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Back on Board : Transportation: Plans for restoring old train routes through the county are gathering steam.

February 27, 1992|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A century after the golden age of the American train and a generation after the demolition of Ventura's first depot, a new railroad boomlet may soon be rolling through the county. That's the idea, anyway.

Amid widespread optimism, local leaders are drawing near to three potential railroad milestones.

* In March, a consultant will propose uses for the Santa Clara River Valley route that carried the first Southern Pacific car into Ventura in 1887. Possibilities range from a crude oil pipeline to a bicycle path, but renewed passenger rail service is a sentimental favorite for many.

* By April, Amtrak officials are expected to add Ventura to their list of regular stops--the first time the city has had its own stop in more than 20 years.

* In October, regional transportation officials plan to open a commuter rail line linking Simi Valley and Moorpark to downtown Los Angeles. The Ventura County project is part of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority's Metrolink system, which is expected to include 402 miles of track on eight lines from Orange County to Moorpark and San Bernardino by the decade's end.

The Metrolink is often described as the most ambitious commuter rail project among many recently undertaken nationwide. In Boston, Miami and Chicago, rail systems have recently been expanded, and a new commuter railroad is under construction in northern Virginia.

"The last two years have been really interesting," said Mary Travis, who has labored on the Metrolink project as transit programs manager for the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

When the Railroad Rolled In

It was 1886, 17 years after the "golden spike" was driven in Utah to connect the Atlantic and Pacific by rail, when Southern Pacific announced plans for a spur line into Ventura County.

Real estate prices soared. Among Ventura's 5,000 residents, speculation over the path the train would follow ran wild.

The chosen route ran from Saugus through the Santa Clara Valley to Ventura, then veered northwest to Santa Barbara. Paying Chinese laborers 90 cents day, Southern Pacific officials created or boosted new towns as they went: Piru, Bardsdale, and Fillmore, which was named for railroad company superintendant Jerome Fillmore. To fit the city of San Buenaventura on its schedules, Southern Pacific abbreviated its name to Ventura.

Within days of the first passenger train's arrival in 1887, Venturans were buying round-trip tickets to Los Angeles for $5 each, calling for tighter saloon laws to keep incoming travelers under control and complaining about tardy trains. The population soon doubled. Eleven years later, a 15-mile freight and passenger line started doing business between Ventura and Ojai.

Relations between the railroad and the community were occasionally strained. In 1889, a Southern Pacific train rammed into a team of livestock at a railroad crossing and the company paid $850 in damages. (In the most notable claim against Southern Pacific these days, Ventura County is seeking $717,000 to cover cleanup costs from the July, 1991, derailment of toxic cargo at Seacliff.)

Still, the rail future seemed bright. In 1901, Southern Pacific workers between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo completed the last link of a north-south route running the length of the state.

But as more highways were built and Southern Pacific adjusted its priorities, Ventura lost prominence on the railroad's schedules. In 1932, the Ojai-Ventura route dropped passenger service to concentrate on freight only. In 1935, local newspapers noted the end of rail passenger service in Piru, along the inland route through the Santa Clara Valley.

By 1969, rail officials had closed the storm-damaged upper nine miles of the Ventura-Ojai route, which was to become the Ojai trail now used by equestrians, bicyclists and joggers. And by the time Amtrak took over passenger service on Southern Pacific's tracks in 1971, Oxnard had replaced Ventura as the stop at the county's western end.

In 1973, the idle Fillmore depot narrowly escaped razing when Fillmore resident Edith Jarrett bought it for $1.05 and paid to have it moved onto a city property along Main Street and converted into a historical museum.

The old Ventura depot, a two-story wooden structure near Front and Laurel streets, wasn't so fortunate. When its future was threatened that same year, someone estimated that it would cost $45,000 to restore and move it to the county fairgrounds. That was more than the city or any rescue effort could raise. A bulldozer leveled the 86-year-old building.

Old Route, New Plans

Late last year, county transportation officials commissioned an $80,000 consultant's report on the possibilities for the old Saugus-to-Ventura route.

"They went out and literally walked the line to check conditions," said Chris Stephens, a senior analyst with the county Transportation Commission who is working with the consulting firm Wilbur Smith & Associates.

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