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Tracks to the Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back then, the rails followed hope, conquered distance and opened an undiscovered country to the masses. Now, they sit neglected and unused, weeds poking through the ties. Even so, they remain a sort of connective tissue--binding not places this time, but eras.

As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority slowly begins to tear up the old Southern Pacific Railroad tracks along the southern and western edges of the San Fernando Valley to make way for the Metro Rail subway project, a piece of history gradually disappears to make way for the future.

The tracks, which meander between Burbank and Chatsworth, are among the oldest man-made structures in the Valley, relics from a time before tract homes and freeways, when wheat and barley fields dotted the dusty flatlands.

“The Burbank branch was the first rail line across the Valley,” said John Signor, a former Southern Pacific employee who acts as the company’s unofficial historian from his home near Mt. Shasta.

Trains began rumbling along the 21 miles of track in 1893, a few years after the main north-south line out of Los Angeles was completed through the Newhall Pass. The spur split from the main line in Burbank and crossed the Valley along Chandler and Oxnard boulevards before turning north along Canoga Avenue to Chatsworth Park, offering both freight and passenger service daily.

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Eventually, though, the line’s importance was supplanted in 1904 when Southern Pacific crews finished the tunnel through the Santa Susana Pass and new tracks were built that cut diagonally across the Valley floor. That line is still heavily used by Metrolink, Amtrak and freight trains.

Even so, by the 1960s, a single diesel freight train still faithfully chugged the Burbank line every weekday, making deliveries to the factories and warehouses that grew up around it. Southern Pacific began phasing out the line in 1992, after selling the right of way to the MTA in 1991.

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These days, as the MTA takes stock of the line’s future use, it is as quiet and sad as a graveyard in places, little more than a desolate strip of trash-strewn dirt and weeds. The tracks have long since been paved over at many intersections, and the crossing arms stand worn and stiff, moving only slightly when the wind howls down out of the passes.

In the days before ornamental street trees and groomed lawns, those desiccating winds kicked up furious dust storms that blinded the handful of farmers and residents who populated an area noted as the perfect place for a town by 18th century explorers.

But by the late 19th century, most of the Valley was a treeless expanse of farms and a few tiny towns. The Burbank-Chatsworth line was built to serve lonely agricultural outposts, according to Ralph Melching, a founder of the Pacific Railroad Society.

“Part of the reason for it being there was the agriculture in the Valley,” Melching said. “They grew wheat and barley. I always thought this was kind of funny because barley is not considered much of a cash crop. But it was used to feed the mules that drew the 20-mule teams from mining operations in the lower Owens Valley, so it was a big item.”

Even more influential, though, were the suburbs that sprang up in the early years of this century. In 1909, a promotional article in The Times called the Valley “the largest single body of fertile, level land in this part of the state, and said to be the largest single body of land lying so near a big city in the United States.”

There was room, the story boasted, for “at least 25,000 persons.”

The Burbank-Chatsworth line was critical to the success of the three new towns planned by the Los Angeles Suburban Homes company: Van Nuys, Marion (now Reseda) and Owensmouth (now Canoga Park). In 1910, the first tracts were open to the public, boasting easy rail access to the city on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“By auto and by special gasoline-driven coaches on the Southern Pacific, crowds of people arrived in the valley to scout out their land,” wrote regional historian Remi Nadeau in Westways magazine. “This was the era of the ‘Back to the Land’ movement, when the inhabitants of the West and the Great Plains were busy buying farm property and returning to the soil. In Southern California, this social phenomenon directed most of its energy into the San Fernando Valley.”

By the next year, 1911, the directors of Suburban Homes--particularly Hobart J. Whitley--were determined to draw the biggest possible crowds to an opening in Van Nuys. So Whitley bought batches of tickets from Southern Pacific and sold them at a loss. He also convinced the local telephone company of the time to invite every customer in Southern California to the opening.

“From Los Angeles, two special trains with a total of 19 cars chugged into the valley, loaded to the windows with excursionists,” Nadeau wrote. “They stood in the aisles, the vestibules, and on the runways between the coaches.”

Auctioneers sold a lot every three minutes, according to Nadeau, and when the last train prepared to head back to Los Angeles at 4 p.m., “customers pleaded to put one more lot on sale. As one observer said, ‘Nothing like it was ever seen in Southern California.’ ”

In 1912, the Canoga Park train station was finished, offering a two-hour ride to downtown Los Angeles from the developing town of Owensmouth. But that same year marked the beginning of the end of passenger service on the line.

With Pacific Electric’s Red Cars offering 16 daily trips to downtown Los Angeles for only a quarter, the trolleys were faster and more convenient than the Southern Pacific trains. Passenger service on the Burbank line ceased in 1920.

The old Canoga Park train station eventually housed a hardware store, but was torn down last year after years of neglect and, finally, a devastating fire. Freight trains continued to rumble along the tracks, although with less and less frequency.

During World War II, the line again carried passengers--wounded soldiers en route to the Veterans Administration hospital in Van Nuys, Signor said. Between July 1944 and December 1945, the line hosted 360 hospital trains, he said.

And for a time, Melching said, the Burbank line shared a short stretch of track with the Red Cars between Van Nuys and North Hollywood. “A bridge washed out in the 1938 floods, so they used a joint bridge and track,” Melching said. “There was no reason to have a parallel track.”

But on Dec. 28, 1952, the last Red Car rumbled over the Cahuenga Pass to Van Nuys--a victim of freeways, the promises of automobility and industrial avarice. The line once again was devoted solely to freight traffic. Even that dwindled. By the 1960s, a single engine stationed in Van Nuys cruised the line, making deliveries and picking up empty boxcars.

The MTA bought the right of way in 1991 for $116 million with the intent of using it as the Valley alignment for the Metro Rail project. A year later, Southern Pacific began phasing out the limited service on the line.

Although the northern and southern tips are still used--mainly for switching--the rails are empty through the heart of the Valley. Some of its paved-over tracks have even been conscripted (for a fee) by a Van Nuys car dealer who uses the extra space to show off his wares.

Many years remain before the line will once again host trains--if it ever does, according to MTA spokesman Steve Chesser. As the agency conducts a so-called “major investment study,” crews are quietly dismantling extra equipment along the line. Full-scale removal of track is planned, but no date has been set.

The project faces many hurdles. It’s expensive. And the tracks that once were a boon to isolated farmers now dissect suburban neighborhoods whose denizens are in constant search of tranquillity. Many don’t want a rail line cutting through their peace and quiet.

So while transportation planners envision a future for the tracks much like their past, many residents are comfortable with their present state. They are quiet now, obscured by weeds and covered by blacktop--their past a faint whistle in the minds of train buffs, their future as uncertain and elusive as a wisp of steam on the horizon.


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