The Descanso, by Ralph Melching
The Descanso is unique among the electric railway cars preserved for posterity, as it is the only remaining funeral streetcar still on its own trucks known to exist in the U.S. Cars such as this were once standard equipment on many large street railway systems, serving to carry the deceased and the mourners from the funeral parlor to the cemetery. Los Angeles Railway provided this service to Inglewood Park, Rosedale, and Evergreen Cemeteries and to those on Whittier Blvd. in East Los Angeles.
The car was built in Los Angeles Railway’s 7th and Central shops by Master Car Builder E.L. Stephens. It is of particular interest to railway historians that this car resembles Los Angeles & Redondo Railway’s finest, numbers 201 through 216. It was placed in service on February 20, 1909, painted light grey and bearing the name Paraiso in script accompanied by some elaborate scroll work. Following are the car’s mechanical details: Designated Type D, Length- 39′ 2″, Width- 9′ 1″, Height- 12′ 0″, Weight- 32,450 lbs., Seating- 20 rattan armchairs, Motors- two Westinghouse 101-L, Gear Ratio- 15:69, Control- two Westinghouse K-11, Brakes- Christiansen AA-1, Trucks- Los Angeles Ry. standard, and Wheels- 30″ diameter. Subsequent changes: Nov. 5, 1911- West. 101-L motors were replaced by West. 306-L. Sept. 10, 1921- Placed in service, after shopping, bearing the name Descanso. Feb. 26, 1925- West. 306-L motors were replaced by GE 249-B. Arc headlight replaced by two Mazda headlights. Date unknown- 20 rattan armchairs were replaced by 20 plush walkover seats. Jan. 26, 1939- Motors and gears were removed. In 1940 the color of the Descanso was Pullman green.
When it was learned that scrapping of the car was being considered, Railroad Boosters asked that it be preserved. Los Angeles Railway looked favorably upon this proposal, but the quest for a local site, including negotiations with a large undertaking establishment, was unproductive. It was then that a group of nine club members, who had adopted the name: Railroad Boosters Summit Sunny Sunday Outing Club proposed a bold plan to preserve the car and provide a facility for train watchers at Summit on the AT&SF-UP line through Cajon Pass. LARy agreed to donate the car to Railroad Boosters, and the Summit Club raised $135.00 for the move. On July 1, 1940, the Descanso was loaded on a Santa Fe flat car at Vernon Yard, and on July 4 it was spotted on the spur at Summit.
The original destination at Summit was a ridge west of the station, affording a view of the railroad in both directions, dubbed “Perspiration Point.” When it became obvious that this location was impractical, a less ambitious move was agreed upon. The car was inched up the grade by an elderly truck and some cables on track laid ahead of the car and picked up behind it. On July 26 the Descanso had reached the designated site. This was on AT&SF property 250 feet northeasterly of the Summit Station building. A lease was drawn up describing a 59’X 28′ rectangular plot with the car in its center, 20 feet south of the northerly railroad property line and 215 feet north of the eastbound main track. An annual rent of one dollar was stipulated.
Railroad preservationists have, through the years, bemoaned the modification of the car’s interior; it was converted to a mountain cabin, affording sleeping and cooking facilities. The greatest loss was the seats which were scattered throughout the Summit colony. However, in 1940 historically significant electric railway cars were not being preserved for posterity, so it is certainly to the RRBSSSOC’s credit that the Descanso is still with us. During its 27 years at Summit, the car served local railfans well, fulfilling the expectations of those who placed it there. It was the destination of rail excursions in 1941 and 1957, and several others over the Pass featured a stop there. In 1955 a flagpole was installed and an outhouse constructed, and in 1962 a commemorative monument was placed adjacent to the car. The principal PRS members acting as custodian of the car have been Chard Walker, Mart Sabransky, and L.T. Gotchy.
Technological progress in railroad operation took its toll when, in 1967, Santa Fe closed Summit Station, removing the protection afforded the Descanso by the surveillance of Chard Walker and the other railroad employees. Relocation of the car was imperative, and Travel Town and Orange Empire Trolley Museum were the sites proposed. Following a heated campaign, the members of PRS voted 161 to 70 to move the car to OETM. On April 30, 1967, the Descanso was loaded on a flatbed semi. The truck traveled over the Southern Pacific’s Palmdale-Colton Cutoff roadbed, on which track was about to be laid, to the Route 138 crossing. Thus, the Descanso became the first rail car to move over the new cutoff. The trip was completed over public roads to OETM. On May 1 the car was installed on the west side of Broadway at the south side of Alpine.
For the next 16 years the car was on display at this location, open to the public on special occasions. The cruel elements had been taking their toll on the car since 1940, and it was finally acknowledged by the PRS Board of Directors that placing the car under cover was imperative. On May 6, 1981, an agreement with OERM was finalized to purchase the materials with which to construct Carbarn No. 3. On June 18, 1983, the Descanso was moved into this building.