History of the
Santa Paula Branch

By Russell B. Sperry,
(Based in part on the writings of David F. Myrick)

From the 1850's until the 1920's and 30's, railroads were America's lifeline. Whether located on a main trunk line or a secondary branch, communities depended on railroads for their connection to the outside world. Towns bypassed by railroads often withered and died as their residents moved a few miles to be closer to these vital transportation links. It was not unusual for citizens in promising areas to band together to build short line railroads to connect to the nearest main track, or to lobby the ma jor railroads into building a branch to their communities. It was just such an effort in the mid 1880's, begun by Thomas R. Bard, which led to construction of the railroad from Saugus through Santa Paula and Ventura to Santa Barbara. (In 1890, Bard became the first president of the Union Oil Company, first headquartered in what is now the Santa Paula Oil Museum.) Eventually, Bard and other major landowners in the Santa Paula and Port Hueneme area convinced the Southern Pacific RR that sufficient traffic would be generated to warrant constructing a branch. While the right of way was being secured, Chinese grading crews and Irish track gangs began arriving in Saugus around mid April, 1886. After several interruptions, work on the line was begun in earnest by the end of the summer.

As construction proceeded westward, new towns sprang up at Piru, Fillmore and Sespe. Although promoted by the 'Big Four' owners of the Southern Pacific, Sespe never developed as expected. The depot was open only a few years, and the Post Office closed in 1932; by that time most of the residents had long since moved to nearby Fillmore or west to Santa Paula. Piru and Fillmore survived, however, and grew in importance as the citrus industry made possible by rail transportation thrived in the valley. Santa Paula, already a major agricultural center, received a big boost from the arrival of the rails early in 1887. Train service got off to a shaky start however, as unusually heavy rains disrupted traffic several times during the next few weeks.

Restored Santa Paula Depot

The Santa Paula depot, shipped in sections from Sacramento, was ready for occupancy by its first agent, Fred Corey, at the end of March. Water towers for the thirsty locomotives were located in Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula; the latter also boasted a small turntable and basic engine service facilities.

A 2-2-0 "San Gabriel" Engine

The first locomotive arrived in Ventura by the end of April, 1887. Construction continued northward, with service established to Carpenteria on July 1st and the first train to Santa Barbara arriving on August 19th. The tracks were extended north to Ellwood, a ranching and oil center just south of Gaviota, by December. For the next fourteen years, Ellwood was the end of the line, as difficult terrain and the depression of the 1890's put a halt to further construction for a time. Rails had been extended south from San Francisco through Salinas to Templeton and Santa Margarita by 1889, but it was not until early May of 1894 that trains reached San Luis Obispo from the north. This line was extended to Surf, where a branch heads off to Lompoc, in 1896. Another four years were needed to complete construction along the rugged seaside cliffs south of Surf; connection of SP's Coast Line from Los Angeles through to San Francisco was finally celebrated near Gaviota, with the driving of the last spike on the final day of December in the year 1900.

Traffic on the line through the Santa Clara River Valley increased greatly in 1901, as it was now part of a main north-south link between two of California's largest cities. Local traffic continued to grow as well, since the trains made it profitable to ship the region's agricultural products to markets in the east. Meanwhile, T. R. Bard had continued in his efforts to persuade the Southern Pacific to build a line to serve his extensive holdings to the south of the original route. Completion of the 7, 369 foot Santa Susana tunnel in 1904 allowed a more direct route from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles to be established. This new line split off at Montalvo in southeast Ventura, and headed south to Oxnard (where the Ventura County Railway branches off to Port Hueneme). It then turned east through Camarillo and Moorpark, then through Santa Susana and its tunnels to the San Fernando Valley, and connected to the original line at Burbank Junction. The old route via Fillmore and Santa Paula was soon relegated to branch line status, with most through traffic now diverted to Oxnard and Santa Susana. Two passenger trains from L.A. to Santa Barbara via Fillmore and Santa Paula remained on the schedule until mid 1934, however, and the branch continued to originate hundreds of carloads of citrus each year, well into the 1950's.

By the 1960's, much of the citrus grown in the Santa Clara River Valley was being shipped by trucks on the tax supported Interstate highway system. As the costs of doing business increased, the railroad's service to smaller shippers declined, and the frequency of trains on the branch dropped even further. In 1979, heavy rains washed out sections of the line east of Piru and west of Saugus. Permission was granted in 1984 for abandonment of the railway line east of Piru; the right of way between Rancho Camulos and Saugus was purchased by the Newhall Land & Farming Company. Most of the rails were torn out, except for a short stretch near Castaic leased to Short Line Enterprises for their use in running trains for movie work. With traffic declining on the remainder of the branch, it seemed just a matter of time until the entire line would be gone.

In 1990, Newhall Land & Farming terminated their leases with Short Line and other movie set providers near Castaic. In the course of looking for a new home, Short Line had approached the cities of Fillmore and Santa Paula. Fillmore was looking for a way to boost its economy, and assisted Short Line in moving there and setting up for movie, tourist and dinner train operations. Meanwhile, the Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC) had been considering the future mass transit needs of the County, and recognized the potential value of a rail corridor through the Valley. With the help of a letter writing campaign by the Santa Clara River Valley Railroad Historical Society (SCRVRHS), VCTC's application for a share of Federal ISTEA transportation funding was approved, and purchased the branch. Long term plans call for the eventual rebuilding of the railroad through to Santa Clarita for use by Metrolink. Meanwhile, the income generated by Fillmore and Western Railway Co. (formerly the Short Line) movie operations and tourist trains is already having a very positive effect on the local economy. Both Fillmore and Santa Paula have renovated their downtowns and railroad yards to maximize their appeal to visitors. Fillmore has approved development of a railroad interpretive center focused on a turntable and roundhouse, while in Santa Paula the historic depot is expected to house a small museum (featuring several artifacts from the 1994 RR Heritage exhibit at the Oil Museum) and to become the centerpiece of a railroad oriented park and shopping complex.

New Piru Depot

VCTC has built a new Train Depot in Piru and on March 18, 2006, regular local passenger train service was restored after over 53 years. Fillmore and Western Railway Company now has weekly train service from Fillmore to Piru.

Last updated 3/16/06