Remembering the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway’s Role in Downtown Downtown News
by Greg Fischer Los Angeles Downtown News | 1 comment
photo courtesy of the Huntington Library Collection: The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway once operated the La Grande Station on Santa Fe Avenue between what are now Second and Third streets. The 1890s structure was made from red sandstone and brick and featured turquoise domes, turrets and chimneys
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - When it opened in the spring of 1939, Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal was the state of the art in passenger train service. The soaring building on Alameda Street was the last of the great railroad stations built in the United States as air transportation was displacing rail as the preferred method of travel.
Where did people go to catch a train before 1939? Few thought about rail travel prior to Union Station.
In the earlier period, going back to the 1860s, each of the rail lines provided their own terminals and services. The Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad, the first in the county of Los Angeles, ran on Alameda Street to a depot where the freeway crosses under the road. Southern Pacific Railroad had a series of stations, mostly using Alameda Street for arrivals and departures. The Los Angeles and Independence Railroad terminated at Fourth and San Pedro streets, in a Disney-esque structure in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles. Union Pacific Railroad, originally the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, was just across the Los Angeles River along Mission Road, south of the First Street Bridge.
The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway operated its own system of passenger and freight services along the west side of the river on Sante Fe Avenue. Between Atchison Avenue (now known as Second Street) and Topeka Avenue (Third Street) was the location of the famous La Grande Station of the AT&SF.
The La Grande Station was an architectural delight. It was a Victorian concoction of the early 1890s in red sandstone and brick with turquoise domes, turrets, chimneys and squat arches. The design was labeled Moorish. The front of the station was a mass of horses, buggies, buckboards, streetcars, telegraph wires and telephone poles. The site was electric with motion and business. The scene was the equivalent of an airline terminal today.
There was an open-air waiting room with no walls, but covered by a roof on top of which was an arched wooden sign, mounted on a trellis and topped by a finial that proclaimed "Santa Fe Route.” The structure kept out the sun and the rain, but the cold, heat and wind were factors with which passenger and visitors had to contend.
Across Santa Fe Avenue, on the south side of Third Street, stands the Southern California Institute of Architecture. It is a poured-in-place concrete structure that runs almost a quarter-mile with a train shed attached on the Santa Fe side. This was the Inbound Freight Warehouse for AT&SF.
The recycled structure was given a new purpose when SCI-Arc moved to Santa Fe Avenue in 2000. They took the plain, utilitarian structure and breathed new life into it, making an entire campus out of the 1907 storage facility. Where pallets of dry goods and hardware once sat, there are now classrooms, workspaces and offices. SCI-Arc recently completed the purchase of the building and part of the adjoining open space, and it will serve as their permanent home. Its reuse shows how to recycle buildings with a new purpose, keep a sense of tradition and be green at the same time.
Other ancillary structures and rail paraphernalia such as the track system, the Outbound Freight Warehouse, train sheds and additional outlying buildings have been removed. The AT&SF campus, between the First Street and Fourth Street bridges, is now devoted to the maintenance, storage and cleaning of the Metro Red and Purple line trains. While not completely true to its long distance rail heritage, this space is still devoted to fixed-rail transit.
AT&SF operated as an independent entity. It was a kingdom unto itself with its own crews, rolling stock and buildings. "Sharing” was not a part of the vocabulary of 19th century railroading. It was a transit war and he who had the most toys was the winner.
As is the case with so many corporations, the railway eventually merged with a competitor. It joined with Burlington Northern in 1996 to form BNSF. The company continues today.
The romance of the rails in which AT&SF participated took passengers across the southern United States. It was hot in the summer, but pleasant during the winter. The rising and falling plains with their herds of untamed animals, the Grand Canyon and the parched deserts all made for an interesting ride.
It was an interesting view on the timeline that won’t be seen again.
Greg Fischer is a Downtown resident and an amateur historian.