‘Pomona A to Z’: U is for Underpass

[My U choice was unknown until the day I finally took at look at that stone marker outside Joey’s BBQ. When I read the inscription commemorating the nearby underpass, I laughed out loud there on the street corner. Granted, underpasses aren’t unique to Pomona — but stone markers for underpasses may be! This column was published Feb. 20, 2005.]

Pomona underpass was urgent undertaking for 76 years

It’s unnerving, but “Pomona A to Z,” my unabashedly upbeat ode to the city’s unplumbed depths, is up to the letter U.

Examples aren’t ubiquitous, but Pomona does have some unforgettable U runnerups with which you may be unacquainted:

* Underground art galleries in the basement of the Prog and Founders buildings downtown: Gallery 57 Underground, SCA Gallery and SoHo Gallery.

* U Pick U Save Auto Dismantling on East Mission, worth a U-turn by those looking for a replacement hubcap or side mirror.

* Unistar Foods, which provides meat and poultry to Filipino American restaurants and markets throughout Southern California.

Uplifting, eh? However, the U that deserves a chorus of ululation is unique — and admittedly unpromising.

It’s the Garey Avenue underpass.

(That’s underpass, not underpants.)

Each day, thousands of motorists pass below the railroad tracks downtown without a second thought.

But it wasn’t always this way. Waiting from a few minutes to a half-hour for a train to pass was once a daily occurrence.

Showing that government moves even slower than trains, the problem existed for eight decades before anything was done.

In 1887, the Progress-Bulletin editorialized:

“The railroad crossing at Garey Avenue was blocked last Monday forenoon for a considerable length of time by a freight train, causing no little annoyance and delay to passing to and fro of teams. That is an annoyance that should be abated at once.”

“Teams,” by the way, referred to horse-drawn wagons. Told you this was an age-old problem.

As Pomona grew, there was talk of building underpasses at the Garey, White and Towne rail crossings. Efforts intensified after July 15, 1948, when traffic was blockaded at noon for a half-hour, then at 1:30 p.m. for another half-hour.

Road rage, anyone?

As if reaching across the years to help me write today’s U-themed column, Southern Pacific passenger agent William Campbell told the Progress-Bulletin the incidents were “unfortunate and unavoidable.”

Enter Fred Sharp. Hired in 1949 as Pomona’s first city administrator, Sharp set about preparing the city for the future. Storm drains, a county courthouse and a new Civic Center were among his achievements before retiring in 1974.

So were rail crossings.

“People were getting killed on the railroad tracks … There was no program in California for (underpass construction). We had to go to court to force the railroads to cooperate. They claimed they were here first,” Sharp recalled in a 1985 interview.

By the late 1950s, railroads were required by state law to cough up money for grade separations. A state fund was set up to provide matching funds for qualifying projects.

Thanks to Pomona’s lobbying, Garey, White and Towne made the cut. Pomona voters overwhelmingly passed a $1.5 million bond issue to raise the city’s share — 30 percent — of the $5.3 million needed.

“It was a great effort. And the business community was strongly behind it,” Ora Lampman, hired in 1962 as a city engineer, told me recently.

Towne and White were done first. Construction on Garey began in August 1961. It turned into a nightmare, dragging on for two years because of its complexity.

Vehicle traffic was rerouted and temporary trestles were built to carry the trains.

Some 6,000 truckloads of dirt were hauled off. Then work began on the 110-foot-wide bridge, which supported three sets of tracks and two lanes of First Street.

Like an omelet, you can’t create a grade separation without breaking a few eggs. Did I really just type that? Pomona had to demolish a block of First Street on the west side of Garey as well as the 1914 Union Pacific depot.

Further setting this undercrossing apart is what may be the most unusual public works plaque in the Inland Valley.

I’m referring to a 6-foot stone marker rising nobly at the corner of Second and Garey, right outside a barbecue joint.

When I saw this grand monument to a humble underpass, I knew it was worthy of “Pomona A to Z.”

Anyway, on Aug. 15, 1963 — some 76 years after the 1887 editorial — Pomona held a lavish dedication for the underpass.

Some 1,000 people heard County Supervisor Frank Bonelli praise Pomona for perseverance “that is second to none.”

Perseverance that was tested again — just to sit through all the speeches.

(David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, which is unfortunate and unavoidable.)

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