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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | JAUNTS

Restored Train Depot Rolls Out Welcome Mat

Model railroad with 500 feet of track snakes through two rooms at the refurbished facility on the edge of Santa Susana Park.

September 19, 1996|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You might call it the little depot that could.

It took 10 years of restoration by train buffs, but the old Santa Susana railroad depot on the outskirts of Simi Valley finally opened to the public this year.

The refurbished Santa Susana Railroad Depot and Museum is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. It sits at the foot of Santa Susana Pass on the edge of secluded, tree-shaded Santa Susana Park.

Set off by rugged mountains and sandstone outcroppings, it looks like Jesse James and his boys might gallop around the bend at any minute.

If your timing is right, you can stand on the platform behind the brown-trimmed two-story yellow depot as an Amtrak train blasts its whistle and roars by, the engineer giving a nod.

Old-time train lovers like Bill Rehart can tell you to the minute whether it's running late. Rehart and other members of the Santa Susana Model Railroad Club painstakingly restored the dilapidated and vandalized depot, which was built in 1903 by the Southern Pacific railroad.

They give tours of the depot and its centerpiece: a model railroad patterned after the line that ran from Los Angeles through the Santa Susana Mountains and west to Santa Paula, Oxnard and Port Hueneme.

It snakes through two rooms. Six trains can chug along its 500 feet of track at one time. The miniature towns resemble their namesakes of the early 1900s. Oxnard's sugar-beet plant is there, along with Simi Valley's walnut packing plant, water tanks and old stone quarry.

The landscape looks the same too. The track winds through the rugged, rocky Santa Susana Mountains, cruising through tunnels and over bridges. Some of the little depots, including the Santa Susana, have been built to scale by members who acquired the original depot plans from the railroad.

Tiny billboards advertise companies such as Birds Eye. The towns sport such eateries as the "Triangle Cafe." There are signs for Purina and Getty Oil, a lumberyard here, a brewery there.

The model's terrain is dotted with trees, most of them handmade--mostly by members--from plants such as sagebrush. Even the lemon and orange trees sport colored fruit made from tiny sugar granules.

The sugar-laden trees represent only one of the headaches members encountered during their decade-long project.

"On two occasions, rats came in and completely destroyed them," Rehart said.

The model railroad is crammed into the two-room space, so the club has begun building a much bigger model in a larger part of the depot. If you visit, you'll see them laying out track and contouring the terrain.

When it's done, it will take 40 minutes for a train to complete the winding route. From a raised room with a control panel, members can operate their trains, most of them from the 1940s and 1950s.

"We're all kids, big and small," said Adam Rose, an adult member of the club whose participants range in age from 11 to 88.

This is no casual pastime. An intricate brass engine can cost $65 to $3,000. Many of the trains they run are replicas of those that sped through Simi Valley and out to the coast during the railroad's heyday.

Back then, the Santa Susana depot stood at Los Angeles Avenue and Tapo Street. Built with redwood lumber, it was shipped from Northern California in assembled sections and put together here. It was a standard design, similar to more than 40 others in California.

Inside the waiting room, a potbellied stove warmed travelers and workers. Farmers shipped walnuts, citrus and turkeys. The station agent lived upstairs in an apartment.

The depot hummed with activity until 1964, when the Southern Pacific shut it down. Then, when Los Angeles Avenue was widened in 1975, the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District bought the depot for the grand sum of $1.06 and moved it to its present location at the east end of town.

"There was a clamor of people to save it," Rehart said. "It's one of the few historical buildings in the [Simi] valley."

But the depot languished at its new home for years. Paint peeled, vandals broke windows, and a fire burned the upstairs apartment.

Then the 40-member club rescued it. Members sweated away Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings restoring the interior, adding restrooms and an elevator. A grant from the California Department of Transportation and fund-raising helped finish repairs.

A huge circular Southern Pacific emblem, made of brick, graces the entrance to the depot. On the platform, turn-of-century lamps and benches give it a quaint feel.

The depot, still owned by the district, opened last January, but the work goes on. Eventually the station manager's office and waiting room will serve as a museum for artifacts that club members have rounded up. Among them are the depot's original signs--complete with a misspelling, "Santa Susanna," on one of them.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Santa Susana Railroad Depot and Museum.

* WHERE: 6503 Katherine Road, Simi Valley, in Santa Susana Park.

* WHEN: Open 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

* HOW MUCH: Free.

* CALL: 581-3462.

* FYI: Santa Susana Model Railroad Club and the Rancho Simi Foundation will hold a model railroad swap meet from 7 to 11 a.m. Sept. 28 at Santa Susana Park. Admission $1; under 10 free.

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