Burbank Branch History

by Bruce Petty

Built in 1893, a branch line from Burbank meandered twenty one miles westward crossing an extremely barren San Fernando Valley with the tracks ending at Chatsworth. Freight and Passenger trains brought a new prosperity for the tiny communities along the way. The valleys fields of wheat could then be shipped by the freight car load from the nearby farms without the long haul by team and wagon to Burbank or San Fernando depots. Barley was also grown, but it was not considered much of a cash crop, it had been used to feed the 20-mule teams of the Borax Works located in the Owens Valley.

Another mile of track was laid in 1898 into Chatsworth Park, a canyon surrounded by the craggy sandstone formations of the Santa Susana Mountain Range. At the quarry above the park, sandstone formations were blasted into large of boulders to be used in the construction of the San Pedro Breakwater. Derricks loaded the giant rocks carefully onto flat cars. Heavily laden trains traveled the branch, connecting to the main line at Burbank heading southward through Los Angeles towards San Pedro.

At the same time, construction was started for the three tunnels on Southern Pacific’s new Montalvo Cutoff. This was to be the new Coast Line connection from Ventura to Burbank. Early on, some thought was given for using the Burbank Branch the last leg the Coast Route. But it zigzagged around the valleys farm properties with sharp curves making for slow speed. The branch was left to its own in favor of a third track crossing the San Fernando Valley and without a curve for nearly twenty miles between Chatsworth and the new Burbank Junction.

The Santa Susana Mountains were the only obstacle in the way of the new cutoff, but Southern Pacific’s past history of crossing both the Sierras and Tehachapi Mountains showed this to be merely an inconvenience. Of the three tunnels that were bored through sandstone, the longest being tunnel number 26, being 7369 feet in length.

The Burbank Branch was then bustled with activity to bring supplies to Chatsworth Park, the staging area for the east side of tunnel 26 and two shorter tunnels 27 and 28. An old wagon road built in 1861 over the Santa Susana Mountains to Simi Valley was used to send supplies to the western end of tunnel 26.

Much of the cutting and grading between the tunnels had been completed before the tunnel work begun. With spur tracks from Chatsworth Park switched back and forth climbing onto the new right-of-ways construction site. Many of the larger rocks taken from the new right-of-way cuts were also sent to the breakwater at San Pedro. In all, the tunnels and right-of-way took five years to complete and by 1904, trains were running on the new Coast Line trackage.

The westward end of the branch was connected to the new Coast Route main line at Chatsworth south of the station. Without further need for quarried rock, the track from Chatworth Park was taken up to within a few hundred feet of the end of the wye and used for turning steam locomotives.

As the brimming metropolis of Los Angeles continued spill into the San Fernando Valley creating intensive building activity, farms and ranches gave way to homes and business. Stations along the branch, in order, were Burbank, North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Encino, Canoga Park and Chatsworth. Except for Burbank, these communities lay within the city limits of Los Angeles.

In 1911, real estate speculator Hobart J. Whitley, of Suburban Homes, was determined to draw large crowds to the valley. The new residents and moving company trucks began arriving as new homes were built. Small locally owned moving company have always been in competition with larger national moving companies, but the local companies usually could not accommodate interstate moves. He bought batches of train tickets from the Southern Pacific and in turn sold them at a loss to prospective real estate buyers. Two special 19 car passenger trains from Los Angeles rolled slowly along the branch as auctioneers sold a lot every three minutes.

Regular passenger service served the branch line by the use of a gas electric rail car from Los Angeles. This service ended in 1920 because passengers preferred the more convenient Pacific Electric Red Cars. The line was again used for a brief period for passenger service between 1944 and 1945 towards the end World War II. 360 hospital trains traveled the line carrying wounded soldiers to the Veterans Administration Hospital. A track from the branch to the hospital grounds was temporally laid for this use.

The devastating flood of 1938 had washed out Pacific Electric’s bridge at the normally dry Tujunga Wash crossing. Rather than rebuild the bridge, Pacific Electric shared right-of-way with the parent company, (Southern Pacific) between North Hollywood and Van Nuys until the Red Car service was discontinued Dec 27, 1952.

Over sixty business’s along the branch were served directly by rail and consignees picked up their shipments at the team track in Encino. Because the valley is basically a consumer area most of the track side business was for inbound freight traffic. A typical workday during the 1950s and 60s for the Burbank Local began in Van Nuys. The dependable Baldwin, AS-616 diesel road switcher would be started up at 8 A.M. and coupled to the caboose for the short trip to Burbank to pick up the loaded freight cars. Earlier that same morning the cars were left on a siding along the main line by another train doing its switching work from Taylor Yard to Burbank. Soon the local would be rolling along westward with about twenty five cars. The train crew functioned as a team distributing the loads to industry spurs and picking up the empties. With only a string of empty cars left at the end of the run, these would be set out on a siding at Chatsworth. Later, a freight would pick up the empties for dispersion. The engine and caboose would then return to Van Nuys and tie up for the day.

In 1991, the MTA purchased the right-of-way with the intent of using it for the Valley alignment for a Metro Rail project. A year later the S.P. began phasing out the limited service on the line except at the westward and eastward ends of the branch.


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