History of the Museum

The History of the Orange Empire Railway museum

In 1956, a group of young men who had grown up riding trolleys in Los Angeles saw that change was in the air. A rapidly developing freeway system had helped make the personal automobile the preferred method of transportation for an ever-increasing number of Angelenos. Trolleys were fast disappearing, and with them a way of life that Los Angeles had known for more than a half-century. A group of enthusiasts known as the Electric Railway Historical Association of Southern California formed an “Equipment Committee” that set out to preserve some of the trolleys for future generations. In 1956, this group formed the “Orange Empire Traction Company” and stepped up their preservation efforts even further. Many were still teenagers when the organization was founded, and their youthful enthusiasm was soon put to good use as the club began acquiring trolleys for preservation.

The group’s first home was at Travel Town, an already-established display of retired railway equipment in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. By 1958, the group had changed their name to the Orange Empire Trolley museum and had brought 10 pieces of equipment to Travel Town. Then came the event that started the wheels in motion to form what would become today’s OERM. Ironically, it was the same type of event which had hastened the demise of the equipment they were collecting: the construction of another of L.A.’s famous freeways! The group was informed that the new Ventura Freeway would cut directly through Griffith Park, isolating the site from access to major roadways. It was leave now, or remain forever. This later turned out not to be true, but leave they did.

Working on the collection at Travel Town in Los Angeles, circa 1957. Don Brown photo

After months of searching, the trolley museum found a new home on an abandoned railroad right-of-way just outside of rural Perris, California, some 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Another group, the Mt. Rubidoux Chapter of the Pacific Railroad Society, was leasing the right-of-way from the Santa Fe Railroad. The trolley museum purchased eight acres of adjacent potato patch and began the process of moving equipment there. Except for a small two-room farmhouse and a rock dugout dating from the 1880s, the site was a lonely, semi-desert field. One can only imagine the thoughts of the locals who saw this collection of rail equipment appearing in the middle of the field! There was no running water, no indoor plumbing, not much of anything but trolley cars and youthful enthusiasm.

Museum site, 1958. The first trolley car is visible near the bottom center of the photo. Don Brown photo

The early years at Perris were a time of intense activity, though mostly on weekends only, as almost all of the participants worked regular weekday jobs. Track was hurriedly extended as more and more trolleys arrived, eventually evolving into a yard arrangement.  The few visitors that found the place thought of it as “the trolley farm” and this moniker would stay with the museum for years to come. By late 1959 a used Cummins diesel generator power plant was acquired and set up to provide the 600 volt DC electricity for trolley car operation. Overhead wire followed and operations were soon possible on a short stretch of track.

As the 1960’s began, tracks were extended further, and more trolleys and hardware acquired. With streetcar service ending in Los Angeles in 1963, the loosely-run organization began to gather momentum. museum members travelled to sites throughout the region salvaging abandoned railway infrastructure that could be reused for the museum. Meanwhile, the group with the lease on the site’s right-of-way had become the California Southern Railway museum. The two groups shared the site, and mainline railroad equipment continued to appear in large numbers. It still didn’t look like much of a museum, but by the mid-1960s, enough time had passed for a core group of dedicated volunteers to emerge. From among this core emerged leaders who began planning for the museum’s future. They identified more land, protective carhouses, a public restroom and a gift shop as priorities.

By the end of the 1960s, several of the site’s defining features had taken shape. A trolley line had been constructed along the periphery of the original property, and the Pinacate Station giftshop and a public/member restroom building both opened in 1968. In 1969 construction started on the first Carhouse, beginning the process of providing protective cover for the growing collection.

The first carhouse, beginning the process of protecting the collection, 1970. Don Brown photo

The 1970s were another decade of tremendous growth. In 1971, the  Santa Fe Railway donated the historic 1892 Perris depot to the museum. Although at the time the museum could not yet operate its trains there, the building would later become a focal point in downtown Perris for both the museum and the city’s redevelopment efforts. Back at the main site, more adjacent land was purchased, completion of a continuous trolley “Loop” occurred in 1973, and a second carhouse was completed in 1975. In order to combine the efforts of the site’s two groups, the California Southern Railroad museum was merged with the Trolley museum in 1975 forming today’s Orange Empire Railway museum. A major extension of the standard gauge “mainline” trackage in 1977 permitted a better demonstration of the growing collection of mainline railroad equipment. In 1978, regular steam locomotive operations began, together with the concept of holding a large “Rail Festival” event in an effort to draw more visitors.

The 1980s saw a continuing pattern of expansion in the area of physical plant. A third carhouse opened in 1983, and construction of an ambitious shop facility progressed significantly. Carhouse #4 opened in 1986, raising to about fifty the number of railcars in the collection with an indoor home (representing about one-third of the total collection at that time). This same year also saw electrification extended for several blocks over the trackage connecting the museum’s “main line” to the Santa Fe trackage in downtown Perris. As the decade drew to a close, the city of Perris was also changing dramatically. New housing was beginning to appear throughout the city, including a major new development adjacent to the rail right-of-way north of the museum. This pattern of growth has continued into the present day, forever changing the one rural feel of the area north of the museum site. The good news in all this expansion was the city’s continued interest in OERM, reflected by the prominence of museum operations in the city’s downtown redevelopment plans.

The 1990s further accelerated the pattern of expansion. Most notable was the donation by Ward and Betty Kimball of their 3-foot gauge “Grizzly Flats Railroad” along with major funding to help assure its continued preservation. The four track Grizzly Flats Enginehouse opened in 1992, with additional related artifacts acquired by the museum to help interpret a more complete history of 3-foot narrow-gauge railroads in the West. Concurrently, a major new system of water mains was started to help protect the entire museum site from the ever-present danger of fire. In 1993, a landscaped park was added, connecting the center of the museum with the new enginehouse. In 2001, Grizzly Flats was further expanded with the addition of a replica Southern Pacific "gallows" type turntable, built on site by museum volunteers with financial support from the Kimballs.

In 1990, Ward and Betty Kimball donated their Grizzly Flats Railroad collection to OERM, adding a new dimension (and a third track gauge) to the Museum.

For a period beginning in the mid-1990s, the museum also operated excursion trains on the former Santa Fe Railway San Jacinto branch and began regularly calling at the historic 1892 Perris Depot, some 1.5 miles north of the main museum site.  As freight railway operations increased on the branch line, the museum’s excursions ended, but the goal of a rail connection between the museum and the Perris Depot remained. When it was announced that the Metrolink commuter rail system would be extended from Riverside to Perris, the museum and the City of Perris were able to establish an agreement that would finally permit a permanent presence for the museum at the depot. Concurrent with the construction of the new Metrolink facilities in 2013-14, the museum will construct a short extension of its track and overhead wire that will reach into the new Ward Kimball Transit Center located adjacent to the historic depot. Museum trains will arrive and depart directly across the platform from the new Metrolink service, though for safety reasons the two operations will be on separate tracks.

The museum celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2006, and soon after embarked on the development of a formal Strategic Plan for the organization’s future. Recognizing the importance of providing financial stability for the future, the 2000’s also saw the organization’s endowment fund grow to over $1 million dollars.  In 2007-08, the historic 1892 Perris depot (which had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995) was completely restored by the City of Perris to become an improved home for the Perris Valley Historical museum as well as a northern terminus for the museum’s railway operations. 

Throughout the 2000’s the museum also made major improvements to its visitor areas, adding paved walkways and roadways and additional landscaping, as well as more restroom facilities and other visitor amenities. The museum also made major improvements in its ability to care for its collections. In 2001, the museum acquired 19 additional acres of adjacent property, which gave it the ability to site a major new collections storage facility. Completed in 2007, the 62,000 s.f. Ron Ruffulo Carhouse has six tracks inside, each 600 feet long. This facility doubled the amount of indoor storage space for the museum’s collections, permitting a major cleanup and reorganization of the entire site.

Completed in 2007, the Ron Ruffulo Carhouse (7) doubled the amount of indoor space for the Museum's railway collections

The 2010’s have continued the pattern of growth. In 2011, the main visitor parking lot was paved and the front entrance remodeled. Several generous gifts also allowed the museum to begin a focused program of car and locomotive refurbishment using a contracted painter to supplement its volunteers. The program has turned out beautifully repainted railcars and locomotives at an impressive pace, encouraging additional donations to support a continuing program. In 2011, the museum hired its first full-time executive director, and in 2012 moved to expand its Board of Directors through the appointment of “Community Directors” that will help to expand its outreach and fundraising efforts. In 2012, construction started on both a Harvey House exhibit building and the new Thomas F. Grose Library, and a recreation of an historic water tank is being added to the Grizzly Flats Railroad.

More than 55 years have now passed since the museum’s inception, and although a much smaller percentage of the population remembers riding on the Red and Yellow trolleys of days past, Los Angeles is once again busy building one of the nation’s largest rail transit systems. A new generation of Southern Californians is growing up with trains, and the Orange Empire Railway museum is in a better position than ever to continue its work of “bringing Southern California’s railway history to life”.

Why the name Orange Empire?

Trolley Trip Car Card

The Orange Empire Trolley Trip- In 1912, $3.50 bought a ticket on the all-day 150-mile  “Orange Empire Trolley Trip” from downtown Los Angeles into the far-flung “Orange Empire” along the tracks of the Pacific Electric. Leaving 6th and Main in downtown Los Angeles in the morning, highlights of the trip included stops in San Bernardino, Riverside (with lunch at the famed Mission Inn) and Redlands before return to Los Angeles in the early evening. The last Orange Empire excursion ran in 1929, by which time hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world had taken this famous trip through the orange groves.

Today the “Orange Empire” is known as the “Inland Empire”, and houses have replaced the orange groves. The Orange Empire Railway museum's collection of more than 200 streetcars and rail vehicles provides an opportunity to experience the early days of electric- and steam-railway transportation in and around Los Angeles.

Upcoming Events

Museum News

June 24, 2014 - 05:18
All aboard! Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends are once again chugging into the Orange Empire Railway Museum for five days in November. Discounted ($2 off) tickets are on sale through September 1...
May 27, 2014 - 17:16
Ride into the past June 14-15 on the Big Red Cars of the Pacific Electric Railway, once America's largest interurban electric railway system, blanketing the Los Angeles region with...