April 26, 2009

History and Hope in San Bernardino

We lived in San Bernardino for 10 years, before the Ketchum job offer whisked us to Silicon Valley and eventually the central coast. When I was growing up in nearby Fontana during the 1970s and 1980s, San Bernardino was always the "big city." Santa Fe's towering locomotive repair shops were there, along with Fedco and the Central City Mall (where I saw Star Wars for the first time).

Photo: View of redevelopment from the baggage area windows (click to enlarge)

Yet when we left San Bernardino in March 2000, we knew we were getting out just in time. San Bernardino was a city in crisis. The closings of Norton Air Force Base and the AT&SF shops delivered a tough one-two punch to this city of almost 200,000 . . . crime and blight were taking hold and things looked bleak. In the 10 years we lived at the corner of 25th and I Streets, we endured three break-ins, a smashed truck window, and a botched late-night car theft. So when it was time to go, we didn't look back.

The restored 1919 San Bernardino passenger depot

That's why Sunday, March 1 -- the anniversary of our move north -- was such a great day. While in southern California for a bunch of book signings and talks, I'd agreed to appear a "Railroad and History Book Signing Day" at the beautifully restored Santa Fe passenger depot near downtown 'San Berdoo.' The station is a big building, boasting a Spanish-Moorish architecture, and was once home to the railroad's dispatching and division offices. Today it's home to the San Bernardino History and Railroad Museum and its fascinating collection of railroad and Inland Empire memorabilia.

Museum interior (top) and semaphore signal lens study (below).

I've been in San Bernardino plenty of times during the past nine years, but I hadn't visited the museum since it opened in 2008. The authors' day allowed me to once again stand in the passenger lobby where for decades our family waited for Amtrak's Desert Wind and Southwest Chief trains. Even better were the visits from family, friends, railfans and retired Santa Fe people (plus I sold a case of Route 66 Railway books, which is always cool). After the event it was time to tour the museum and gift shop, which occupies much of the station's west end. It's a marvelous place and a must-see destination. The station is located at 1170 West Third Street; hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Authors Greg McDonnell (left) and Glen Icanberry (center) chat with photographer Richard Sugg.

Last but not least, I finally had that long-awaited spark of inspiration for the next book. I've been evading the "what next" question for months, because frankly I had no idea what was next. Now I do. :-) It was a landmark day on many levels.

Let's hope this great museum and the surrounding redevelopment is the beginning of a long-anticipated renaissance for San Bernardino. Every September, the Route 66 Rendezvous car cruise event attracts hundreds of thousands of people. Thanks to the efforts of museum volunteers Steve Shaw, Glen Icanberry and others, people are finding more reasons to come back.

Below: Ray Miranda (top photo) and Bob Drenk (lower), both retired Santa Fe railroaders, stopped by the museum on March 1.