The “iron horse” came to the valley in ’98

This article first appeared in the Ojai Valley News, but the date of the edition of the paper in which it appeared is unknown. It was written by Ed Wenig. Wenig wrote for the newspaper in the late 1960’s into the 1970’s.

The “iron horse” came to the valley in ’98
Ed Wenig

Two “iron horses” pulled four carloads of exscursionists into Nordhoff, as the band blared a welcome on a balmy spring morning of March 12, 1898. Ojai Valley residents, who had driven from far and near, in wagon, buggy and surrey, looked on with pride as official guests from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and neighboring Ventura County towns arrived on the first train ever to enter the Ojai Valley. Here indeed was concrete evidence of “progress” in its most up-to-date form.

On March 12, 1898, the train made its first trip to the Ojai Valley. The train was met with a "lively blare of trumpets" in Nordhoff. The Ojai Band and the Ventura Band each played for the welcoming crowd.
On March 12, 1898, the train made its first trip to the Ojai Valley. The train was met with a “lively blare of trumpets” in Nordhoff. The Ojai Band and the Ventura Band each played for the welcoming crowd.

The most important visitors were driven to the homes of prominent residents of the valley for luncheon, after which they were taken for brief scenic drives through the valley. But most of the passengers were loaded into surreys and wagons and taken to a picnic under the oaks in what is now the Civic Park [Libbey Park]. Then, the speeches began. Among them, one by W. C. Patterson, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, expressed thanks to the people of the Ojai Valley for having given “the outside world a chance to see and admire the beauty of the magnificent amphitheater of mountains which enclose this ideal spot.”

Health resort

In the Midwinter Edition of the Los Angeles Times appeared this comment: “This railway will open tourists to one of the most charming valleys in the state . . . With the advent of the railway, Nordhoff will possess all the requirements of a pleasure and health resort.” Imagine the pride of the residents of the valley when they read in the Ventura County Directory, “The valley has been settled by a superior class of people, intelligent, refined, and very enterprising. Many of them have abundent means and have been men of standing and influence in other communities.”

There were four passenger pickup stations on the railroad between Ventura and Nordhoff. Starting from Ventura they were Weldon, Las Cross, Tico, Grant, and finally the Nordhoff Station. In the first few weeks after the opening there were two trains daily, after which a schedule of one train per day was established. In response to repeated requests from J. J. Burke, the Southern Pacific re-established a schedule of two daily trains for the winter months only. Trains left Nordhoff at 7:20 a.m. and 4 p.m. for Ventura. Returning trains arrived in Nordhoff at 1 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. Passengers bound for Matilija Hot Springs disembarked at Grant Station located approximately at the present lumber yard at the “Y” [Rotary Park now]. From there they went by stagecoach, and, in later years, by Stanley Steamer to Matilija.

Forest Masburn in September of 2017 at Rotary Park at the "Y" intersection in Ojai. Rotary Park used to be the location of "Grant Station" back in the early days of the railroad that once ran where the Ojai Valley Trail is now located next to the park.
Forest Masburn in September of 2017 at Rotary Park at the “Y” intersection in Ojai. Rotary Park used to be the location of “Grant Station” back in the early days of the railroad that once ran where the Ojai Valley Trail is now located next to the park.

It took 10 years

The arrival of the first train was the culmination of ten years of hopes and planning. In 1891, under the headline “Railroad Coming” a writer for THE OJAI observed, “Soon the invalid or tourist can recline in his upholstered seat within the observation car and be whirled over hill and vale to his destination, instead of a tedious ride in a stagecoach.” At first a Ventura company had been formed to build a narrow gauge railroad. But Captain John Cross proposed to build a standard gauge road, and with the enthusiastic cooperation of the businessmen of the Ojai Valley was successful in bringing the dream to reality.

When automobiles came into more general use the importance of the railway passenger service declined, and in later days the line was used entirely for shipments of freight.

Since the flood of 1969, which washed out portions of the road bed, the railroad has been abandoned. [Today it is the Ojai Valley Trail.]

Photo: Ojai Train at Devil’s Gulch

These pictures are from the book Southern Pacific’s Scenic Coast Line – A Color Pictorial by Tom Dill. They were taken by Stan Kisler. The last steam run up the Ojai Branch occurred on May 22, 1955.  This was an early form of “push-pull” operation with the 2771 on one end and the 2367 on the other as the special works up the steep grade on the big fill near Oak View.”

Thanks to Brian Aikens for this photograph!

Our Town, Part 1–Dr. Saeger & Andy Van Curen

Our Town, Part 1 by Helen Baker Reynolds

When the Bakers arrived in the Ojai Valley in 1886 they came in a horse-drawn stage. At that time there was no railroad up and down the coast. About ten years later, when a coast line was under construction, a track was laid from Ventura to Ojai, and from then on, a local train with two small, creaking passenger coaches puffed into our station each evening and out again in the morning.

The village during my early childhood was still very quiet and small. Businesses extended one block along Main street, a segment of the east-west county road. Even in the business block the roadway curved casually around trees, and a hitching rack and drinking trough occupied most of the southerly side. Blumberg’s Inn, already ramshackle, stood in a grove of oaks.

On the opposite side of the street a boardwalk ran past a straggling row of establishments, general merchandise, grocery, and hardware stores, a blacksmith shop and a drug store. At the end of the block stood Schroff’s Harness Shop; at the other end Tom Clark’s Livery Stable. There was also a pool hall which we were taught not to glance into, it being not quite “nice”.

Dr. Saeger owned the drug store. In the rear was his medical office, where he doled out quinine or calomel pills, and where he also extracted teeth.

He was slow of motion and slow of speech and wore a drooping mustache. At a patient’s bedside he would sit solemn and silent; yet somehow his presence was immensely reassuring for he was a deeply kind man. My parents, who were devoted to him, used to say that Doctor Saeger never had been known to press a patient for payment, and usually he presented no bill until he was asked to do so.

Occasionally in the event of a very critical illness, request for consultation was sent to Doctor Bard, a remarkably skilled physician, who, like Doctor Saeger, practiced medicine in the best tradition of the old-time country doctor. He lived in Ventura, fifteen miles away, but, in spite of the distance and sometimes in spite of storms and floods, he would set out at once behind his spirited span of horses, in answer to a call. My family held him in reverence. He had come to attend little two-year old Sara when she was ill with pneumonia, and my parents believed probably rightly that he had saved her life.

A short distance west of the village a tiny, boxlike wooden building stood under spreading oaks. This was the jail, which Andy Van Curen, the perennial constable, had built on the grounds of his home. The jail was seldom put to use, for ours was a law-abiding town, only occasionally disturbed by some show-off galloping recklessly thru Main street, or someone being drunk on a Saturday night.

Van Curen’s jail, now at Cold Springs Tavern by Santa Barbara

A gentle, slow-moving man of indeterminate age, Andy Van Curen had held his position for years. As the population grew and became a trifle more worldly, someone started a movement to elect a younger, more active man as constable. Andy was hurt and incensed. He let it be known that if he were replaced no one else could use his jail. The movement for replacement promptly collapsed.

Andy acted as undertaker, as well as constable. He kept a supply of coffins in a shed behind the jail. Children would peep through the tiny windows, shivering pleasantly at the sight of the coffins stacked inside. Processions to the cemetery in early days, I am told, were led by Andy transporting the departed in his spring wagon. Later, however, a horse-drawn hearse would be brought up from Ventura on the occasion of a rather pretentious funeral. The hearse was black, adorned with tassels, and the two black horses were elegant with black plumes on their heads.

Essentially our main street could have been duplicated in hundreds of small Western towns’boxlike buildings with false fronts, a few loungers in front of the pool hall, buggies and wagons raising dust or scattering mud, according to the weather.

But somehow the main street of Ojai was not altogether ugly. The ancient oaks spreading their branches over the drab little buildings, the backdrop of foothills and mountains entered competition with man and easily won the contest. In spite of human ineptitude, our village was attractive.

Early Stories of Ojai, Part VI (More on the Ojai Train)

Early Ojai Stories, Part VI (More on Ojai Train) by Howard Bald
Howard Bald describes life in turn-of-the-century Ojai in these articles from 1972.

The Ojai-Ventura Train.

There were other incidents in connection with the “Ojai Flier” or”The Cannon Ball” that might be worth mentioning. One of the train crew lived with his family on Signal Street, the old two-story house now occupied by a masseur [Inn Harmony]. His daughters in the evening would hitch the old white mare to the buggy and park them near the side door. When they heard the train whistle in the distance, one or all three daughters would jump in the buggy and dash off to meet their daddy.

One evening a daughter went out, and finding no horse and buggy waiting, decided that one of the other sisters had gone alone and thought nothing of it. When father checked out from his “run”, he found the horse and buggy in the customary place. After looking around and finding no daughters, he drove home alone. Later it was revealed that the old white mare was seen jogging down Signal, up Main Street to Fox, and down to the depot on her own.

A few years later my young sister decided to make Peggy, our two year old colt, acquainted with the train. Margaret was riding bareback with only a hackamore. Peggy took a pretty dim view of the hissing monster, putting on quite a scene, and at one time was in the middle of someone’s buggy. But through it all, Margaret stayed astride her.

A horse and buggy in downtown Nordhoff.

One time I was sent from the livery stable with a horse and buggy to meet a domestic of the Edward Thachers on Topa Topa Ranch coming in on the train. It was winter and, of course, dark when the train came in. We soon had the old gal and her belongings loaded and were off up Ojai Avenue. By the time we turned off onto Reeves Road (it wasn’t much more than a narrow, winding, rocky trail then and I don’t believe it had a name) the poor old Scandinavian was having some misgivings as to the reliability of her escort. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t drive faster.

I did my best to reassure her, pointing out that the road was rocky and narrow. When we turned up McAndrew road and the horse travelled even slower, she was really convinced that I was lost. There was nothing, though, that she could do, for it was pitch dark and I don’t suppose she even ha a pair of reins in her hands. It probably wasn’t eight o’clock when we drove into Topa Topa yard, and Mr. and Mrs. Thacher appeared with coal oil lanterns. But that lady, I guess, considered it a harrowing experience.

It was wintertime when once my mother, my sister and I were going someplace by train. As we groped our way on foot from Signal to Fox Street in the dim dawn, we heard the locomotive give some sharp whistles, but we sauntered along until we discovered the train was at the Fox Street crossing. Mr. Spence, the engineer, knew we were no aboard and was waiting there for us.

Another time most of Nordhoff went to Santa Barbara to a circus. We arrived via train in Ventura at 7 a.m. and had quite a wait there for another train, but were in Santa Barbara in time for the parade, saw the afternoon performance, then took a southbound train back to Ventura, arriving in time to catch the Ojai Flier home. I am not sure but what it had to wait for us in Ventura.

Mr. Spence, the engineer, was a kindly old gentleman, and once he took me with him on the locomotive, a cod burner, to Los Angeles and back, a two-day trip with 24 hours of travel. It was one of the events of my young life (I was probably 10 then), but alas it was somewhat marred by my introduction to indoor plumbing. I had never seen or heard of anything of the kind, and the whole thing was too embarrassing for words. No one knew how I suffered. Mr. Spence doubtless thought me a very unresponsive and unappreciative youngster. It was my first experience with electric lights, too. In the center of each room a cord hung from the fixture in the ceiling.

Well, so much for railroading. We will next dwell on the village of Nordhoff.

Early Stories of Ojai, Part V (The Ojai Train)

Waiting for the train to arrive.

Early Stories of Ojai, Part V (The Ojai Train) by Howard Bald
Howard Bald recounted life at turn-of-the-century Ojai in these articles from 1972.

Much has been written over the years about leading citizens of the Ojai Valley and their contributions to the community. What I propose to do is to try and present a picture of the everyday citizen, something of what life was like at the turn of the century and the decade that followed, of some of the industry and activities that have long been forgotten.

Unfortunately, there are not many left to help me on points that have become dim in my memory. I trust, though, that there will be no more inaccuracies in my statements than there have been in statements made by people who are better qualified to be historians than I am.

For instance, at the dedication of the new post office a few years ago it was stated that the new building stands on the same spot the post office stood at the turn of the century. Another person in her memoirs stated that Ojai (Nordhoff) never had a saloon. Also the Ojai newspaper wrote an account of Mr. Gridley murdering a Basque sheepherder in the Sespe. All of which I know to be absolutely inaccurate. But more on those subjects later.

Now it is not my purpose to start right in criticizing others, but to show how easy it is to make misstatements. I will doubtless make my share of them.

Arriving in the village of Nordhoff (Ojai was Nordhoff until the time of the first World War) in the spring of 1900, I was a scrawny, squint-eyed eight yar old with a supposedly short time to live because of TB. The long severe winters of northern Washington and Idaho kept me wrapped up in bed a good part of the year, so a mild climate with plenty of freedom was recommended by the doctors.

Well, I took full advantage of the freedom and in that way gained a wider knowledge of what was going on than the average boy of that time.

One of the things that stands out in my memory was the Nordhoff train. It was not until I had grown up that I realized that the train had arrived only two years before my arrival in the Ojai Valley.

Two trains plied between Los Angeles and Nordhoff. As the train left Nordhoff at 6 am, its sister train left Los Angeles. They crossed at Moorpark, where the crews had their lunches, then continued on to their respective destinations. So each train took 12 hours to make the one way journey.

On long summer evenings one popular source of entertainment for certain men, boys and dogs was to sit on the board sidewalk, where the arcade is now, and at the sound of the train whistle down near Grants Station [where Rotary Park is now], all would take off on a trot for the [Nordhoff] Depot.

Near Schroff’s Harness Shop (where the Ojai Cleaners now is) we cut down Montgomery Street and below the lumber yard, now Wachters, we went across to Fox Street.

At the same time the Matilija Hot Spring’s big lumbering overland stage, driven by either John Oretega, Bill Olivas (father of the Billy Olivas who is currently making headlines at Matilija Hot Springs) or Bob Clark would wheel in a cloud of dust, followed by Wheeler Blumberg with his four white horses hitched to a four-seated buckboard. Nordhoff’s taxi, which comprised a team of horses attached to a buckboard, would be there along with an assortment of country folk with a horse and buggy to meet incoming friends or family.

The Matilija Stage

As the train crossed S. Ventura, S. Montgomery and Fox streets huffing and puffing, with steam jetting from both sides and the bell clanging, there was general pandemonium, for many of the country horses were terrified of such a monster and resorted to lunging, bucking and rearing. Not infrequently would be heard snap of a buggy shaft or a wagon tongue amid the barking of dogs and shouting of women and children on the ground greeting incoming family.

When the Matilija and Wheeler Hot Springs guests were all loaded there would be a popping of four horse whips, as the stages departed through town on a dead run. In later years I have wondered just when the horses settled down to a jog trot, for certainly they couldn’t endure such breakneck speed for long.

The Taxi

Finally as broken harness and buggy shafts were mended and the more terrified horses were led out across the bridge and all the passengers had departed, the boys and dogs would straggle off to their respective homes and the men back to their visiting along the boardwalk or to Dave Raddick’s pool room. I don’t believe the patron’s of John Lagomarsinoa’s card house were ever diverted from their evenings carousel by the arrival of a train.

Boulez Conducts Train at Ojai Music Festival

“Baton Not Tuned To Train’s Wail” Ojai Valley News, June 3, 1989
By Bob Bryan

Pierre Boulez (C) 2003 Daly Road Graphics

The year was 1967, and the Ventura-Ojai orange train—locomotive, one freight car and a caboose—was coming ’round the bend making less than 90 miles an hour when its whistle broke into a deep-throated blast. It was a familiar sound, even appreciated by some as it floated up the Ojai Valley. There, Maestro Pierre Boulez, standing on the podium with baton raised, prepared to give the downbeat that would begin that year’s Ojai Festival.

The opening number was listed as the Schoenberg String Quartet No. 2, arranged for string orchestra; its harmonics, according to the program notes, would be “unconventional, even irrational.” Nobody had said anything about a whistle.

When train whistle and raised baton coincided for the third time, Maestro Boulez walked off stage with just a touch of Gallic impatience. He was replaced, after a hurried conference backstage, by Ted Lillefelt, that year’s festival president.

An apology was offered and a question posed to the assembled music lovers: Would it not be better if the opening number of the Ojai Festival 1967 were delayed until such time as the orange train could continue on to Ojai’s packinghouse, as it was required to do daily? There it would reverse itself and come through town again, passing once more to the rear of the Festivals Bowl.

The first-night audience clapped its approval.

About 10 minutes later the orange train passed through once again, hooting jubilantly as if wishing well to the proceedings. There was an answering applause from the audience, and then everybody settled down to give Schoenberg his turn.

Open-air concerts in Ojai’s Festival Bowl have included the gentle ostinato of resident crickets and birds, a feature that Oliver Messiaen, a composer who has written music in honor of birds, found to his liking during his tenure as resident composer of the Ojai Festival.

The birds still sing, but some things that once were are no longer. There will be no freight train whistle this weekend in Ojai for Maestro Boulez or, for that matter, any future conductor of the festival. The orange train doesn’t run here anymore.