Railroad has served valley since 1911

Santa Maria marks 100 years on rails

By Brian Bullock / Staff Writer / bbullock@lompocrecord.com | Jul 10, 2011

Rob Himoto, president of the Santa Maria Valley Railroad, stands in front of a locomotive Wednesday morning. The railroad is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Mark Brown/Staff

Not many businesses last long enough to celebrate 100 years, and if they do they’re sometimes viewed as out-dated or antique.

Rob Himoto, president of the Santa Maria Valley Railroad, fights that stereotype all of the time.

In this age of overnight delivery, instant social networking and on-demand everything, traveling or shipping by rail seems absolutely ancient to many people.

But for the last 100 years, which will be marked with a brief ceremony today at the company’s office, the local short-line railroad has been an integral part of business in the Santa Maria Valley.

“Even though we’re 100 years old, a lot of people don’t realize we’re relevant in the present tense,” said Himoto, whose family purchased the railroad from descendants of Allan Hancock in 2005. “This isn’t a museum railroad. We’re an economic engine in the Santa Maria Valley.”

An economic engine that just happens to be as old as Chevrolet, IBM, Chevron and General Electric, just a few of the nearly 500 American companies topping the century mark. In fact, the Santa Maria Valley Railroad has a pair of locomotive engines that GE has been producing since the early 20th century.

The local railroad was incorporated July 11, 1911, in Los Angeles, but construction didn’t begin until August after building materials arrived at Betteravia via Southern Pacific. The first train on the short line finally reached Santa Maria in October.

The railroad was initially established for the oil and asphalt industry, and tracks were laid from the SP tracks near Guadalupe to Roadamite, southeast of Santa Maria. In 1952, the tracks to Roadamite were removed and the train ceased operations east of town.

The business expanded to include a significant number of agricultural customers, which is the reason Hancock purchased the railroad at auction in 1925 for $75,000.

One of the visionaries of the valley, Hancock utilized the rails to service his Rosemary Farms, Union Sugar Mill, where the railroad’s current office is located, and many other agriculture-based businesses.

The line grew and now includes 14 miles of track, reaching from the Union Pacific Railroad at Guadalupe to various locations in town. During World War II, the tracks to the Santa Maria Army Airfield — a P-38 Lightning fighter training base during World War II — were used to transport airmen to the SP stop for deployment.

Not long after the war, the railroad purchased a pair of GE diesel engines that Himoto said are still in use. Those engines would eventually supplant No. 21, one of the last steam engines operating on the West Coast.

On Feb. 21, 1962, Hancock, accompanied by Walt Disney, piloted the last run of the historic steamer. Hancock died three years later, and his family operated the railroad for another 31 years before selling to the Himotos.

That kind of history — and railroads in general — enjoy a loyal following. Friends of the Santa Maria Valley Railroad — found online at www.friends-smvrr.org — works to preserve the history of the local short line.

The group does outreach lectures, volunteers to do weed control, flangeway clearing and signal maintenance, and hosts special events such as the Speeder Runs that took place Saturday. Speeders, also known as railway motor cars, replaced the old hand pump cars used by train inspectors over the decades.

The railroad turns their tracks over to Speeder events a couple of times a year.

During its hey-day, Himoto said, the Santa Maria Valley Railroad was one of the busiest short lines — those of 100 miles or less — on the West Coast. Now it’s one of only about 25 left in the state, he added.

“We’re kind of one of the few remaining ‘Mom and Pop’ short line railroads on the West Coast,” Himoto said.

Now the company, despite its deep, rich history, is intent on figuratively laying down some new tracks. The railroad still hauls plenty of agricultural products, both supplies and produce. Frozen vegetables head west on the SMVRR before being shipped to the East Coast.

It also handles lumber and other building products such as aluminum, steel, plastic and drywall with businesses all along its short line.

New markets, such as the wine industry, are emerging, too, according to Himoto. And the railroad also now bills itself as an environmentally friendly way to move products.

“If it’s something other than a perishable product, we can handle it,” said Al Sheff, who recently joined the local railroad after many years with Union Pacific. “If it’s going over 300 miles, we’re more economical than trucking. Ten of those box cars (which one engine could move) can handle up to 50 truck containers.”

Sheff added that removing that many long-haul trucks off the road reduces exhaust emissions and traffic congestion. However, the railroad contracts with a couple of local trucking companies to move freight to valley businesses not on its line.

Himoto said business wasn’t exactly booming when his family purchased the railroad, but now activity has picked up and it’s operating six days a week.

“The recession has kind of helped us,” Himoto said. “Even though business is down, they’re trying to save every penny, so they’re utilizing rail.”

More information about the railroad is available at www.smvrr.com.