tracks extended the length of the wharf, jutting 1,200 feet over the ocean, where cargo ships delivered and picked up goods. A passenger depot was built on the wharf over the breaking surf.
The train, which chugged down a route that roughly parallels what today is the Costa Mesa Freeway and Newport Boulevard, reached the wharf in just 25 minutes. The railway annually carried 70,000 tons of cargo and some 12,000 passengers eager for a day at the beach.
In fact, the introduction of the Santa Ana & Newport Railway, which made three round trips a day (except Sunday, when the line was closed), with connections to Los Angeles, established Newport Beach as a summer resort. A few years earlier, only shacks had stood near the lumberyard, but by 1894, Newport Beach sported two hotels and rows of beach-side cabanas and cottages and was soon to have its first tennis court. Until Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric trolleys reached Balboa in 1905, the Santa Ana & Newport Railway provided the only line to coastal Orange County.
The Southern Pacific acquired the Santa Ana & Newport Railway in 1899 and diverted much of the freight traffic to San Pedro, a bad break for the Orange County economy in the early part of the century. But the lack of commercial traffic ensured that the area would retain its resort qualities and become the tourist mecca it is today.
Inland townsfolk could ride the “Peanut Roaster” or the “Orange Dummy,” affectionate names for the wheezing, smoke-belching trolleys operated by the Santa Ana, Orange and Tustin Street Railway. The lines, which started operating in 1888, eventually were incorporated into the elaborate network of the Pacific Electric trolley system, whose Red Cars crisscrossed Los Angeles and Orange counties for nearly 60 years.
Although the county now is known for its crowded freeways and high-tech industries, trains still play an important role in moving people and freight on tracks that date to the 1870s. About 250 miles of those tracks are still in use.
The Santa Fe and Southern Pacific still compete, although they had been under the same corporate umbrella since 1983, when their parent companies merged to form the Santa Fe Southern Pacific Corp. The Interstate Commerce Commission in August approved the sale of the Southern Pacific to Denver-based Rio Grande Industries, thus merging the Southern Pacific with Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad.
Eighteen Amtrak passenger trains stop in the county each day on their way between Los Angeles and San Diego on track owned by the Santa Fe, according to Dale Reynolds, a Santa Fe train master. There also are 17 daily Santa Fe freight trains, as well as one Southern Pacific freight train. A third line, the Union Pacific, maintains track in the county, but uses it infrequently.
The Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific operate about 10 local “switcher” trains a day, which “spot,” or decouple, box cars from the mainline and haul them off to local plants and warehouses. About 200 cars are moved around the county on any given day.
Dwight Ahern doesn’t have much occasion to ride a train nowadays, but his eyes sparkle when talk turns to the old days: “We’d take the train into Santa Ana to do our shopping, doctor work and dentistry.”
Once or twice a year, the family would ride the train to San Diego and spend a day at the zoo and the naval yard.
“I still think about trains every day,” says Ahern. “And whenever one goes by, boy, I sure stop to look at it.”