WHITTIER — It wasn't a train that rolled out of the rail depot lot here early Tuesday morning, but the historic station itself. Just after midnight, house movers transported the Southern Pacific depot a quarter of a mile east to a Philadelphia Street lot.
The depot held down its spot in local history for more than a century but could not remain because of a redevelopment project the city has been pushing for 12 years. Early in November, contractors for Urbatec Co. of Encino are expected to break ground at the depot's site to build a $26-million shopping center.
City officials have said the development will reshape the city's western entrance and add millions in sales tax revenue.
But their enthusiasm is not unanimous. Some citizen groups and a minority of council members oppose the project for varied reasons. They complained that the center is unnecessary, that it will compete with downtown merchants and that it will mean closing part of Magnolia Avenue, a popular north-south shortcut.
American Indians also protested that the development would defile an Indian burial ground. The city has hired an archeologist to investigate that possibility.
Most objections to the shopping center, however, have centered on the depot, which sat unused in the middle of the triangular, 16-acre plot.
"Nobody is really impartially involved" when it comes to the depot, said Nancy Giles, the Whittier Museum's archives manager. "You feel strongly one way or the other."
Saving the depot was not included in the original agreement between the city's redevelopment agency and Urbatec. In response to local protest, Urbatec offered to contribute to the expense of moving the depot to a corner of the construction site.
Preservationists rejected that plan because it involved converting the depot to a commercial facade in the shopping center.
City officials then arranged to move the depot, unaltered, from its site north of Whittier Boulevard and east of Magnolia Avenue. For $700 a year, the city has leased a sand-and-gravel lot on the south side of Philadelphia Street from the Union Pacific Railroad.
"At least the depot was saved," said Sue Johanson, who founded the Save Our Depot Committee during the Whittier centennial more than three years ago. The committee has about 30 members.
Ironically, the new site was once the home of another arguably historic train station, the Union Pacific depot. The City Council has wanted to avoid a repeat of the public outcry over the destruction of that station. Johanson said: "The citizens were furious that they lost the Union Pacific depot overnight."
That happened in 1983, after the city directed Union Pacific either to maintain the station better or get rid of it.
This time around, the city hired Younger Bros., a Riverside house-moving company. Co-owner Herb Younger, 61, has been transporting buildings since he was 15. He has even moved a depot before, having taken a Fullerton station from track siding to where it now serves as a popular Fullerton Italian restaurant.
Because the Whittier depot is about 150 feet long, Younger had to slice it into two 60-ton sections and mount those on wheels for the move.
Off the record, some city officials wondered whether the wood-frame depot would crumble in the move. After all, not a pane of glass remains in the boarded-up structure. Most of the gray paint has long peeled away. Some of the wood is visibly rotted. Rusted nails poke through warped planks. Dots of sky are visible through holes in the overhanging eaves.
The building received little care in recent years. The Southern Pacific Transportation Co. abandoned the depot about 1970. After that, the station was leased to a metal-and-glass company.
In recent years, the only users were transients and gang members. In one of the station's tiny restrooms, there is gang graffiti above the shattered enamel of the toilet, and beer cans and bottles litter the floor.
Weeks before it was moved, the city fenced off the site to discourage further vandalism and minimize the obvious fire risk.
Despite appearances, house mover Younger said the building is "in excellent shape, real good condition for its age.
"Most of the building is redwood. The wood that isn't was treated," he said. "Some of the woodwork in there was really surprising to me. You have to walk in and look at it good to see all the things that were done 100 years ago. That's quite a building."
More than a dozen onlookers braved the midnight hour to watch Younger, his wife and a crew of seven fire up his giant diesel truck, hook up the first one-story section and make the short, creeping drive up Philadelphia Street. Yellow lamps along the bottom edge of the depot made the building look like a Victorian spaceship angling in to land.
Then Younger went back for the shorter, two-story section. Telephone and electric company workers had raised utility lines up to 40 feet to accommodate the move, which cost the city about $42,000.
By 3:30 a.m., the depot sat on blocks at its new site.