Several years ago, Santa Fe Railroad officials ordered Marguerite Kennedy's colorful garden of shrubs and flowers torn up to clear an area along a little-used spur track across from the Amtrak depot in San Juan Capistrano.
But the garden is still flourishing, and Wednesday a small California live oak tree was planted nearby, partly in observance of Arbor Day, but mostly as the city's first step towards fulfilling a commitment to landscape about a half-mile stretch along the tracks.
The tree is only 4 1/2 feet tall, and the trunk measures a little more than one inch in diameter.
"But it could grow a foot a year in height and gain an inch a year in the trunk," said Mike Evans, a nurseryman who did the planting. "So, give it a few years, and . . . ."
And some day, it will be a mighty oak with roots in Kennedy's inspiration.
Lives Across the Tracks
Kennedy, who lives in a small, 105-year-old wooden building across the tracks from the depot's platform, maintained the colorful garden of hollyhocks, poppies, geraniums and other plants between her house and the tracks. It was a delight for all who saw it, especially those who were waiting for trains, and it was considered a very special part of the charm of the community.
Then one day, Santa Fe Railroad officials discovered that some of the plants were less than six feet from the short spur track that ran alongside the main line, and that, they said, was in violation of a Public Utilities Commission regulation that requires at least a six-foot clear zone next to train tracks for the safety of switchmen who sometimes hang on the sides of cars.
They said the flowers and shrubs would have to be ripped up, and when that news got out, protests flooded in.
"Even my wife got mad at me," one Santa Fe official said.
Some complicated negotiations followed, and finally it was decided that the spur track really wasn't used very often, so Santa Fe agreed to have it, instead of the flowers, removed.
In return, city officials said they would landscape along both sides of the track from a point north of the depot--which is now a restaurant but still a train stop--south to Del Obispo Street, making sure to maintain the six-foot clear zone.
So Wednesday, Kennedy, City Councilman Lawrence F. Buchheim and some neighbors from the historic Los Rios district, not far from old Mission San Juan Capistrano, watched as Evans, whose Tree of Life nursery donated the oak, dug a hole in the hard soil.
"I'll make sure it's watered," Kennedy said, "and someday . . . .'