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Lomita Railroad Museum Visit 9/16/2012

by Chris Guenzler

I discussed with Chris Parker about going to the Lomita Railroad Museum and told him of my plan to stop at the Watts Towers on the way to meet him, and he said he would meet me at the Pacific Coast Highway Blue Line station after I was done. After Lomita, we would head to The Grove and the Americana Plaza to ride their trolleys before he returned me to LAUPT to get a train home.

After riding Metrolink on Saturday to escape the heat and a very hot night, I drove to Santa Ana to board my first train to LAUPT.

Pacific Surfliner 763 arrived and once at LAUPT, I went down to the LA Metro subway station.

A Red Line train arrived which I took to 7th Street/Metro Center station and went upstairs to catch a Blue Line train after the Expo Line one departed.

The Blue Line train to Wilmington station came in which I boarded.

I detrained at the 103rd Street/Watts Towers station.

The Southern Pacific/Pacific Electric station in Watts built in 1904. I walked over to the Watts Towers.

The Watts Towers

The Watts Towers, or Towers of Simon Rodia, in the Watts district of Los Angeles is a collection of 17 interconnected structures, two of which reach heights of over 99 feet. The Towers were built by Italian immigrant construction worker Sabato ("Sam" or "Simon") Rodia in his spare time over a period of 33 years, from 1921 to 1954. The work is an example of non-traditional vernacular architecture and American Native art.

The Watts Towers are located near (and visible from) the 103rd Street-Kenneth Hahn station of the LA Metro Blue Line. They were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. The sculptures' armatures are constructed from steel pipes and rods wrapped with wire mesh and coated with mortar. The main supports are embedded with pieces of porcelain, tile and glass. They are decorated with found objects, including bed frames, bottles, ceramic tiles, scrap metal and sea shells. Rodia called the towers Nuestro Pueblo (which means "our town" in Spanish). He built them with no special equipment or pre-determined design, working alone with hand tools and window-washer's equipment. Neighborhood children brought pieces of broken glass and pottery to Rodia, some of which were added, but the majority of his material consisted of damaged pieces from the Malibu Pottery or California Clay Products Company, located nearby. Green glass includes recognizable soft drink bottles from the 1930's through 1950's, some still bearing the former logos of 7 Up, Squirt, Bubble Up and Canada Dry; blue glass appears to be from milk of magnesia bottles.

Rodia bent much of the Towers' framework from scrap rebar, using nearby railroad tracks as a makeshift vise. Other items came from alongside the Pacific Electric Railway right-of-way between Watts and Wilmington. Rodia often walked the right-of-way all the way to Wilmington in search of material, a distance of nearly 20 miles. He reportedly did not get along with his neighbors, some of whom allowed their children to vandalize his work. Rumors that the towers were antennae for communicating with enemy Japanese forces or contained buried treasure caused suspicion and further vandalism.

In 1955, Rodia gave the property away and left, reportedly tired of the abuse he had received. He retired to Martinez, California and never came back and died a decade later. The property changed hands, Rodia's bungalow inside the enclosure was burned down, and the city of Los Angeles condemned the structure and ordered it razed. Actor Nicholas King and a film editor, William Cartwright, visited the site in 1959, saw the neglect and purchased the property for $3,000 in order to preserve it. When the city found out about the transfer, it decided to perform the demolition before the transfer went through. The towers had already become famous and there was opposition from around the world.

King, Cartwright and museum curator Jim Elliott of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, along with area architects, artists and community activists formed the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts. The Committee negotiated with the city to allow for an engineering test to establish the safety of the structures. The test took place on October 10, 1959. For the test, steel cable was attached to each tower and a crane was used to exert lateral force. The crane was unable to topple or even shift the towers with the forces applied and the test was concluded when the crane experienced mechanical failure. Bud Goldstone and Edward Farrell were the engineer and architect leading the team. The committee preserved the towers independently until 1975, when it deeded the site to the City of Los Angeles, which in turn deeded it to the State of California in 1978.

It is now designated the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park. It is operated by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In February 2011, LACMA announced that it had received a $500,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation to conserve and promote the Watts Towers.

Views of the Watts Towers. I returned to the 103rd Street/Watts Towers station to wait for my train to the Pacific Coast Highway Blue Line station and called Chris Parker to let him know I was on the way.

My train arrived and I boarded then detrained at the afore-mentioned station then waited a few minutes for Chris Parker to arrive. After he took care of a work problem, we drove to the Lomita Railroad Museum.

Lomita Railroad Museum

The Lomita Railroad Museum was the first of its kind west of Denver and was made possible through the generosity of Mrs. Irene Lewis, who donated the Museum to the City of Lomita in honor of her late husband, Martin Lewis, in 1967. It was a rather natural thing for Mrs. Lewis to do since she had been a dedicated railroader and spent many years building Little Engines, a business devoted entirely to developing and manufacturing miniature steam-operated locomotives which were sold all over the world. The museum proudly displays some of these locomotives. The Museum was built in 1966. Much research and study was given to depot structures before the final home the Museum was chosen. Mrs. Lewis chose to copy the Boston & Maine's Greenwood Station at Wakefield, Massachusetts, which was built before the turn of the century. The Museum has been referred to as a "work of art". Everyone who worked on the building was an artist in his line. This of course includes John W. Gallareto, designer and builder. No expense was spared too produce a proper and appropriate treasury to house the valuable historical items on display in the Museum.

Views of the Lomita Railroad Museum.

Southern Pacific 2-6-0 1765 built by Baldwin in 1902. It mainly hauled freight but also occasionally, worked light passenger trains. It was based in the Los Angeles area and was sometimes assigned in helper service over the Soledad Canyon summit to Palmdale. The locomotive was retired in 1958 and two years later, was sold for scrap to the National Metals Company on Terminal Island where it remained until bought by Irene Lewis in 1966 for display at the museum.

Santa Fe caboose 999531, nee Santa Fe 565 built by the railroad in 1949.

Union Oil Company of California tank car ALAX 103 built by the company.

Southern Pacific outside-braced box car 51406 built by the railroad in 1913 and lettered Union Pacific. It was originally from the United States Naval Weapons Station located in Seal Beach.

The museum's station is a replica of the Boston & Maine 19th Century Greenwood depot at Wakefield, Massachusetts.

Also here is a wig-wag crossing signal.

Union Pacific wooden caboose 25730, nee Oregon, Washington Railway and Navigation Company 3579 built by Standard Steel in 1910l. In 1966, instead of scrapping the caboose, the Union Pacific Railroad moved the caboose to Los Angeles, refurbished it and presented it to the Lomita Railroad museum for Christmas.

A velocipede built for the Maine Central Railroad by Fairbanks Morse and Company in 1881. Riders provided the propulsion with the combined use of hands and feet. It was refurbished in 1990.

An empty baggage cart.

Baggage cart with milk cans.

Two views of Southern Pacific 1765. We then went inside to explore the interior displays.

Locomotive in a case.

Railroad china.

Locomotive whistles.

Order Board light.

Switch lantern and a locomotive head light.

A Keeler cooler.

Super Chief drumhead, oil cans and Tonopah sign.

The gift shop.

Locomotive number plates.

Various pictures.

Valve gear demonstrator.

The ticket office.

Pictures of the narrow gauge North Wales Railway.

Timetable board from Kelso-Longview station in Washington.

The Rockwood Bridge on the Pennsylvania Railroad picture.

Semaphore signal blade.

A Union Pacific System map.

Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 Big Boy.

A railroad date spike collection.

Pictures of steam engines.

Boston & Maine Mountain 4117.

Virginia Alleghany Articulated Number 900.

Benches and storage shed.

Denver and Rio Grande Consolidation engine chart.

Switch stands on display.

Link and pin coupler display.

How they got here.

How an SP Mogul steams.

Another baggage cart.

Next I visited the cab of Southern Pacific 1765.

The interior of the steam engine's cab.

The view from the engineer's seat.

The water tower.

The front of the steam engine

The Southern Pacific crossbuck at the museum.

Southern Pacific 1765 and water tower.

Two more switch stands.

The Look Out for the Locomotive Stop & Listen sign. This ends my coverage of the unique Lomita Railroad Museum. Now Chris Parker and I would drive to ride some new streetcars.

Click here for Part 2 of this story