A fire that may have been started by squatters destroyed the old Canoga Park railroad station Tuesday, foiling efforts by the Canoga-Owensmouth Historical Society to purchase the station and turn it into a museum.
Beth Shirley, founding president of the Canoga-Owensmouth Historical Society, said the old station--built in 1912 and listed in the city's register of historical landmarks--was the oldest remaining depot in the San Fernando Valley.
"It is a loss because there is no other like it," Shirley said. "It's really too bad. Fortunately, we have pictures and maybe we can salvage some of the bricks and tiles" to place in a museum.
Flames leaped into the sky Tuesday morning as 125 firefighters fought to douse the blaze. Their efforts were complicated by brick walls, which prevented them from breaking openings to let smoke out, and floors made of wooden slats that made it dangerous for them to enter the building.
Fire Department spokesman Steve Ruda said the fire began at 8:29 a.m. Tuesday and was knocked down in about an hour. Ruda said the fire began in a back building of the three-structure station complex at Sherman Way and Canoga Avenue. The building had once housed a hardware and lumber store.
The fire quickly moved south to the two remaining structures.
Ruda said the cause of the fire was "suspicious" but an exact cause is still under investigation. Two transients were detained at the scene and questioned by arson investigators, but Ruda said they were released. Two firefighters were slightly injured, and damage was estimated at $300,000.
The Canoga Park station was built in 1912 and used as a passenger depot until about 1920. It later was leased as a shop and a hardware store, until about three years ago when it was left vacant and became a magnet for as many as 20 transients. A used car lot occupied the front of the property, along Sherman Way.
The local historic society had been trying to raise nearly $1 million to purchase the station from Southern Pacific Railroad Co. and restore it for use as a transportation museum and park. The group had also applied for federal and local grants through the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
George Khazzaka, manager of a nearby auto painting shop, said he saw the fire start and immediately called a friend who runs the used car lot from a trailer. Khazzaka said he saw two people run from the building after the fire began. He said he quickly moved about eight parked vehicles off the used car lot and away from the building.
Although the cause of the fire remains under investigation, some nearby business owners said they believe it was started by transients living in the building who may have created a fire hazard by smoking and cooking meals on makeshift stoves.
As he watched the blackened station smolder, Rod Van-Zeller, who runs an auto repair shop next door, said he was not surprised that a fire had finally started.
"I knew it was just a matter of time," Van-Zeller said. "We see people going in and out of that building all the time, many of them drunk."
Van-Zeller said he and other area business owners have been trying to get Southern Pacific Railroad Co. to do something to keep transients out of the station.
A Southern Pacific spokesman said the company repeatedly has tried to clear the building of transients. "But we can't watch the building 24 hours a day," he said.
DWP spokeswoman Mindy Berman said the fire caused a power failure for about 800 customers in the area. Power was restored to most customers by about 10:30 a.m., though about 20 customers were without power until about 1:15 p.m.