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Where That Lonesome Air Horn Blows : A Train Lover's Tour Through Downtown Los Angeles

January 26, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

I find train tracks too tempting not to follow. They don't go where streets and roads go. They pass few front doors, pre ferring alleys or their own rights-of-way, and they seldom lead to any place you would normally go. Following them can be an adventure--often into the past--because most of the rails that curve through Los Angeles were laid a long time ago.

The tracks that pass by my house in West Los Angeles were first spiked into place in 1875 for the Los Angeles & Independence Railroad. They were part of a scheme to connect the silver mines of Nevada with a port in Los Angeles, a port that was perched on pilings in Santa Monica Bay. Things didn't work out (the port moved to San Pedro), and the tracks became the property of the growing Southern Pacific. They then served commuters as the Air Line for the interurban cars of the Pacific Electric before reverting again to the Southern Pacific when freeways put the big Red Cars out of business.

Now I hear that the tracks are to be abandoned, and already I miss the lonely sound of the locomotive's air horns as it makes its gentlemanly way through the garrulous Westside traffic. I decided to follow the tracks, to learn more of their habits and haunts before they became only words and pictures in a book. Following the rails led me to the unheralded, historical heart of the city, a part of Los Angeles I would preserve under a bell jar if I could.

Bounded by Alameda Street and the Los Angeles River, buried between the Santa Monica and Santa Ana freeways, is an area that was once the domain of these iron dinosaurs, and their tracks and traces are everywhere. Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, the Santa Fe and the Pacific Electric all converged here. Tracks and yards still line the river and from these staging areas fan out to the old commercial district. The rails run down streets and alleys, between buildings, over bridges, in every direction through a world built of brick.

Amid this grid of urban streets, the rails make graceful curves through the canyons of downtown, cutting blocks and buildings into pie shapes and semi-circles. Against the black asphalt, the polished, worn tops of the rails sparkle like rivulets of steel, though here and there they simply vanish, like a stream gone underground.

Or sometimes a straight section of track running between buildings disappears. Like a bend in a river, these sudden curves usually signal adventure. It was just beyond one of these bends in the rails, near the corner of Industrial and Mill streets, that I found one of my favorite buildings, though it's the rails that make it so.

There's something intriguing about a train disappearing into a tunnel; tunnels are perhaps the first thing a child adds to a Christmas train set. This building is as close to a railroad tunnel as you're likely to find in downtown Los Angeles. The rails cleave the building in two, and the contouring brick walls parallel the rounding of the tracks with no room to spare. The sign by the portal to this urban tunnel--WARNING. STRUCTURES ON THIS TRACK WILL NOT CLEAR A MAN ON THE OUTSIDE OF THE CAR--is neither kidding nor cautious.

It is easy to imagine a hissing steam switcher, the kind that trailed a slope-backed tender, so popular in toy-train sets, disappearing into this brick slot, the flanges squealing on the tight radius, dragging reluctant red boxcars behind, or perhaps pushing them ahead so it could back out after delivery.

Despite the weeds and the rust on the rails, the route has not been abandoned. Occasionally, a rather large, blue-and-yellow Santa Fe diesel assigned to inner-city switching chores plies this piece of track. If you're like me, you'll keep coming back to the corner of Industrial and Mill streets, hoping to catch it on its erratic afternoon rounds, coming through this Tuscan-red tunnel, creeping cautiously along like a skater on thin ice, unsure of the footing underneath where most of the rails have 1915cast on their sides.

Continue to follow the rails on foot across Industrial Street toward Santa Fe Avenue, and you find among the grasses track work of incredible complexity, with rails crossing one another at amazing angles before leading off in a dozen directions, each one worth exploring.

Everywhere you look, you find a Los Angeles of another era that is refreshingly rich in texture and color, in sharp contrast to the slick, new office buildings visible in the distance. Everything has been weathered, eroded, rusted or polished, and the materials are coarse or natural--stone, brick, wood and iron--materials you want to touch even though you're going to get your hands dirty.

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