Visiting the Orange Empire Railway Museum

As a person who loves Southern California history I’m inordinately excited when I get to glimpse of an actual relic from the past. So when I heard the Orange Empire Railway Museum would be holding their annual Behind the Scenes weekend showcasing some historic Los Angeles rail cars I knew I had to go.

The Orange Empire Railway Museum makes its home in the city of Perris located in the far reaches of Riverside county. Despite my extensive travels I had never visited this corner of SoCal before and wondered why it was home to a well regarded rail museum. Turns out, the city owes it’s existence to the railroad. The town formed in the late 1800’s around a depot for the California Southern Railroad connecting San Diego to Barstow. In fact, the town is named after the chief engineer of that railroad – Fred T. Perris.

In 1956 the Orange Empire Railway Museum was founded and made its first home at Griffith Park’s Travel Town. Two years later it moved out to Perris on the grounds of a former potato farm. Since then the museum has amassed a vast collection of railway artifacts and has becoming one of the leading museums of its kind in the country.

I had no idea what to expect and when I arrived I was amazed by the sheer size of the museum grounds. It was already early afternoon and I soon realized there was no way I could see it all in a few hours. Completely overwhelmed, I decided to stop at the first building that caught my eye.

I stepped inside and found an incredible collection of streetcars from Los Angeles, San Francisco and beyond.

The cars were in various states of repair but no matter the condition each one was an object of beauty and one car in particular especially caught my fancy.

This beautifully restored Yellow Car once was a part of the Los Angeles Railway which operated in the city from 1901-1963. I’ve seen this vehicle many times in vintage photos but this was the first time seeing it in person. What a delight!

Also a delight were these guys –

When looking at vintage ephemera it always boggles my mind how much effort was put into everyday items. Items that were really meant to be thrown away. I wish that much care was taken today.

The Subway Terminal! I’ve been there!

I eventually tore myself away and headed to Carhouse 2 – home of the museum’s Pacific Electric Red Cars. This area is normally not open to the public so it was a real treat to get inside.

I’m not a stranger to the Red Car and have been lucky enough to ride one in San Pedro but it’s always a joy to see. I love these guys and continually wish they continued to operate through Southern California.

The building also housed various other vehicles including a beautiful San Diego Electric Railway car that is currently being restored.

Thanks to the event we were lucky enough to meet the folks who have been restoring it for the past two years. It’s almost done and they took us inside and under(!) the vehicle. Now I can say I’ve seen the bottom of a street car!

After viewing all these rail cars it made me long to ride in one. Luckily, I was able to do just that!

The museum has a functioning Los Angeles Railway car and I was able to catch a lift.

With all this streetcar talk you’d think that’s all the museum has but there’s actually so much more! Due to limited time I didn’t get to see everything or take a ride of on the vintage train…

but I made sure to visit the Grizzly Flats railroad.

Famed Disney animator Ward Kimball purchase the steam locomotive and used it in his backyard railroad. He eventually donated it to the museum and it’s well cared for to this day. There are actually, several steam trains at the museum and they are true works of art.

Though not in the most accessible location the Orange Empire Railway Museum is well worth visiting. For a minimal entrance fee (currently $12) you can spend a full day wandering around viewing (and riding) the artifacts on display. It’s a true Southern California treasure and I’m glad I finally made the effort to see it.