Trip Reports: Needles, CA Harvey House and SP Sacramento Shops Complex
The following narratives describe two short trips that I took to railroad sites of historical interest. The first was a tour of the El Garces Harvey House and Train Depot in Needles, CA on May 10, 2003. The second was a self-guided tour of the Southern Pacific Shops complex in Sacramento, CA on June 14, 2005.
Tour of El Garces Harvey House and Train Depot, Needles CA, May 10, 2003
On my way home from Laughlin, NV in early 2003, I stopped in Needles to watch trains and to snoop around the rail yard. I saw a sign on the fence around the old Harvey House saying that they conducted tours of the Harvey House on the second Saturday of each month. Coincidentally, the next day was the second Saturday, so I decided that I would stay over for the tour if it was going to happen. I went into the Needles museum across the street, and they weren't sure about the tour for tomorrow, and told me to check with City Hall. I went to City Hall, and finally found someone who told me that the tour was conducted the previous Saturday because of the tour guide's schedule constraints for the second Saturday. I made up my mind to come back when I could take the tour.
I bought a pamphlet at the Needles museum on the history of the El Garces Harvey House, from which I learned the following:
The El Garces Harvey House and Train Depot has been of great importance to area history. Construction of the existing building began around 1906 after fire destroyed the original wooden building. Because of the tragic aspects of the fire, the new building was constructed of concrete. Mojave Indians were the main labor force, climbing tall ladders to pour cement into forms. The building was completed and landscaping in place in 1908. The building was named "El Garces" in honor of Father Francisco Garces, a missionary who visited the area in 1776. The primary mission of the El Garces Hotel was to serve train passengers. Therefore, the front and most ornate side of the building faces the railroad tracks. Community members also utilized the facilities for elegant private dinners, banquets and special occasions. Travelers visited El Garces on Old Trails Highway, then Route 66.
The El Garces was part of the Fred Harvey chain of hotel restaurants that extended along the Santa Fe Railroad to provide meals and lodging. It was considered the "Crown Jewel" of the entire chain and was remembered for the real linen and silver, distinctive china and fresh flowers provided for its guests daily. Food was of the highest quality serving lunch and dinner. The lunchroom had two horseshoe shaped counters and could serve many people.
Waitresses were cultured young ladies, some from foreign lands. They received special training in neatness, courtesy and excellent service. They were required to sign a contract not to marry for one year and many eventually married railroad men. Harvey girls and management lived upstairs. There were also rooms for paying guests. The facility included a laundry and a bakery. El Garces closed as a Harvey House in the fall of 1949. The building was then partitioned and used as Santa Fe Railway offices until 1988 when the Santa Fe moved their offices to another facility. The El Garces was then closed.
After calling to verify that the tour was to be conducted on May 10, I returned to Needles, and arrived bright and early on Saturday morning to take the tour. The tour started on the side of the building facing Santa Fe Park. From there, we entered into the hotel lobby, which had a display of pictures of the El Garces over the years.
From the lobby, we went into the dining room, where Maggie McShan, the Needles local historian, gave us a short lecture on the history of the El Garces and Needles.
When Santa Fe closed the Harvey House and made it into offices, they installed air conditioning equipment in the rear of the dining room (away from the tracks).
From the dining room, we went into the lunchroom. The lunchroom originally had horseshoe shaped counters with stools around the outside of the horseshoes. The walls were covered with beautiful tile work, some of which has been preserved.
Leaving the lunchroom, we went through the soda fountain room back to the lobby. Once in the lobby, we went up the stairs to view the hotel rooms.
The hotel rooms had a sink in the room, with the bathroom down the hall, except for the suites, which had private baths. The rooms opened out onto the second floor balcony, from where railfans could watch the trains, and others could contemplate the serenity of Santa Fe Park, on the other side of the building. Originally a fountain decorated the entrance to the hotel from the tracks, although this was later covered over and replaced by a newsstand. The fountain is in the process of being excavated and restored.
The El Garces was one of the larger Harvey Houses on the Santa Fe System, containing a bakery and laundry, which serviced several other Harvey Houses. In the 1950s, one wing of the El Garces was demolished to make room for a parking lot.
The Friends of El Garces was formed in 1993 to combine the efforts of Needles citizens to save this historic structure and since its inception, the Friends have encouraged the City to purchase the building. The Friends of El Garces motto is "Preserving the Past for the Future".
The Great American Station Foundation (GATF) recognized the El Garces Hotel as one of the 10 most endangered train depots in the United States. The GATF is a non-profit organization committed to revitalizing communities through new construction or conversion and restoration of existing rail passenger stations. In 1999, with over 1,000 signatures, the Friends of El Garces petitioned the City to purchase this station from the Santa Fe for $130,000. Since then almost $2,700,000 has been secured in grants plus donations. Total cost for restoration of the building is estimated at $11 to $12 million. The Friends of El Garces is a group of people dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the Needles train depot and Harvey House. If you would like to join the efforts of the Friends of El Garces and become a member, contact Friends of El Garces, P.O Box 942, Needles, CA 92363.
Exploration of the Southern Pacific Sacramento Shops Complex, June 14,2005
Three of my friends and myself decided to take advantage of the Amtrak "companion rides free" offer to go to Sacramento to visit the Sacramento Railroad Museum. We bought tickets for travel from Fullerton to Sacramento on June 13, via bus from Fullerton to Bakersfield, Amtrak San Joaquin from Bakersfield to Stockton, and bus from Stockton to Sacramento. We arrived in Sacramento in the early afternoon, checked into our hotel, the Vagabond Inn, and then spent the afternoon walking around in Old Sacramento. We returned to the hotel and later went out for dinner at a Thai restaurant within walking distance of the hotel.
We all rose early the next morning, and by 7:00 a.m., we had finished breakfast and were wondering what to do until the museum opened at 10:00 a.m. I suggested that we walk over to the SP Sacramento Shops complex, which is visible beyond the tracks at the Sacramento Amtrak Station. I didn't really think that we would have much luck getting into the area, but figured it was worth a try.
We walked over to the Amtrak station, crossed all the tracks, and continued out to the shops area. The first building that we came to was the erecting shop, which the Railroad Museum uses for storage of equipment. The museum has built a new transfer table to facilitate the movement of locomotives and cars in and out of the erecting shop. We walked down the length of the erecting shop, looking in the windows and observing the equipment stored inside. One of the first engines that we saw was ATSF 1010, the 2-6-2 which made the run from Needles, CA, to Seligman, AZ on Death Valley Scotty's Coyote Special record breaking run from LA to Chicago in 1905. Behind the erecting shop was the turntable, and next to the Erecting Shop was the Boiler Shop, which the museum is currently using as a workshop.
Two large steam engines were stored out in the open behind the Erecting/Boiler Shops. ATSF 5021 was a 2-10-4, and ATSF 2925 was a 4-8-4. Both engines had the boiler jackets removed. I was told that these engines were stored at the ATSF shops in Albuquerque for a number of years, and were donated to the museum when ATSF closed their Albuquerque shops. In addition to the two engines, there was an assortment of other equipment stored outside, including an SP crane.
We wandered through the rest of the yard, viewing the mostly deserted and empty buildings, without knowing what most of them were. One building had a sign on the door that said Wheel Shop No. 2. A similar looking building next door had no sign, but maybe was Wheel Shop No. 1.
By 9:45 a.m., we had walked around most of the shops complex, and decided to head over to the museum, where we spent the next several hours. We had all toured the museum before, but none of us had seen the SP Shops at close range, so this turned out to be a surprise highlight of our trip.
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