The Arcadia Historical Society will unveil its 11th History Lives Here marker in a public ceremony in the Arcadia Transit Plaza adjacent to the Foothill Gold Line station at 2 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26.
The new double-sided sign provides photos and historical information about the many railroads that once crisscrossed Arcadia, as well as Arcadia founder Lucky Baldwin’s stately Hotel Oakwood, all of which could be found at and near the location of the marker at the northwest corner of the intersection of First Avenue and Santa Clara Street.
Some of the photos and a portion of the information below, collected and written by myself, Scott Hettrick, as chairman of the Society’s Historical Marker Committee until 2016, with the help of committee co-chairs Sandy Snider and Carol Libby, as well as Arcadia resident Dale Carter, will be included on the new marker:
Trains were a prominent part of Arcadia for several generations from the late 19th century to the mid-1900s with the tracks and depots of three of the most prominent and popular lines converging here, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, Southern Pacific Railroad, and Pacific Electric Railway “Red Cars.”
After more than half a century, an electric passenger train service was re-introduced to Arcadia on March 5, 2016, with the opening of an extension of the Metro Gold Line light rail system in Los Angeles that followed the same path as the Santa Fe decades earlier. A new bridge over the 210 Foothill Freeway in Arcadia was built – the state’s largest public art project. And the Foothill Gold Line includes an Arcadia station stop just a few yards from the location of Baldwin’s original Arcadia Depot, across the tracks from where his luxurious Hotel Oakwood once stood.
Railroads played an important part in the purchase of Santa Anita Rancho by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin and a pivotal role in the profile, growth, and evolution of Arcadia for the past 130 years, as well as the development of one of the region’s finest hotels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
For several decades in the first half of the 1900s, three different train lines, tracks, stations, and two control towers converged within a couple blocks of each other in Downtown Arcadia.
With plans by two of the region’s biggest railroads to build tracks through the ranch, the price to buy 8,000 acres jumped from $175,000 when 47-year-old entrepreneur Baldwin first inquired in 1875, to $200,000 a short time later. Under the threat of another $25,000 price hike a week later, Baldwin said yes on the spot.
He quickly turned the ranch into a show place of Southern California, featuring orchards of fine fruits and nuts, broad acres of grain and hay, widely-acclaimed wine and brandies, as well as livestock including cattle, hogs, sheep, poultry, and eventually champion thoroughbred horses.
In November 1885, Baldwin shrewdly executed a contract with the three year-old Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley Railroad Company to extend their lines across his ranch and the Santa Anita tract lands. The contract, which Baldwin is said to have used his fast-growing influence to obtain, conveyed a right-of-way and deeds to property for two depots, one near his home place on the ranch and one near a small boom-town then called “Baldwin.” The Arcadia Depot opened in 1887 in the business center of the “village” on the west side of First Avenue south of Santa Clara Street (it moved north of the tracks in 1923), while the Santa Anita Depot was completed in 1890 on Baldwin’s ranch at would later become Colorado Avenue near Old Ranch Road north of the Arboretum.
Having enjoyed success and accolades with his elaborate Baldwin Hotel in San Francisco Lucky Baldwin opened Hotel Oakwood on his Santa Anita ranch on Dec. 7, 1889. Constructed southwest of the intersection of two sets of tracks just west of First Avenue between what became Wheeler Avenue and Santa Clara Street, the hotel was situated in what was becoming the business center of town — directly across the street from the Arcadia Depot. Within a few years, businesses in the area would include a grocery store and several saloons on First Avenue; the Bonita Hotel and a bar at Indiana Ave/Wheeler-then Walnut Street; the Norfolk Hotel on Santa Anita Avenue; and Clara Villa a block north at the Northwest corner of First Avenue and St. Joseph Street.
No electric line had yet reached Arcadia, so all travel centered here at rail stations and the big hotel.
Hotel Oakwood, called “a city hotel in a frontier village,” was a two-story brick structure with verandas running around both floors, and a covered balcony on the second floor above the colonnade, “the design of which exemplified the architecture of that time period.” People sat on benches, chairs, or rocking chairs on the verandas that featured several caged birds. All 35 “elegantly-appointed rooms” had a fireplace, gas, and hot and cold water. Baldwin’s idea was to make it a focal point for sales promotion and to accommodate coaching parties from Los Angeles. The hotel offered fine food and drink right off the Baldwin ranch — passes could be secured here to visit Baldwin’s ranch. Featuring well-furnished rooms, some of the best-served meals in the region, and an elegant bar with Baldwin’s famous wines, it became a destination for travelers coming to Arcadia for business or pleasure.
The newly-incorporated City of Arcadia – population 500 — held its first organizational meeting at Hotel Oakwood on Aug. 17, 1903, which would become the city’s official birthday. The hotel also housed the Arcadia Post Office and was the designated meeting place of the Board of Trustees and the Office of the Legislative Department of the City of Arcadia.
Eventually Baldwin leased Hotel Oakwood to be run by his two partners in Baldwin’s Hotel Tallac at Lake Tahoe, Melville Lawrence and George Comstock.
The hotel briefly capitalized on the influx of bettors to Lucky’s new Santa Anita Park horse track that opened in 1907 until California outlawed betting on races 15 months later in February 1909.
In 1908, champion lightweight boxer “Battler Nelson” of Denmark was invited to train at a compound set up at the Baldwin ranch for a rematch with Jimmy Britt. While staying at the hotel ten days before the bout, a raucous party by Baldwin’s friends kept Nelson up all night and he moved his training to San Pedro the next day.
Two years after horse racing was outlawed and Santa Anita Park was shut down (followed a couple weeks later by the death of Lucky Baldwin from pneumonia on March 1, 1909), the Arcadia City Council voted in a meeting at Hotel Oakwood in November 1911 to close the town’s saloons overnight and on Sundays. Just days later the hotel caught fire due to faulty wiring and burned to the ground on Nov. 26, 1911. There was no city water system and the Arcadia Fire Department was entirely inadequate. Calls went out to Monrovia for help but they did not respond. Calls to Alhambra were answered but they took too long to arrive. City books and papers were saved from the fire.
Trains and Stations
With 72 separate railway companies operating in the Los Angeles area by the 1890s, Baldwin created a vital connection for business and the guarantee of a station on his ranch for the new transcontinental trains. <Story continues below the map…>
The local lines would eventually be consolidated and merged to become two primary companies, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (which absorbed the LA & SGV line in 1887), and Southern Pacific Railroad (which bought the former SGV Rapid Transit line in 1893). The AT&SF’s line entered Arcadia from the northwestern end of town and turned southeast to cross what would later be Huntington Drive at Second Avenue. This line passed two stations, the Santa Anita Depot along what would become Colorado Street north of the Arboretum, and the Arcadia Depot on the northwest corner of First Avenue at Santa Clara Street in Downtown Arcadia.
Southern Pacific tracks entered the west side of Arcadia roughly at what would become Huntington Drive turning northeast as it merges with Santa Clara Street and east at Santa Anita Avenue.
In the first year of operation for Southern Pacific’s new line, Baldwin’s shipping point for his ranch products at nearby San Gabriel station delivered 43,856 boxes of oranges and lemons, 174,750 sacks of grain, 384,460 gallons of wine, 54,946 gallons of brandy, and much produce and livestock.
Meanwhile, a passenger ticket price war between Southern Pacific and Santa Fe – at least one discount offer as low as $1 one day from Kansas City — triggered an unprecedented land boom by a flood of migrants from the east.
The “Red Cars”
An L.A. magazine called California Independent in Oct. 30, 1902 wrote about tallyho parties from L.A. to Arcadia every day (a ride of less than an hour): “…an event in a tourist’s life… no doubt long, merry electric cars will pass that way.”
Sure enough, on March 1, 1903, Henry E. Huntington began the expansion of the Pacific Electric Railway “Red Car” line from Los Angeles through Arcadia to Monrovia along roughly the same route as Southern Pacific.
This resulted in a third train station in close proximity — the “PE” station was also Downtown at the northeast corner of First Avenue at St. Joseph Street, a little more than a block north of the AT&SF Arcadia Depot on the northwest corner of First Avenue and Santa Clara Street, and the Southern Pacific freight station just east of First Avenue on the south side of Santa Clara.
Riders of the first PE Red Car excursion from L.A. to Arcadia rode in a carriage with the front end enclosed and the rear half-open traveled for miles where “only a few tumble down farm houses were visible.”
The popular Red Cars that received power from overhead electrical lines ran on what is now the median of Huntington Drive through Arcadia.
Reflecting the prominence of railroads of the day, the July 17, 1903 election to incorporate the City of Arcadia was held in the office of Southern Pacific Railroad.
Red Cars carried passengers to Baldwin’s original Santa Anita Park horse race track during its brief 15-month operation from 1907-1909 (located on the site of the current Santa Anita Golf Course near the Community Center and Museum of Arcadia Heritage) and eventually the new Santa Anita Park horse race track that opened in 1934.
Among other early Red Car stops was the Army’s Ross Field Balloon School during World War I (now L.A. County’s Arcadia Park).
No Rail Respect for Arcadia
But while Baldwin deemed the trains vital to Arcadia, the railroads didn’t necessarily feel the same sense of importance about Lucky or his budding town.
Although Arcadia was on Santa Fe’s main line, there was only one mixed steam train of freight cars and a day coach to accommodate travelers and bring the mail every day except Sunday. High waters might prevent operation – once there was no mail service for a week due to floods.
This level of service was not acceptable to Lucky Baldwin, who once tried to make a trip from his Bear Valley property in the San Bernardino Mountains to Santa Anita. When told the next train was a through train with no stop at Santa Anita and he’d have to wait eight hours, he prepared a telegram ordering his ranch hands to tear up the Santa Fe tracks through his ranch. The train stopped at Santa Anita in accordance with Baldwin’s right-of-way deed.
No other trains deigned to stop at the little station with the inviting “Arcadia” printed on each end.
Railroad Decline, Restoration, Resurrection
The busy confluence of trains and tracks at First Avenue necessitated two control towers nearby just east of the stations, both staffed by Santa Fe employees who oversaw the intersection of Santa Fe tracks with those of Pacific Electric Railway.
One train control tower was knocked out when an eastbound freight train went out of control in Pasadena and gained speed through Arcadia. The train was on a path to hit a westbound passenger train until it jumped the tracks at the Southern Pacific crossing at First Avenue and plunged into the control tower. The tower was rebuilt west of the station.
- After several decades of service, the Southern Pacific freight station on the south side of Santa Clara Street just east of First Avenue was closed in 1932 but remained standing for some years thereafter.
The Santa Anita Depot on Baldwin’s former ranch, which long housed the Santa Anita Post Office, closed on January 25, 1940. Five years later six people were killed and 100 injured when a Santa Fe train wrecked at the abandoned Santa Anita station on Sept. 25, 1945. After years of neglect, in order to make way for the coming 210 Foothill Freeway, the station was dismantled beginning in 1968. The Arcadia Historical Society spearheaded its restoration and along with the Arcadia Chamber of Commerce dedicated its re-opening in 1970 as a tourist attraction at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.
- In 1941 a bridge to carry Santa Fe trains over Huntington Drive at Second Avenue was
completed at a cost of $220,000.
- The onset of the freeway system and alternative modes of transportation resulted in the demise of the Pacific Electric “Red Cars” in 1951. The tracks in the median of Huntington Drive between Baldwin Avenue and Santa Anita Avenue were replaced with a new City Hall and Civic Center, a National Guard Armory (now the police station), Methodist Hospital and adjacent Red Cross, and the Arcadia Chamber of Commerce.
The Santa Fe station at First Avenue in Arcadia was donated to the Southern California Chapter of the Railway and Locomotive Society in 1969 and was moved to the Los Angeles County Fairplex in Pomona, where it remains open to visitors.
- With the advent of the federally-created Amtrak, Santa Fe Railroad discontinued passenger service in 1971. Amtrak then discontinued passenger service to Pasadena in 1994 after the bridge that carried trains over the eastbound 210 Foothill Freeway in Arcadia was rendered unusable following the Northridge earthquake of 1994.
— By Scott Hettrick