Travel Town is falling down Crash: Despite volunteers' efforts, Los Angeles' museum of antique locomotives and train cars is deteriorating. A lack of city funds is blamed.

November 26, 1995|By Susan Goldsmith | Susan Goldsmith,LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

In the 1930s and '40s, the custom-made "Little Nugget" club car was considered the ultimate in railroad travel.

The former Union Pacific car, with its lavish furnishings, gilded moldings, sculpture and art, was reserved for such first-class passengers as Mae West, Bing Crosby, Cecil B. De Mille, Joan Crawford, George Burns and Gracie Allen on the streamliner City of Los Angeles.

Today, the one-of-a-kind train car and city historic landmark sits deteriorating at Griffith Park's Travel Town Museum in Los Angeles. Years of rain and sun damage have left its paint chipped and peeling, its ceiling and window frames rotting away.

The Little Nugget is emblematic of the city's low regard for its historic collection of antique locomotives and train cars, say the volunteers who help refurbish Travel Town's collection.

In 1989, the city's Recreation and Parks Commission agreed to spend $1.5 million for construction of a train pavilion to house the collection. But six years later, the money has yet to materialize.

Now the 29 vintage dining cars, cabooses, box cars and #F locomotives in the collection -- some dating back to the 1800s -- are falling apart, the volunteers say.

"This is history that we're losing," said Greg Gneier, president of the American Southwestern Railway Association -- a nonprofit group that helps refurbish the collection. "The volunteer force really feels let down. The city made a commitment and reneged on its end of the bargain."

City officials say the project was to be funded by building-permit fees and fell victim to the real estate recession. As development slowed in the late 1980s, the money for the pavilion dried up, said Ann Kerman, director of resource development for the Department of Recreation and Parks.

"It's an embarrassing situation because we've promised things based on an aggressive economy," she said. "Constructing this pavilion is not out of the realm of reality -- we're just rethinking how to go about funding these projects."

Noelia Rodriguez, spokeswoman for Mayor Richard Riordan, said even though recreation and parks officials have deemed the hTC project worthy, the city's mounting financial pressures have forced the locomotive pavilion onto the back burner.

"The reality is that when you have the financial conditions we now have, such as this year's $200 million city deficit, this project is moved to the second or third wave of priorities," she said.

Travel Town attracts about 500,000 visitors a year, many of whom are school children learning about California history, Mr. Gneier said.

In addition to "The Little Nugget," Travel Town's collection features an 1864 steam locomotive that ran on the old Central Pacific line out of Sacramento, Calif. One of the oldest locomotives in the West, the engine was brought to California by sailing ship -- before the transcontinental railroad was completed, he said.

Travel Town also has a unique electric locomotive that was built at the turn of the century and used in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake to haul debris, Mr. Gneier said.

Stephen Drew, senior curator at the State Railway Museum in Sacramento, described the Travel Town collection as an extraordinary historic resource.

"Many of the locomotives and cars at Travel Town have national significance, and some of those pieces are one of a kind," said Mr. Drew. "Clearly, they're major assets that would be desirable by other museums."

Mr. Gneier said at this point it's fruitless to do any more restoration work.

He estimates that volunteers have put in 16,000 hours in the last eight years repainting and wall papering the cars, doing wood and metal work and installing new glass windows, only to see their efforts destroyed by the elements.

As a result, the volunteer pool is drying up, he said.

City commissioners who oversee Travel Town say even if the funding were available, Travel Town would take a back seat to more pressing needs. "I think its horrible," said Steven Soboroff, president of the city's Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners.

"But," he added, "If this were a new thing coming to us now, I'd pick other things ahead of this," such as roller skating facilities.

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