Our humble train station has been the site of many interesting events
By Don Tryon
Our train depot has been an integral part of San Juan Capistrano’s history and lore. It all began in 1887, when a railroad track was laid through town to connect Los Angeles to San Diego. A small brick depot with a bell tower, telegraph office, waiting room and storage room for freight was built. The roof tiles are believed to have come from the Mission ruins.
The depot has been the scene of a number of events, some historic and some with a degree of levity.
Memorable is when our town drunk fell asleep in the middle of the tracks and had a train ride over him. He escaped without a scratch but complained about being awakened when some friends ran from the Mexico Lindo bar nearby to see if he was OK.
Earlier in 1889, Modesta Avila strung her laundry across the tracks to protest the railroad’s existence and was sentenced to San Quentin for her deed. Then there were the times in the evenings, when after the dispatcher left for home and someone wanted to board a train, they would put a washtub alongside the tracks and light a fire to signal the train to stop.
In 1925, San Juan was the scene of the last great train robbery in Orange County. One evening, as the train was traveling slowly through town, a robber jumped to the ladder on the side of a car, climbed on top, kicked through a side glass window, then shot down into the car and wounded the attendant. He lowered himself down a rope ladder, broke a mailcar door window and reached through to unlatch the door and gain access. He rifled the mail pouches and strongbox then jumped off the train and caught a southbound train. The wounded attendant was rushed to the hospital but died. Only $5 was taken from the strongbox but $2,100 was stolen from the mail sacks. Despite offers of rewards, the robber/killer was never apprehended.
In 1942, during World War II, a special train arrived unannounced and it became apparent that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was on board. Earlier, the town had been aroused when Marines arrived in trucks, surrounded the depot and some were even posted on top of nearby buildings with machine guns. A limousine picked up the president at the depot. He was then driven to the Mission and stopped by Fr. Arthur Hutchinson to be blessed and then taken to Camp Pendleton for a visit.
Traveling by train ceased in the 1950s and the depot was boarded up from 1966 to 1974. Then came the restaurant period, when several eateries were established in an around the depot and traveling by train started again when Amtrak and Metrolink resumed service.
In the 1980s, the late mayor Larry Buchheim and some friends dressed up as deputies with badges and sidearms. They boarded the train in Santa Ana with two guys bound in handcuffs. The train conductor wanted to know what this was all about and Buchheim said they had just rounded up these two unseemly miscreants and had to take them to San Juan Capistrano to be tried in our local courthouse, which we didn’t have.
When the train stopped, up rode a large group of cowboys with their guns prominently displayed. They boarded the train and forced “the deputies” out and made them lie down on the pavement. They took their guns and the two desperados and rode off quickly out of town. Pandemonium broke out with the passengers, train crew and visitors around the depot. It took quite a while for Buchheim to explain that everything was alright and just San Juan’s way of celebrating the return of the swallows to the Mission.
Don Tryon is a 25-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. He is currently the vice president and archivist for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. Tryon is a former member of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, the Orange County Historical Commission and the Fiesta Association.
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