Streetcar and railroad enthusiasts from all over Southern California descend on this small Riverside County town every weekend to restore old streetcars and trains at the 62-acre Orange Empire Railway Museum.
There are 1,200 members of the 35-year-old museum, a Valhalla of streetcars and railroad equipment from all over California, other states and several foreign countries.
More than 100 of the unpaid volunteers from as far away as Bakersfield and San Diego can be found transforming weather-beaten, dilapidated railroad cars and streetcars into working condition.
Joe Webber, 73, is a longtime member of the Railway Museum. A self-styled “railroad and streetcar nut” since he was a teen-ager, Webber is a retired Hughes Aircraft engineer.
Webber and his wife, Norma, 72, fell in love with a quaint 1900 Bakersfield and Kern Electric Railway streetcar that operated in Bakersfield until 1941 when the trolley company went out of business. The old car was among scores of streetcars and railroad cars in various stages of decay awaiting restoration at the museum.
“It was in terrible shape, rotting away on a museum siding,” Webber said. “We took the pieces of the streetcar home and sorted them out in our living room. That was the beginning of our restoration project.”
The Webbers became so involved with their retirement hobby that they sold their home in Gardena and moved to Perris to be near the museum, where they could work in one of four huge galvanized steel railway barns.
“We have blueprints and photographs of the 90-year-old trolley when it was brand-new,” he said. “We had to remake nearly all the wood and metal pieces. It was exasperating at times, but we persevered. All that’s left now is to electrify it.”
The Webbers spent 10 years restoring the bright yellow streetcar to what it was like when it first rolled down the streets of Bakersfield in 1900. When it is electrified it will operate weekends on the six miles of track at the museum, where the Webbers are conductors.
“We have three daughters, 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren,” said Norma Webber. “We had a ball putting the old streetcar back together and get a big kick out of running restored streetcars on the museum tracks. Our grandchildren are forever amazed that grandpa and grandma are streetcar conductors.”
The museum, 65 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, is open every day, with rides on the restored historic streetcars and trains available on weekends.
There are 15 streetcars, a train powered by a steam engine and one by a diesel engine in working order. One of the operating streetcars, Kyoto No. 19., is made of wood and was shipped in pieces from America to Japan in 1890. It operated there until 1961, when one of the museum’s members was able to buy it and bring it to Perris.
Doctors, lawyers, businessmen, company owners, teachers, police officers, firefighters and secretaries are among those who help restore the streetcars and trains.
One of the most unusual streetcars being brought back to life, called the Descanso, carried hundreds of the newly departed from 10 mortuaries in downtown Los Angeles to cemeteries on the outskirts of the city from 1909 to 1924.
“As far as we know, this is the only streetcar of its kind left in America,” said David Kelly, 26, who is working on the project with four other men. Only a handful of cities operated funeral streetcars during the late 1800s and early 20th Century.
The casket was placed in front and mourners rode in seats behind the casket. The funeral trolley, which has 36 stained glass windows, was used because dirt roads were extremely rough and often impassable.
Kelly, a graduate student in history at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, said he has been a streetcar and railroad buff as long as he can remember. He and the four men restoring the funeral car spent 1 1/2 years working on a two-decker Hill of Howth streetcar used in Dublin from 1923 to 1959.
“This is an escape,” said Joel Marsh, 34, co-owner of a fire alarm business and vice president of collections at the museum. “I enjoy working on this stuff.”