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Nostalgia Trip

Fillmore's railroad history takes spotlight at festival offering train rides, displays, music and more.

March 23, 2000|JUDY RAPHAEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This weekend's fifth annual Spring Rail Festival in Fillmore offers an opportunity to celebrate the rich history of the charmingly revived old railroad town, once a major link between Northern and Southern California, which sits amid acres of orange groves along State Highway 126 between Ventura and Santa Clarita.

"The railroad built this valley and put Ventura County on the map, by enabling the oil and citrus industries to flourish. So we put on this festival to showcase that heritage and make people appreciate what the railroad has meant to this area," said Rick Swanson, public information officer of the Santa Clara River Valley Railroad Historical Society, which hosts the festival in conjunction with the Fillmore & Western Railway.

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The free family-oriented event, taking place next to City Hall in Fillmore's downtown Central Park Plaza, will feature a raft of rail-related activities, including rides on a vintage steam locomotive and various novelty trains, a model railroad swap meet, firehouse displays, antique cars, live western music, arts and crafts, barbecued chow and other food.

"This year we're celebrating passenger rail service with the slogan, 'It's time to ride the train--again,' which was an advertising tag line back in the '50s when airliners were so popular and they were trying to encourage people to ride the train," said Swanson.

In keeping with the theme, Amtrak and Metrolink will have information booths, and the historical society will show off its new acquisition, a bright yellow and gray 1956 Pullman "sleeper," which had been on "static display" by the tracks at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Barbara for more than 25 years.

"It hasn't been touched since 1973, when it was retired by the Union Pacific, so it's original down to the sheets and blankets on the beds," said Swanson. "We'll have it set up so you can tour it and take a look at what passenger trains really looked like in the '50s."

A past festival favorite, the F&W Railway's 1906 Baldwin steam locomotive (which has appeared in such films as "Chaplin" and "Of Mice and Men"), will again be hauled out for slow-chugging runs into valley citrus groves.

It will pull a diverse array of cars, including the Powhatan, a velvet-curtained 1929 cafe parlor car with a piano (a favorite of Congress members commuting between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.); Blue Water, a 1948 Santa Fe Railroad sleeping car; the Rancho Camulos, a spiffily refurbished 1920s-era passenger car from Texas; and the Cheyenne, a 1936 coach car converted to a "dance/bar/lounger," said to be the last remaining dance car on the West Coast.

"One of the reasons we think people enjoy riding the train is because of the different vintage cars, and we encourage them to walk through and look at all of them and admire the way transportation used to be," said Tim Grush, marketing spokesman for the F&W.

And if riding isn't enough, the organizers are offering a new feature this year: "You Can Be an Engineer," a fund-raiser for the historical society's railroad restoration efforts. For $40, would-be engineers will be able to drive the Sespe, a novel 1891 steam engine, and receive "certificates of authenticity."

"There are train buffs who will just line up for that--it's a real powerful little thing," said Grush, who described the steam train, once used in Oregon lumber camp operations, as an extremely rare wood-burning locomotive. A licensed engineer will be in the cab with the novices, he said.

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Although that activity is limited to adults, children are the focus of a "Spaghetti Western" ride aboard a 1940s diesel at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, featuring a two-hour program of sing-alongs, a cast of roving western characters and an all-you-can eat spaghetti dinner.

In addition, visitors of all ages can enjoy free rides on live steamers and "speeder cars" (small four-wheeled rail inspection vehicles) and view demonstrations of a classic "Johnny Popper" farm engine. Docents will be on hand at the Railroad Interpretive Center near the Fire Department with a collection of past and present rail memorabilia and model train layouts. There will also be music by the Free Rangers and shoot-'em-up action by the Frontier Gunslingers.

While in Central Park, visitors might want to check out other Fillmore attractions. Wander over behind City Hall to the Giessinger Winery, which will be open for tours and tastings. Or stroll across to Main Street to the Fillmore History Museum, a complex of pioneer buildings, including the original 1887 Southern Pacific depot and an early railroad bunkhouse (with a gift shop).

Just a short jaunt away, in Fillmore's quaint 1930s-style downtown, there are old-time shops and a growing number of antique malls, among them Ballard Furniture and Elvis Museum, which features '50s memorabilia and jukeboxes. And there's the 1916 Fillmore Towne Theater, the oldest single-screen theater in Ventura County, restored in 1996 to its Art Deco glory.

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