One day a few weeks back, my son, Ted, daughter-in-law, Dorene, and two-year-old grandson Kedt treated me to an afternoon at Travel Town in Griffith Park.
The free museum of trains of all sorts — from old-timey engines and stripped down coach cars to a miniature choo-choo for kids of all ages — reminds us of a time when our very lives were dependent on trains and trolleys.
Having grown up in a small steel producing city in Pennsylvania, for me the quiet, tree shrouded reliquary conjured memories of how my brothers and friends and I would hop on slow-moving, off-line shifters, coal-laden cars that ultimately connected with the Reading Railroad’s main line, for a quick and grimy ride home from school each day. For us, trains were an integral part of life — dangerous but necessary things to respect and fear.
In Southern California, which has a long and treasured railroad history and currently boasts one of the most expansive and efficient commuter light rail systems in the country, it’s easy to romanticize trains and their impacts on society.
On Sunday, the Pasadena Museum of History will be hosting its annual Birthday Party, this year celebrating the city’s 131st year of incorporation. The event, which is free and open to the public, focuses on two current exhibitions: “The Art of Getting There: Railroad Inspired Artistry,” and “Art in the Street: 25 Years of the Pasadena Chalk Festival.”
As part of our contribution to the yearly celebration, this week we set aside pages 13 through 25 to look at the history of trains in our community and the impacts they have made on our lives.
Then, on pages 31 and 33 we look at the history of the chalk festival, which over the years has become one of the city’s most popular yearly events.
As Arts Editor Carl Kozlowski learned through his research, the first train service for Pasadena was the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley Railroad. Founded in 1883 to connect Pasadena to downtown LA, it opened for business two years later. Two years after that, it extended service to San Dimas.
Back then, there was also the horse-driven Pasadena Street Railroad, which opened in 1886 — the year Pasadena became a city. By then, the city’s first electric line, City Railway, had been operating for three years, and, Carl reports, by 1895 the electric line ran to downtown LA after the Pasadena & Los Angeles Electric Railway took it over. Railroad magnate Henry Huntington eventually bought and rebranded the company the Pacific Electric Railway, or Red Car.
Rebecca Kuzins delves a little more deeply into the lore of the Red Car and the lingering misconception that it stopped running as the result of a grand conspiracy by oil, rubber and car companies in order to promote travel by car. “The fable is that PE was done in by Standard Oil, Firestone tires and General Motors’ buses,” Steve Crise, co-founder of the Mt. Lowe Preservation Society, told Rebecca. “While that may be true for some systems in the country, it’s certainly not true for the Pacific Electric … The PE,” said Crise, “simply didn’t keep up with technology,” with the system finally shutting down in 1961.
Crise and Mt. Lowe Preservation Society co-founder Michael Patris put together the exhibition, “The Art of Getting There: Railroad Inspired Artistry,” which will be on display through Aug. 13 at the museum.
In our collection of stories, Deputy Editor André Coleman looks at the man responsible for turning the Red Car into such a formidable force for social change and advancement, Henry Huntington, a person of great wealth and passions.
And, finally, Sheila Mendes Coleman examines the now long-gone Mount Lowe Railway, a marvel of its time — or any time, really — which traversed the steep, scenic and dangerous mountainsides surrounding Pasadena at the turn of the last century.
As Travel Town’s Nancy Gneier told PW’s writer Elizabeth Kinney, Los Angeles is shaped the way it is because of transportation arteries like the Pacific Electric Railroad. Unlike New York and Chicago, with transit systems that radiate from a downtown area, Gneier told Elizabeth that LA is a maze of long-forgotten railroad lines leading to outskirt destinations.
“Pasadena was one of those destinations. When LA was just being formed, Pasadena was the exotic place that people could go to and go up to Mount Lowe and ride the train, and things like that,” said Gneier.
After reading this collection of stories, it might be a good idea to pack a lunch and a couple copies of this edition of the PW for the next time the kids come to visit and we head out to Travel Town for another fun-filled afternoon of jumping on trains.
Co-hosted by the city of Pasadena, the Pasadena Museum of History’s Happy Birthday celebration is from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at 470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena. For more information, call (626) 577-1660 or visit pasadenaHistory.org .