June 28, 2008

Tehachapi residents remember the depot

staff writer
Bakersfield Californian

Tehachapi Train Depot in 1904.

After 104 years of service, it only took hours for the Historic Tehachapi Train Depot to come crashing down.

The old structure was engulfed in flames after fireworks, lit off late at night, started the inferno.

The depot was the second. The first built in 1876 and burnt down in 1904.

However for more than a century, it stood in the center of Tehachapi, acting as its lifeline, especially in the early days before highways went through Tehachapi. The 1952 earthquake flattened many of the historic buildings in town, but failed to damage the depot. Even when passenger service stopped in 1971, the depot survived and transformed. It continued to be used as office space for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company.

It took only fireworks to burn down a part of Tehachapi history, erase a visible part of American railroad history and shake the core of Tehachapi downtown.


Lydia Wheat, moved to Tehachapi in 1925. She remembers the historic depot as “just the depot.” She would board trains there and head into east Bakersfield for lunch and shopping before returning to Tehachapi.

“In the 1940s it was the only transportation we had,” she said. To send mail, Wheat said she would go to the depot.

“You could run and give the letter to the conductor and they would see that it would get out,” she said. “It was pretty nice.”

Growing up across the street from railroad tracks, Wheat said trains used to pass through the depot every three or four minutes.

“The first couple of nights we moved to town, we could not sleep,” she said. “Now they do not bother me in the least.”

“I was very sad to see it go,” Wheat said of the now destroyed depot.


As the son of an alfalfa farmer, Ed Grimes would always accompany his dad on trips to downtown Tehachapi for supplies and equipment repairs. The train depot was always the best place to play.

“There were so many places to hide,” Grimes said.

Walking into the depot, Grimes remembered smelling the wafting scent of cigars.

“It has always been so vivid in my mind,” he said. Outside the depot, all the old measuring scales piled up and the old equipment provided a “neat place for a boy to play.”

When he saw the depot on fire, he said he was so emotionally distraught he didn’t realize the tears running down his face.


Doug Pickard became concerned with the deteriorating condition of the depot when he realized the railroad company, now the Union Pacific, was not going “to spend a dime on it.”

The Union Pacific, which bought out the Southern Pacific in 1995, was using the building as an office for its maintenance workers.

Although Pickard has a relatively short history in Tehachapi (living there for only 14 years), he became emotionally attached to restoring the old depot to its former glory.

“It was a strong personal desire to restore that depot late in my life,” he said. As he researched the history of the depot, it grew on him. He formed the Friends of the Tehachapi Depot in 2004, a small group of enthusiasts pushing for restoration.

The City of Tehachapi achieved a major milestone in 2006 when Union Pacific agreed to exchange the depot if the city built another building for its workers.

After an October key exchange ceremony, volunteers officially could begin restoration of the depot, which Pickard estimates was 95 percent complete when it burned down last Friday. In less than three years of work, he said it was fully repainted, new windows and the heating system were installed and even the sprinkler system was set up.

Fortunately, they were not finished — historic artifacts to be displayed in the museum weren’t inside yet.

“Then it would have been a much greater loss,” Pickard said.


Where Pickard struggled for ten years to restore the depot, Dell Troy struggled for 35 years to rehab the old depot. As a resident of Tehachapi for 50 years, she began to push for a museum at the depot in 1973, two years after passenger service stopped.

“In the fall of 1972, there was a rumor that it would be sold and made into a restaurant,” she said.

She and several others formed the Tehachapi Heritage League to save the depot from becoming a restaurant. The Southern Pacific Railroad Company later said it would not sell the building.

From then on Troy said there was a tuggle war between the people of Tehachapi and the railroad company, which continually refused to allow restoration of the building.

“The answer was always no,” she said. When ownership changed to the Union Pacific, Tehachapi residents were able to start restoration on their favorite building.

She said the love affair residents have with the depot is rooted in history.

“I think everyone put so much love into the depot because they lost practically all of the downtown in the 1952 earthquake,” she said. “It’s 104 years of history gone.”

What’s next for the depot?

The Tehachapi City Council voted unimously on June 16 to rebuild the depot, said City Councilman Ed Grimes.

“We gave directions to the city manager to start building as soon as the investigation is complete,” said Grimes.

Insurance, a building donation fund and redevelopment funds will cover the cost of rebuilding the depot. Grimes said residents have already donated $13,000 to the building doantion fund.

Although it is still unclear when the construction will begin, the city will try to have the depot ready for Tehachapi’s 100 year anniversary in August 2009.