“OLD 21” by Merle Blasjo

A train runs along the 14-mile Santa Maria Valley Railroad from Guadalupe to Santa Maria as a throng of railfans lines the track. At the throttle of the Mikado steam engine is the railroad’s owner, Captain G. Allan Hancock. Sharing the cab is Hancock’s friend Walt Disney. Also riding are Hancock’s family and some of his associates who had been with the railroad since Hancock rescued it from bankruptcy 34 years earlier. Although Hancock had driven this engine frequently over the years, this trip is a landmark–the last run of his favorite engine, “Old 21”, now being retired as diesel engines replaced the noisy, smelly yet beloved steam engines.

The iconic Alan Hancock left giant footprints both in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara North County. His father owned property in what is now known as La Brea in Los Angeles. After his father died, young Alan rapidly developed entrepreneurial and management skills. Discovering the vast veins of oil under the property, he first sold oil leases and later learned the oil extraction technology and sunk many oil wells. The result was great wealth for Alan and his mother—a wealth not squandered but rolled into further meaningful developments and charities. He developed real estate along Wilshire Boulevard, founded Union Bank, and made significant contributions to the University of Southern California. One major contribution was the gift of Hancock Park and the La Brea tar pits, to be held in perpetuity for tourists and scientific investigators.

In Santa Barbara County, Hancock acquired a farm where he developed irrigation and crop rotation techniques, showing his neighbors that improved crop yields are possible. He founded a shipping cooperative and a cooperative warehouse, which allowed small farmers to ship produce in a timely manner. He acquired an ice plant to make ice to keep produce fresh over long distances. An increased transportation demand led Hancock to purchase a failing railroad link between Santa Maria and the mainline at Guadalupe. Despite the failing nature of this line, Hancock was able to turn it into a long-term operation. In fact, it continues operating to this day, making two to three trips a week between Santa Maria and Guadalupe.

But what of “Old 21”, Hancock’s favorite engine and indeed a hero of this successful line? Two different societies retrieved it from a salvage pile but failed to find the funds to restore the engine. The Astoria Oregon Restoration Association purchased it and began a piece-by-piece restoration toward the original engine that had rolled out of the Baldwin factory. Occasionally railroad magazine articles question whether the project could withstand the high cost of the labor and the specific knowledge necessary to accomplish the restoration. However, the Association website in 2019 showed smiling volunteers with perfectly restored parts of the engine—a cause for optimism! The plans are for “Old 21” to huff, hiss, and smoke once again, pulling an excursion train along the Columbia River.

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