February 13, 2010

A Look Back: San Bernardino Depot once served 26 trains a day

The Santa Fe Depot in San Bernardino was once the largest train depot west of the Mississippi, employing 5000 people. (Special to The Press-Enterprise)

Special to The Press-Enterprise

Once, the Santa Fe Depot in San Bernardino was the largest train depot west of the Mississippi, employing 5,000 people and serving 26 trains per day. It was the first place train travelers to California saw before planes and cars replaced the train's popularity.

Today, the depot houses a train museum and the office of SANBAG (San Bernardino Associated Governments, the county's transportation agency). Only two trains, one at 5:30 a.m. and one at 8:30 p.m., stop to take on and let off passengers Monday through Friday. The depot stands as a monument to the building of San Bernardino, where so many of the passengers left the train and decided to make the city their new California home.

A boxcar served as the train depot until it was replaced in 1886 with a two-story wood Victorian-style building that was destroyed by fire in 1916. A new Spanish/Moorish style building with domes and towers and a tile roof was completed in 1918 at a cost of $800,000. The depot earned a reputation for its cleanliness, unlike the train stations in the east.

"The depot is such a big part of San Bernardino and the reason for the city's rapid growth," said Steve Shaw, president of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society and a director of the San Bernardino History and Railroad Museum.

"At one point in 1886, the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe had a price war and the ticket price for both from the east coast to San Bernardino was a dollar," he said.

Shaw said by the 1920s and 1930s, San Bernardino was recognized as a major city in the U.S. mostly due to the railroad.

"Everyone knew where San Bernardino was," he said.

Shaw said that for a while, the train yards housed the largest maintenance yards for the trains west of Kansas City until the maintenance yards were moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s or 1970s. He said the depot and its yards, including a roundhouse to turn around trains, took up about five square miles and encompassed the area from 3rd to 5th Streets and from I St. west to Rancho Avenue.

Shaw said that in 1922, a large earthquake destroyed many buildings in San Bernardino, but the depot remained untouched, probably due to its hollow clay block construction.

"When you stand inside the depot and a train goes by, the building doesn't shake at all," he said.

The new 57,400-square-foot depot housed baggage rooms, offices, a mailroom and a Western Union office. The domes remained empty except for pigeons. When a $17 million restoration was done on the depot in the early 2000s, a huge amount of pigeon droppings and 300 pounds of honey were removed from the dome and walls of the station.

Most memorable to travelers was the Harvey House restaurant that served travelers 1,200 meals per day in the coffee shop and formal dining room. The Harvey House restaurants were built along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railways between the 1880s and 1930s. The Harvey Girls (waitresses) dressed in starched black uniforms with white cuffs and bibbed aprons and starched white caps to serve hot meals, sandwiches, coffee and baked goods. A movie was made about the Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland.

"The Harvey Girls lived at the train station upstairs in seven to 12 rooms, two to a room. They had to sign a contract not to date or get married while they worked for the restaurant," said Shaw.

The Harvey House at the depot opened in 1921 and closed in the 1950s.

Trains traveling through the station bore such names as Super Chief, the Navajo, El Capitan, Scout, Grand Canyon Limited and the Chief. Today, only the Southwest Chief passes through the station heading east and west.

During World War II, troop trains passed through the station, and in the depot, it was often standing room only. Train travelers, be it movie star or president of the United States, passed through the station to come to California. Business grew up around the station including bars, boarding houses and restaurants such as The Pirate's Den and Cave Cafe and hotels such as the St. Augustine, the Maryland and the Planet.

In the 1960s, the rail industry began downsizing and Santa Fe turned its passengers over to Amtrak in 1972. Most of its workers were transferred to Topeka and its switching operations to Barstow in the San Bernardino County high desert. Today, the depot hosts the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway's intermodal freight transport yard, where freight from trains and trucks are loaded from one to the other. A few hundred yards from the depot is an outdoor station for Metrolink.

Shaw said the 10,000-square-foot San Bernardino Historical and Railroad Museum, housed in the depot and open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., is not open during the week because of Metrolink passenger need for the parking. He said a model train club may move into the depot, and he thinks that one day the Harvey House area could serve as a restaurant once again. There is a coffee bar currently in the depot, and across from it, a new supermarket and strip mall. Nearby, a parking structure for Metrolink will be built.

Though the train station's glory days are behind it, in 2007, Angelina Jolie filmed scenes at the depot for her movie The Changeling, thus bringing some new notoriety to the depot.