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On the Right Track : Rail Excursion Offers a Taste of Fillmore's Plan to Boost Tourism

August 22, 1994|KAY SAILLANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The vintage diesel engines pulling a train with nearly 400 revelers to an orange grove just west of Fillmore never got rolling faster than 10 m.p.h.

Not that the party animals on board minded.

People who had met just minutes before clutched cans of beer or soda, hung out aging wooden windows, hooted and sang songs together as the train slowly chugged the five miles toward a spot beneath the towering San Cayetano Mountains.

The 40-minute trip was no Metrolink run.

"This is not a commute," said Rick Swanson, one of several volunteer car attendants on board. "This is a chance to kick back and enjoy."

People from throughout Ventura County and Greater Los Angeles converged in Fillmore on Saturday for a dinner-dance billed as "Hot August Nights." Some came from points as far-flung as Orange County, Pasadena and Oak View.

Sponsored by the Fillmore Chamber of Commerce, the event included a barbecue dinner in a citrus grove, followed by dancing under a full moon to '50s and '60s music performed by Captain Cardiac and the Coronaries.

But the real draw, many said, was the circa-1940s diesel locomotives that pulled even older cars, including a Pullman sleeper built in 1928.

"There's something about trains that just fascinates people," said Ruth Wilkerson, a 39-year-old Thousand Oaks woman who came for the ride with three friends.

"There's a mystique to them. The whistles, the smoke, the cars. It just draws you in."

That is the type of sentiment the city of Fillmore hopes to capitalize on in coming months. Working with train concessionaire Short Line Railway, Fillmore leaders hope to offer regular dinner excursions by the beginning of next year, Councilman Roger Campbell said.

The idea is to lure tourists--and their tax dollars--to Fillmore by remaking the city's downtown into a turn-of-the century train town, Campbell said. Included in the city's ambitious plans are a new city hall and a train depot, much like a smaller version of New York's Grand Central Station, with restaurants, shops and boutiques.

All will be built in a 1920s-era theme, complete with period architecture and lighting, Campbell said.

But the centerpiece of the city's plan will be the trains owned by Short Line Railway. The company, based in Fillmore, has five vintage locomotives and 40 cars in its stock.

Two steam engines are from the turn-of-the-century and three diesel engines are from the 1930s and '40s, spokesman Larry Jensen said.

The rail cars span 20 years, from the 1920s to the 1940s, Jensen said. When the dinner runs begin, the railway will be known as the Fillmore & Western Railroad, he said.

Trains owned by Short Line now are occasionally leased for special events, such as the annual fund-raiser by the Chamber of Commerce. The company makes most of its money renting the trains to movie crews for filming, Jensen said.

But the dinner excursions can't get started until Southern Pacific Railroad relinquishes control over the tracks. Ventura County, working with the Ventura County Transportation Commission and the cities of Santa Paula and Fillmore, is negotiating to buy 39 miles of tracks between Piru and Montalvo.

That $10-million purchase from Southern Pacific is expected to close by the end of the year, Campbell said. After that, Short Line will be free to begin dinner excursions along the entire length of track, he said.

Campbell said the train excursions could attract people from around the country.

"The main attraction is the train, but they also come for the ambience of the town. What is better than smelling orange blossoms while cruising through the Santa Clara Valley aboard a steam locomotive?"

If Saturday's high-spirited fest is any indication, Campbell could be right.

With a minimum of advertising, the chamber sold all 350 tickets at $45 each for the dinner-dance. Some people even asked to be placed on a waiting list, chamber Director Hank Carillo said.

Although some complained that there was not enough food, that the lines for the bar were too long and that the band started too late, people for the most part seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Pat Bland, a retired Hollywood resident, bought eight tickets so she could take a group of friends to the dance. Bland also rented a white stretch limousine for the group, bringing her total tab for the night to $700.

"I wanted to do something really different for them," Bland said. "When I heard about this, I said, 'That's it.' "

While Bland's group led rousing renditions of "Swing Low" and "Sentimental Journey" in one of the more modern cars, two couples from Simi Valley peered out the window of their Pullman sleeper car.

The Pullman car features authentic red velvet bench seats that face each other and overhead compartments that convert to sleeping chambers. Mimi Norman said she chose the Pullman car for her ride after passing over another old car filled with white plastic chairs for seating.

Norman called that one the "Kmart car."

"It has all those lawn chairs in it," she said. "Tacky. Tacky. This is much better."

Car attendant Swanson, a member of the Santa Clara River Valley Railroad Historical Society, said his group plans to help Short Line renovate each car with period seating and fixtures. But the work is slow because of a shortage of funds, he said.

Jensen of Short Line said his company also is negotiating to buy dining cars so dinner can be served on the train once the excursion runs begin.

Like Campbell, he has high hopes for the railway's future.

"This is just a great little valley for tourism," Jensen said. "It's undiscovered and it's so close to Los Angeles. It can become the next Solvang."

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