Garden Grove

GG’s growth rode on the rails

PACIFC ELECTRIC “Red Cars” like this connected Garden Grove to the rest of Southern California (OC Archives).

  Garden Grove was founded in 1874, making next year the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the community. This is the second in a series of articles about the early days of thecommunity, excerpted from the book by Jim Tortolano.

  The schools, churches and farms of the village era were held to modest dimensions by the issue of transportation. Roads were few and universally unpaved; some were mere cow paths that turned to sticky muck under the rain. The automobile was still a creature of the next century. The vehicle of dreams for Garden Grove and all of Santa Ana Valley was the locomotive.

   The Southern Pacific Railroad, created in 1870, was the entity that brought reliable, cheap transportation – as well as growth – to what were then the “outlying” areas of Southern California.

   The SP publicized the paradise of sunny SoCal across the nation, leading to an influx of hopeful new residents to the Los Angeles area. The railroad pushed its lines toward the edges of the populated counties, with the SP reaching Anaheim in 1875.  The arrival of the railroad spurred the growth of the Santa Ana Valley, and gave a hint of what the iron horse could do for – and to – a community.

   Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric system – soon to be famous for the “Red Car” line – began to snake its way out from central L.A. in the late 1880s. By 1905 it reached Garden Grove, slicing diagonally through the community and bringing the village into the closer embrace of the world outside.

   With a railroad depot, the crossroads changed almost overnight into a burgeoning town, as farmers and growers took advantage of the shipping facilities offered. Packing houses grew up nearby and a general increase in population and economic activity was reflected in the expansion of the once-tiny business district.

  Banks, newspapers, retail operations of all kinds, new subdivisions and more appeared quickly, fertilized by the promise offered by a convenient connection with customers and suppliers from beyond the meadow. The second phase of the community’s life was about to begin.

In 1910, just a few years after the Pacific Electric brought regular passenger and freight service to town, the population was put at about 1200, triple what it had been in 1890. In 1940, just before the end of the era, the figure had risen to about 5,500, but even that number was just a hint of the possibilities to beckon after the world came back from war.

   The biggest catalyst for the town era was the railroad: the Pacific Electric railway. Henry Huntington in 1903 decided to extend the P.E. south and east to Santa Ana and a diagonal route was chosen that cut across Buena Park, Stanton and Garden Grove. Construction started on Oct. 1, 1904 and through service to Santa Ana began on Nov. 6, 1905.

   Garden Grove’s depot was located west of Euclid (now Main) Street and north of Garden Grove Boulevard. Ironically, the Home Depot parking lot is now the site of the former rail depot. The angle at which the railway right-of-way ran created some odd-shaped parcels and cut chunks of land and city blocks in half. 

   Instantly, the railroad worked a major change in the community. It provided not just passenger but shipping service. An industrial park of sorts sprang up around the depot, led by large orange packing facilities. These buildings went through many incarnations – packing house, thrift store, mattress outlet, etc. – before finally being leveled in the late 1980s. .

   The railway made Garden Grove into a significant shipping point for farmers and growers in the surrounding area, which in turn spurred the growth of businesses in the small community.  The downtown of old, which has been a somewhat scraggly accumulation of wooden and stone structures blossomed into a brick-and-mortar center of greater permanence, and many of the leading institutions of the community –chamber of commerce, newspaper, etc. – date from this time and this rail-fired boom.

   Best known to contemporary residents is the old “Red Car” interurban railways of legend. The Red Car connected Garden Grove with locations all across Orange and Los Angeles counties, making trips to Newport or Pasadena (in the era before wide, paved roads) relatively easy, quick and convenient.

   The rail not only made it possible for Garden Grove to export its products and recreate its residents, but it also brought the world here. Midwestern families seeking to come to the milder climate of California were part of the “boxcar culture” that fueled the community’s modest but steady growth.

   Families, or groups of families, would rent a boxcar in Iowa or Michigan and fill it with animals, furniture, kith and kin and make the long, aromatic but inexpensive trip across the plains, up and over the big divide and finally to arrive at this bustling little town.

   Early Garden Grovers would gather at the depot to see what new family was arriving; some friendships, business relationships and perhaps, even romances were kindled that first day on the rough wooden steps of that depot.

   The original electric line gave way to diesel engines, and after the demise of the Red Car line in the late 1940s, freight service became the main purpose of the line. Baby boomers who grew up in Garden Grove can easily recall the long, slow progress of the trains through the summer days, the motormen returning the excited waves of kids, who always seem to be fascinated by trains. 

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2 replies »

  1. Good to see you at the Village Green the other day Jim and Marilyn. We should have brought back the light rail on the P&E right of way through Garden Grove instead of the tree lined pedestrian path no one uses. Stephen Bartol an OG from the GG.

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