Travel back in time at the San Dimas Railroad Museum.
by Erin Konrad
photography by Sher Porter
Black, billowing smoke fills the air as the train pulls into the crowded station. Men and women rush about, carrying crates of lemons and oranges. Horses drag wagons filled with supplies and boxes down the bustling dirt road. The scent of citrus is everywhere in 1887, the year the railroad was completed. The city of San Dimas was a small community nestled against the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. It soon became a hub of activity for the area, when the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe Railroad made visits to pick up the citrus. The Santa Fe was a profitable and efficient railroad company, shipping citrus produced in San Dimas and La Verne to destinations all over the world. The location was selected by the railroad because of its prime position among the surrounding communities that all produced citrus. Prospectors came by the hundreds to stake their claims.
Now the station is closer to a ghost town than to the busy, prospering post it once was. Trains no longer run on this railroad anymore, and the only trace of its path along the route are the worn tracks that run behind the building. However, the city of San Dimas has done a great deal to ensure that this site where history was made will retain its historical value. The Santa Fe Railway Station was made into a small museum for visitors wishing to take a trip back before the turn of the 20th century.
The bright yellow building on Bonita Avenue in San Dimas consists of only one room filled with artifacts and photographs from throughout the city’s history. Glass cases surround the room, except for the back wall, where there is a large window facing what used to be the location of where trains unloaded citrus crates and passengers. The glass cases document the city’s illustrious past. There are Native American artifacts and pieces of tools and crates from the heyday of the citrus industry. There is a worn sign behind the glass that was once hung on a wall in an orange packinghouse. It reads, “No talking to employees.” There are stacks of the original labels that were pasted to the sides of the lemon and orange crates. “These oranges grew in San Dimas” they proudly state.
Despite all of the history present, there is still a kitschy, hometown feel to the museum. Marmalade and jellies are for sale in jars with labels that tout the Walker House, another site of the city’s impressive history. The mansion was once a hotel for weary travelers who had just gotten off the trains. Now, it’s under construction to refurbish it back to its original glory. The museum also offers pens and hats for sale, but none of the merchandise hides the fact that this location holds many genuine relics from the past.
An adjacent room, really not much bigger than the museum, is owned by the Pacific Railroad Society. This room is another piece of history. There are large benches on display, where people would wait patiently for their train to arrive. Neither museum is open every day, creating a special window of opportunity for those who wish to view the historical site. Both rooms are run solely by volunteers from the San Dimas Historical Society.
Before it became the capital of citrus production in the late 19th century, the area was occupied by the Gabrieleno Indians. In the 1770s, the first Europeans traveled to the site. A Spanish soldier named Juan Baptista DeAnza passed through the area and named it Mud Springs because of the nearby marshland. After a mix of settlers and ranchers came pouring west, the railway was completed and a huge land boom took place. The area had originally been solely for cattle ranching. But in 1889, Robert Teague planted what would be the largest citrus nursery in the world. Over 10,000 acres of lemon, orange and grapefruit trees were planted. Eleven years later, Teague had more than 7,000 seedlings. A decade later, his sales totaled more than $100,000.
The building that has become the museum, however, is the not the same structure that the railway company built in 1887. That one burned down in 1933, after a packinghouse across the street caught fire. The station was rebuilt within a year, but the design was completely different. The only true remnants of the original building are the photographs that memorialize the site. The station finally closed in 1967 after the citrus industry went downhill and a more suburban feel took up residence in San Dimas.
One volunteer at the museum, Susan Davis, has always loved history. She became a member of the Historical Society some years ago.
“My favorite part is the old pictures,” Davis said. “We have almost 2,000 and we’re in the process of digitalizing them now.”
The San Dimas Railroad Museum is open the first and third Saturdays of every month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.