The Santa Fe Railroad started working on a branch line through the cities of Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach in the 1880s. When trains began rolling down the rails in 1888, the railroad had its link to the three wharves that served Redondo Beach.
The line went through Manhattan and Hermosa before terminating in Redondo. It followed the right of way strip the railroad had acquired that ran between present-day Valley Drive on the west and Ardmore Avenue on the east for a distance of 4.58 miles from its northern terminus in El Segundo.
Redondo Beach’s waterfront bustled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially with the unloading of lumber and other building materials to be used in the rapidly developing South Bay. But when the city lost to San Pedro in 1909 in the race to become the main port for the Los Angeles area, freight traffic from ships died out.
The rise of the Pacific Electric Railway Red Car lines also spelled the end of the spur’s use as a passenger train route to the bustling tourist mecca in Redondo by 1918. After that, an extension of the line’s southern end was built so that what was now primarily a freight line could serve the Southern California Edison Plant (now AES) in Redondo.
By the 1970s, the Santa Fe (officially the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe) line was being used only infrequently. In 1978, the city of Hermosa Beach proposed building a jogging path along the right of way, the first in what would become a series of ideas, both civic and corporate, about the possible future for the narrow strip of land, which rapidly was becoming one of the last open spaces left in the heavily developed corridor in which it was situated.
Santa Fe also had its own ideas about the property. On June 7, 1982, it filed paperwork with the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the rail line, which by this time had grown dilapidated with disuse. The line officially was abandoned in 1983.
The real fun was about to begin. Santa Fe was looking to either sell the land, or develop it commercially. Manhattan Beach originally made plans for Santa Fe to develop part of the land to build a hotel and other commercial developments in return for the city receiving the bulk of the right of way to be used as a greenbelt.
But a jogging path along the right of way already was in place, and, rather than accept more development, residents of both Manhattan and Hermosa began to consider the strip’s value as green space in the densely populated area that it cut through.
Another group, the Friends of the South Bay Trolley, saw the right of way as the ideal location for the South Bay Trolley, part of a proposed light rail network that would link the South Bay to the Venice/Marina del Rey area to the north. Manhattan Beach initially supported the idea, but later backed off, and the plan never came to fruition.
In November 1984, both Hermosa and Manhattan residents voted on initiatives aimed at dealing with the right of way issue. Hermosa Beach voted down its proposal, Proposition O, to increase taxes to pay for purchasing their portion of the right of way, while Manhattan Beach voiced support for the greenbelt idea by nixing Proposition Z, a proposal to rezone part of the right of way as commercial, thus keeping its entirety as “open space right of way.”
The debate over the right of way dragged on in courtrooms and council chambers for years. Manhattan Beach reached an agreement to buy the 23 acres of Santa Fe land in 1986 for $4.2 million in return for allowing Santa Fe to develop a small part of it.
In Hermosa Beach, Santa Fe’s intention to develop parts of the right of way met with stiff resistance in 1987 from a new group formed by activist Rosamond Fogg, the Open Space People’s Action Committee (OSPAC). Its goal was to raise money to sponsor a ballot measure requiring the city to purchase the land for open space.
On June 7, 1988, OSPAC succeeded when voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition D, which set aside money for Hermosa Beach to purchase the Santa Fe right of way. It did so officially four months later, announcing on October 6 that it had bought the 19 acres of land in the city from Santa Fe for $7.5 million. The city council voted to name the land the Hermosa Valley Greenbelt in November 1989, shortly before officially taking possession of the land on Dec. 21, 1989.
There were still lawsuits to deal with, including one filed in 1988 against Manhattan Beach by heirs of the Redondo Land Co., the original owners of the land. The 60 plaintiffs claimed that they were the rightful owners of the right of way. That suit cost the city $2 million in legal fees, but finally was decided in Manhattan Beach’s favor in April 1996.
With the two cities now owning the land, they set about the task of improving the greenbelt by planting trees and improving the landscaping over the next few years. Seven sculptures of monarch butterflies by artist Christine Oatman were installed along a section of the Manhattan Beach greenbelt in July 1992 in the city’s first public art project.
Also in 1992, Fogg and other green space advocates beat back a proposal to allow parking on the parts of the Hermosa Valley Greenbelt. “Keep as much green as possible,” she urged at the time.
The resulting stretch of green space area has been transformed from an unused stretch of railroad tracks into one of the environmental jewels of the beach cities.
On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 1998, Manhattan Beach dedicated a veterans memorial on its section of the greenbelt, whose name then also was changed from Manhattan Parkway to Veterans Parkway.
“Abandoned Rails: The Redondo Beach Branch: El Segundo to Redondo Beach,” Abandoned Rails website.
Daily Breeze files.
Los Angeles Times files.
Manhattan Beach Chronicles, by Jan Dennis, The History Press, 2012.