'They could really pick up speed coming down from the hills . . . when those steam engines came through, the whole town would rock and roll.'
One of Dwight Ahern's earliest memories is the roar of a Santa Fe train barreling down the hills and rumbling through the old town of Irvine. Ahern was born in 1912--20 feet from the Santa Fe tracks. His father, Phillip, was a Santa Fe section chief from 1910 until 1940, and his job was to make sure the 7-mile stretch of mainline through the Irvine Ranch was kept in good repair. The town of Irvine was a place of about 45 people centered around the depot, where trains picked up beans and dropped off tourists bound for Laguna Beach. A cluster of simple wooden buildings along the tracks, Irvine was no more than the depot, the section house where the Ahern family lived, the section gang's quarters (shacks made out of railroad ties with dirt floors where the workers lived with their families), a hotel, a grammar school, a blacksmith's shop and a group of storage structures.
The main road between Los Angeles and San Diego crossed the Santa Fe tracks at a dangerous angle in the middle of town, and as the years went by and traffic picked up, trains and automobiles smashed into each other all too frequently.
"Wrecks, wrecks, wrecks," says Dwight Ahern, reflecting on his youth. "A lot of Tijuana traffic, for the booze." Ahern--who now lives in a small, tidy house in Tustin with his wife Martha--remembers seeing a dozen or more people killed at the intersection in the 1910s and '20s.
There was the time the "bee man," who came to town from Riverside to sell honey, hit a train broadside while crossing the tracks in his Essex sedan. Another day, it was the butcher's wife and daughter. Ahern remembers that the butcher was so incensed by the tragedy that he tried to kill the engineer on the spot but was stopped by a worker on the section gang.
Today, what's left of the town, first called Myford after one of James Irvine Jr.'s sons and renamed Irvine in 1914, lies just west of Interstate 5 where Sand Canyon Road crosses the Santa Fe tracks. Still standing are the blacksmith's shop, now a Knowl-Wood fast-food restaurant, and the storage structures, which have been converted to a La Quinta Inn.
For 30 years, Phillip Ahern started work at dawn six days a week with a section gang of six to 15 workers. They straightened track, tightened rail joints, repaired the roadbed and, in bad weather, cleared debris from the tracks on the mainline. The section crew also was responsible for keeping up about 10 miles of branch-line track.
Trains heading from Los Angeles to San Diego routinely reached speeds of 70 m.p.h. on the mainline through the town of Irvine, rattling dishes and setting the dogs howling.
"If a train had to make up time, that's where he'd do it," Dwight Ahern says. "They could really pick up speed coming down from the hills. The ground isn't too stable around there, and when those steam engines came through, the whole town would rock and roll."
On hot days, the track workers stood close to the passing trains to catch a cooling breeze. Ahern often went out with his dad on handcars loaded with the tools of the trade: spike mallets, spike pullers, shovels and tamping bars, which were used to raise the ties and pack dirt underneath them.
"My dad was a hard-working Irishman," Ahern says. "He didn't expect much entertainment."
BY THE TIME Ahern's father went to work for the Santa Fe Railroad, trains rumbling through the Irvine Ranch were a common sight. But it hadn't always been that way. Years earlier, in 1877, James Irvine Sr. was determined not to let the Southern Pacific Railroad, then the only line in what was to become Orange County, lay track through his land.
The Southern Pacific, perhaps the most powerful political and economic force in California in the second half of the 19th Century, never did get its railroad through the Irvine Ranch, which offered the most direct route from Los Angeles to San Diego. The Santa Fe was granted the right of way. The Southern Pacific would reach San Diego only by a circuitous route through the Imperial Valley--and that wouldn't happen until the 1930s.
According to legend, the feud between the Southern Pacific and the Irvines began in 1849 when Collis P. Huntington, founder of the railroad, and James Irvine Sr. met on a steamship passage from the Isthmus of Panama to San Francisco, the last leg of a return journey from the East Coast. The two apparently took an intense dislike to each other on that voyage.