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Sentimental Journey Ends at Saugus Station

April 24, 1986|DEBRA SORRENTINO LARSON | Larson is a Newhall free-lance writer

As a teen-ager, Betty Pember rode the steam locomotive from Saugus Station to San Francisco. The train would leave in the morning, and a full day would be spent on the rails before she and her mother reached their destination.

Today, Pember, now 65, easily conjures up romantic images of the old train station's heyday: Musicians arrived at the station from the big city to play at local dance halls. There were visits by Presidents Harrison, Roosevelt and Coolidge.

But the last Southern Pacific passenger train to pass through the station--the San Joaquin Daylight No. 51--did so on April 30, 1971. What had once been the railroad's Southern California division headquarters had its status diminished by America's love of automobiles and the opening of Interstate 5 through Newhall.

The once-bustling station of Pember's youth is now a museum and headquarters for the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. No longer a passenger, Pember is now a docent. Wearing a striped engineer's hat and red cotton scarf, she is among 22 volunteers who spend Sunday afternoons telling visitors about the 99-year-old station.

"This is the only station left in this whole valley," Pember said. "That's why we were so fortunate to, with the community's help, move it. Southern Pacific gave us the building, if we could get it moved. So, with concerned citizens, we were able to do it."

That move took place in June, 1980. It cost $60,000 and required that the station be sawed in half for the three-mile journey to its present site adjacent to William S. Hart Park in Newhall.

After the Southern Pacific Transportation Co. decided to divest itself of the station in 1979, a businessman bid on it for commercial purposes. "Just before the time limit was up, the man said he couldn't negotiate, and Southern Pacific said it would have to be demolished," Pember said. "That was when we all got on our hands and knees and begged.

"So they gave us a little extra time, and it was really frantic around here to get it within the time limit Southern Pacific had given us."

The limit was sixth months.

Pember stood over a glass case that displays mementos. The souvenirs include historical site maps for 75 cents; engineers caps for $3.50; buttons for $1 proclaiming "I helped save our station," and a $26 gold-plated spike commemorating the July 6, 1876, completion of the rails at Lang Station, linking Southern and Northern California and connecting Los Angeles to the transcontinental rail system.

The Saugus Station was opened Sept. 1, 1887, after a spur line to Ventura was completed by Southern Pacific. Train fare from Saugus to Los Angeles was 3 cents per mile.

"It was the way to communicate with the Valley, and people did use it in the early days. That was the way people went to Los Angeles instead of riding horseback," Pember said.

Angelenos traveled north to the Santa Clarita Valley to attend rodeos or hunt quail and other game. In the 1910s, bands came from the city to entertain ranchers, gold miners and oil drillers.

The station has long fueled local folklore. "It has a rather colorful history--from presidents to train robbers to movie stars," said Jerry Reynolds, historical society curator. Saugus Station even served as a location for Charlie Chaplin's 1923 movie, "The Pilgrim."

"It seems that, every so often, the cowboys from Newhall Ranch used to come into town and take a few potshots at the Indians or the northbound train."

In 1929, "Buffalo" Tom Vernon derailed a Southern Pacific train right next to the station, according to Reynolds. Vernon was a companion of "Buffalo" Bill Cody and had been "in and out of jail for years when he finally knocked off the train, getting a grand total of $300," he said.

The station was turned 180 degrees after being transported south on San Fernando Road and now sits atop Los Angeles County land, which is leased to the society. In October, 1980, the Board of Supervisors designated the spot a "point of historical interest," meaning it receives a marker but no county protection.

The station was dedicated Dec. 12, 1981, and the museum opened shortly afterward. Restoration of the station continues.

Members of the historical society repainted the station's exterior in its original mustard color. The freight room was modified to serve as the society's meeting room. The wide redwood floor planks were sanded and spaces between them were filled to reduce drafts.

"It was very gray and very rugged and had big cracks in between the planks," Pember said. "It was originally a coal storage section. Then they extended the roof and put the siding up and made the freight room out of it."

Max Mahan, historical society president, said heaters, fans and extra lighting were added to meet county building codes.

The waiting room still has a 12-foot oak bench that served passengers nearly a century ago. A display contains bubbled-glass bottles, antique china and silverware--remnants of a restaurant--found underneath the station when it was moved.

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