A Brief History of the Southern Pacific Railroad in Whittier
by William Church
In 1887 Aquila H. Pickering traveled to California from Chicago in search of a site on which to establish a Quaker settlement. In search of the right location Aquila had traveled throughout the state, from north to south and even down into northern Mexico , but had failed to find what he wanted. Resigned to his failure he was about to give up and return home when word reached him about the John Thomas Ranch located on the southwestern slopes of the Puente hills. Accompanied by several fellow Quakers Aquila set out for the Ranch, upon his arrival he realized that his search had come to an end and what was first known as the Pickering Land and Water Company was soon renamed, in honor of Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and incorporated as the Town of Whittier .
As settlers arrived it became apparent that the transport of local agricultural output could not depend on the inadequate road system of early Southern California . With the Southern Pacific Railroad serving nearby Downey an agreement was reached to build a 6 mile spur to Whittier along with depot facilities at a cost of about $43,000, to be paid by the city’s businessmen. This spur originated on the SP mainline at Studebaker, located just east of present day Studebaker Road between Imperial Hwy and Firestone Blvd. this junction is still in use today. It continued northeast for 6 miles passing through Fulton Wells, later renamed Santa Fe Springs, Los Nietos, where it crossed the Santa Fe Railroad mainline, then on into Whittier where a single story passenger/freight depot was built on Evergreen just east of Cole Rd. , now Washington Blvd and Lambert Rd. respectively. From there it continued north up to Hadley St, passing behind the Whittier State School, now Fred C. Nelles School for Boys, where a second combination passenger/freight depot was built which included an upstairs apartment for the station master to live.
As the town grew, so too did the S.P.’s presence and service. Early passenger and freight service consisted of regular through trains between Los Angeles and Tustin , in Orange County , being diverted at Studebaker to Whittier . By 1895 these diversions were replaced by three daily round trips between Whittier and Studebaker where passengers and freight would be transferred to mainline trains. This local service was supported by a single stall engine house and 75′ turntable that was built on the west side of the tracks at Bailey St. and were most likely built at the same time as the Bailey St. depot.
By the early to mid 1890’s additional spurs reached out from the Bailey St. depot, just south of Philadelphia St. was the San Pedro Lumber Yard, a descendant of which operated until 1999, a feed and planting mill and the Whittier Fruit Cannery just above the present Penn St.
A scant ten years later a spur was built north across Hadley St. to service both a gas works and the Whittier Brick Company, whose site is now occupied by an auto wrecking yard in which the brick work’s loading dock still stands.
Continuing to grow, one of Whittier ‘s round trips to Studebaker Junction was changed, in 1896, into a direct run through to the Los Angeles Station, continuing on to Alhambra and Monrovia before returning to Whittier via Los Angeles .
By 1900, the tracks south of the Bailey St. Depot were extended below Penn St. to serve the Whittier Citrus Association Packing House, which still stands today when it is known as King Richards Antiques. In addition, this year also saw the construction, by the SP, of a packing house, across the tracks west of the Bailey St. Depot.
Traffic growth from Whittier can be gagged not only from the increases presence of SP, but also by the arrival in 1903 of the Pacific Electric Interurban whose track was built along a dedicated right of way through the fields west of early Whittier between present day Gretna and Lynalan Ave ‘s. By 1913 it carried more than 1,000,000 passengers a year to and from Whittier .
By 1925 Whittier ‘s Depot facility saw the construction of a second turntable, larger at 100’ diameter, it could better accommodate the newer and larger locomotives in use by the SP on it’s local freight runs.
By 1938 passenger traffic on the Pacific Electric had decreased to such an extent as a result of competition from the automobile, that service to Whittier was dropped, though the tracks remained in place. Then, in 1942, SP abandoned it’s original spur line into Whittier from Studebaker, removing the rails so that they could be used for expansion of the of PE line to Calship in San Pedro in support of the war effort. However, SP service to Whittier continued via the former PE tracks which were extended to reach the Bailey St. Depot by crossing Whittier Blvd. and Magnolia Ave. This remained SP’s access to Whittier until it abandoned service in 1967.
The original Whittier Depot at Evergreen St. was in use until sometime around 1940 when it caught fire and burnt to the ground taking with it the neighboring Briggs Spence Packing House. Fire was not an unknown to many Depots where a stray spark from a passing steam locomotive would land on the structure setting it ablaze, which, coupled with the lack of a generous water supply would promptly burn to the ground. There are reports that the Bailey St. Depot experienced several fires over the years though all damage done was repaired. With the Depot up on blocks during it’s recent move a survey of the underside structure revealed floor joists under the freight house that were burnt and had been cut off inline with each other next to newer joists that were undamaged.
As the years passed trucking made inroads into the S.P.’s agricultural and industrial freight business in Whittier , while housing tracks made inroads into the many fruit orchards in town. In 1967, recognizing their changing clientele, the S.P. relocated their freight office to a nearby industrial park and closed down their Whittier Depot. While no longer used by the S.P. the Depot did not remain empty for during the next twenty years it was occupied by a succession of industrial tenants until the mid 1980’s.
By the mid 1980’s, with Whittier ‘s 1987 Centennial approaching, interest began to build for the restoration and preservation of the Depot as part of our town’s heritage with a plan to move other historic buildings next to the Depot to create a heritage park. Such was not to be as the original site was combined with several adjoining properties for development of a retail shopping center, and, with the inability to develop an acceptable on site reuse for the Depot the developer threatened to demolish the Depot if it wasn’t promptly relocated off the property. The City took possession of the Depot and relocated it to a temporary home a few blocks away, ironically, on the site of the former Union Pacific Railroad Depot which had been razed just several years before.
Enduring several years of neglect while awaiting funds and the selection of a new home, the City was awarded an grant of $1.2 million in 1996 from the federal/state ISTEA program, Intermodal Surface Transportation Enhancement Act, for the restoration and reuse of the Depot.
The City selected the experienced architectural firm 30th Street Architects to lead the effort on the Whittier Depot, having worked on over 100 historical projects that are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Among 30th Street’s previous depot projects are the Claremont Transit Facility at the former Santa Fe Depot in Claremont, and the Fullerton Transportation Center in Fullerton which involved the relocation of the abandoned Union Pacific depot and the renovation of the existing AMTRAK depot in the former Santa Fe depot.
Since 1996 work has progressed in several stages on the planning and preparation for the Whittier Depot’s future. Following the formation of a Depot Task Force staffed by members of interested community groups such as Save Our Depot, Whittier Historical Society, Whittier Conservancy, Uptown Merchants Association, regular meetings were held with the City and 30th Street to determine “What was best for the Depot”. With a site selected by the City for redevelopment at 7333 Greenleaf Ave., below the Uptown Business District, the Task Force selected site placement and adaptive reuse plans for the Depot’s future use as Whittier’s Transit Center which will allow passengers to transfer between the MTA, Dial-A-Ride and City shuttle busses, house the Whittier City Transit Office and make the restored freight house available for community events and gatherings.