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Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on September 11th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 27 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 27

Locomotive legacy: The Santa Maria Valley Railroad Historical Museum

Historical train exhibit is a reminder of how important the railway was to Santa Maria's development


The locomotive that faces Miller Street at the Santa Maria Valley Railway Historical Museum is an 1894 switch engine that was used at Santa Maria’s Union Sugar Plant.

Twice a month, Santa Marians have the chance to step inside Santa Maria Valley history, thanks to years of effort by local railroad enthusiasts, donors, and volunteers. Located next to the Santa Maria Transit Center in two train cars, the Santa Maria Valley Railroad Historical Museum is now open on the second and fourth Saturday of each month from noon to 4 p.m.

Public transit goers can’t help but take notice of the brightly colored locomotive, boxcar, and caboose that make up the museum and open-air exhibit, perched peacefully on a nearly 100-foot train track. The space was allocated for the museum when the transit center was first being planned, explained Dwight Couch, vice president of Santa Maria Valley Historical Museum.

“When the city proposed the transportation center we talked to [Alex] Posada, the head of the Recreation and Parks Department, about a museum,” Couch said, “because of the significance of the place where they built the transit center. That area really was the heart of the Santa Maria Valley Railroad when [Capt. G. Allan] Hancock rebuilt it in 1925.”

Couch went on to explain that Hancock came to Santa Maria in the mid-1920s and purchased the Santa Maria Valley Railroad at a bankruptcy auction. The local farms at the time were small, family-run operations that could hardly fill a boxcar with produce. Hancock convinced the area farmers to increase productivity by forming a co-op, which was aided by the new railway, Couch said.

The caboose at the Santa Maria Valley Railway Historical Museum is a rare artifact due to the fact that it is made out of wood, which was deemed too dangerous once steel cabooses came around.

“In the area where the transit center is now, Hancock built an icehouse,” he said. “There was no mechanical refrigeration back then and everything had to be done by ice.”

The icehouse produced 300-pound blocks of ice that were loaded by crane into the front and rear of each produce boxcar. As the engine moved along, the incoming wind would simultaneously melt the ice and keep the produce cool on its way to Los Angeles or San Francisco, Couch said.

“He was shipping between 25 and 50 carloads of produce every day during the harvest season, from April to the end of September,” he said. “It was at that time the largest vegetable growing area in California. So he was very instrumental in getting the city on the map and getting a lot of jobs in commerce, helping the city develop.”

The Santa Maria Valley Railroad Historical Museum was told, when applying for a space near the transit center, that it could use a patch of land that was 25-feet-by-100-feet—exactly the space the organization was looking for. The group of volunteer railroad enthusiasts had in its possession three large pieces of historical equipment that were being housed by local construction company Engel & Gray for the restoration process.

The 1918 wooden boxcar is home to many photos, artifacts, and even a scale diorama of the Santa Maria Valley Railroad in its heyday.

The museum primarily consists of three pieces: a locomotive, boxcar, and caboose. The boxcar contains various artifacts, photographs, and even a model diorama of what the area looked like during the Santa Maria Valley Railroad’s heyday.

“We have the room, so we kind of shoe-horned everything in there,” Couch said. “But there is enough room for people to come in and look around.”

The locomotive, Couch explained, was used by the local Union Sugar Company for many years. Built in 1894, the steam locomotive was converted from coal fire to oil fire when it came out to California because coalmines weren’t readily available on the West Coast at the time, Couch said.

“At one time there were large sugar beet farms here in the Santa Maria Valley and the beets were processed at Union Sugar,” Couch explained. “This switch car was used to move the cars to and from the processing area.”

All aboard!
The Santa Maria Valley Railway Historical Museum opens its historical train exhibit on the second and fourth Saturday of the month from noon to 4 p.m. at the museum, located at the south side of the Santa Maria Transit Center, Miller and Boone streets, Santa Maria. More info: 714-4927 or

The caboose was the first large donation the group received. The previous owner sold it to the group for $1 after its members told him their plans for restoration. Built in 1935, the caboose is a rare find due to the fact that not many wooden cabooses remain intact today.

“They were actually a fire hazard,” Couch said. “So when they had the opportunity to move to steel cabooses after World War II, when steel was more easily available, a lot of wood cabooses were burned because [people] had no use for them.”

The volunteer members of the Santa Maria Valley Railroad Historical Museum are on-hand at the museum on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month to provide locals with information about the museum and its significance to local history.

“People come by and look at it and are very curious about it,” Couch said. “When you show them where we came from and the railroad and all, they are very impressed by the whole thing.”


Arts Editor Joe Payne hopes he is not a fire hazard. Contact him at

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