Railroad hits end of the line
It was short in length -- but long in its reach.
The Grizzly Flats Railroad’s steam engines traveled for 70 years along a 500-foot-long stretch of rails next to the San Gabriel home of Betty and Ward Kimball.
Along the way, the Kimballs’ picturesque narrow-gauge line helped inspire Walt Disney to build the famous passenger train system that circles Disneyland.
Now, though, its locomotives, vintage cars and caboose have been hauled away, and workers have finished pulling out the steel rails and wooden ties. Soon, the antique-looking Grizzly Flats train depot will be dismantled. The old train barn and firehouse will be demolished.
“It’s an emotional thing. But it has to be done,” said John Kimball, the couple’s 66-year-old son.
“We grew up here. When I was a little kid I didn’t know until I was in the sixth grade that it was unusual to have a railroad in your backyard. When I went to Temple City High School, I used to have parties in the caboose.”
Ward Kimball, an animator who worked on Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Dumbo,” “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio” and “The Three Caballeros,” died in 2002 at age 88. By then, he had already started downsizing his beloved Grizzly Flats Railroad.
In the beginning, Kimball’s backyard railroad sprouted its tracks almost by accident.
Kimball was a lifelong train fan. On his first date with Betty, he had taken her to a rail yard to measure a box car. He and his new wife purchased 2 1/2 acres of a San Gabriel orange grove and were preparing to build a home in 1937 when he decided to buy a surplus train car to house his growing model train layout. For $50 he bought an abandoned narrow-gauge passenger coach (used on 3-foot-wide track instead of the standard 4-feet, 8 1/2 -inches) that Southern Pacific had operated in the Owens Valley.
A year later, he bought a similar-sized 1881 steam engine that was being scrapped by the Nevada Central Railroad. Later, he would also acquire a 1906 box car and caboose, a 1917 gondola and a 1915 stock car, along with a small 1907 switch engine used at a Hawaiian sugar plantation.
The weekend “steam-ups,” as the Kimballs called them, attracted crowds. Workers and executives from Hollywood film studios often wrangled invitations, as did neighbors.
“You’d pull in the driveway and see all of this train stuff,” said Bob Kredel, who was 9 and living in Arcadia when his next-door neighbor -- a friend of the Kimballs -- invited him to tag along for a steam-up.
Young Kredel ended up helping toss wood into the huffing steam engine’s firebox, and a lifelong appreciation of trains and an eventual career was set in gear. “I never was exposed to electric trains as a boy. When I wanted to play with trains, I’d go to the Kimballs,” said Kredel, who supplies vintage trains for movie productions.
Barbara Andrews, a retired office manager living in San Marcos, remembers riding on Kimball’s train in the mid-1960s. “I lived right around the corner. The train didn’t go far, but it was so much fun. Ward would also give kids a ride on his antique firetruck. It was like having your own amusement park in the neighborhood,” she said. Neighbor Rick Griffith said he won numerous bets from golfing buddies who didn’t believe him when he told them he lived down the road “from that little train station up by Temple City” -- the Grizzly Flats depot. “Ward Kimball was a character from the get-go,” said Griffith, a movie studio millwright.
For decades the Kimballs regularly hosted friends and other train lovers who delighted in riding the rails next to Ardendale Avenue. One frequent visitor was Disney, who had hired Kimball in 1934.
Train historian and writer John Smatlak recalled how Disney was impressed that Kimball ran a real steam engine while other train enthusiasts operated model railroads or miniature “live steamers.”
At a backyard party in 1945, Kimball gave Disney a chance to take the throttle and operate the 1881 locomotive that Kimball had dubbed the “Emma Nevada.” That’s when the Disneyland Railroad was born, according to Smatlak, a Woodland Hills resident who serves as vice president of collections for the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Riverside County.
Disney’s eyes -- and his grin -- got big as he nudged the locomotive to life. “It was at that moment that he decided that the trains in the park he was planning someday had to be real steam trains,” Smatlak recalled Kimball telling him.
In 1949 Disney gave Kimball the train depot set that Disney Studio workers had constructed for the film “So Dear to My Heart” starring Burl Ives, Beulah Bondi, Bobby Driscoll and Harry Carey. Kimball reassembled it, added a back wall to the three-sided structure and turned it into a small museum.
Kimball quit running the coal-burning Emma Nevada in 1967 as the orange groves around him gave way to homes. The backyard train excursions were powered instead by the cleaner, wood-burning Hawaiian switch engine he called “Chloe,” after his youngest daughter.
As he grew older and maintenance of the rolling stock became harder, Kimball donated most of it to the Orange Empire museum, along with money to build an engine house to store them. “It was close enough that I could still have a little fun with it,” he said as the Emma Nevada was hauled away in late 1992.
John Kimball and sisters Kelly, of Altadena, and Chloe, of Tujunga, at first were disappointed.
“We were shocked. At the time we thought of the Grizzly Flats Railroad as a family thing. I ran that sugar plantation locomotive for 50 years,” said Kimball, himself a retired animation director who lives in Pasadena.
“I’d always dreamed that maybe the state would take it over as a museum. But now we know it was the right thing to do. We could see it was deteriorating and none of us could really take care of it.”
The caboose, with its wood-burning, pot-bellied stove that John Kimball partied around as a teenager, was donated to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. The Chloe locomotive and the last of its cars were turned over to the Orange Empire museum several months ago. The Grizzly Flats Railroad’s track was pulled up two weeks ago.
The old depot was offered to the Orange Empire museum but was rejected because of the cost required to convert it from a flimsily built movie prop into a structure open to the public, Kimball said. Instead, it is being given to collector John Lasseter, a Sonoma resident who is chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios.
The antique wooden water tower will also be offered to Lasseter when his representatives come in a week or so for the depot, Kimball said.
“My mom will live out her life here. She said she will live to be 100. She’s 94 now, going on 95,” Kimball said.
Grinning, he paused one more time outside the Grizzly Flats Station, the one with the old-time railroad sign: “Elev. 492 -- Pop. 5.”