Goleta Depot was built by the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. in 1901, at the time of the completion of SP’s Coast Line connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Scores of these two-story, wood-frame depots – all based on the Combination Station No. 22 plan – were built by the S.P. from about 1890 well into the early decades of the 20th century. Distinctive architectural features include the six-over-six double-hung windows, shingled gables, the prominent freight-office window bay, and the paint scheme of S.P.-standard Colonial Yellow, accented with brown trim and white window sash.
Like hundreds of other railroad stations once scattered throughout the nation, Goleta Depot served both the railroad and the local community. And, like the typical railroad depot of rural America, Goleta station performed a variety of functions, handling freight, express, passengers, and communications. This contrasted with the more specialized rail services in the cities, where separate freight and passenger depots were the rule. All of these activities at Goleta Depot were the work of one person, the station agent, who lived in the second-story apartment.
Goleta Depot was closed and boarded-up in October 1973, eight years after the elimination of the local passenger trains had reduced the station’s workload to train orders and freight. In the mid-1970s, the Goleta Valley Historical Society looked into the feasibility of preserving the aging stationhouse, but in 1977 these efforts were abandoned. Two years later, another local nonprofit organization, Goleta Beautiful Inc., took up the banner to save the landmark. The campaign finally got on track in late 1980, with the formation of the Goleta Depot Committee, under the chairmanship of Gary Coombs. By the end of 1981, the committee membership had jelled, consisting of George Adams, Raymond Baird, Eugene Allen, Phyllis Olsen, and Coombs.
Many local organizations enlisted in the preservation drive. Principal among these were the Institute for American Research, employer of both Coombs and Olsen, and the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce. Hundreds became “Friends of Goleta Depot” as the campaign built up a head of steam. In November 1981, sufficient money had been raised to allow the moving of the building to Lake Los Carneros County Park, a condition of the agreement which transferred the depot to Goleta Beautiful. (see map of move route)
Another 11 months of exhaustive fund-raising and extensive restoration work followed before Goleta Depot was finally ready to reopen. The occasion was marked by a grand dedication ceremony Oct. 10, 1982, during which the building also was officially recognized as Santa Barbara County Historical Landmark No. 22.
As part of the plan to pay for building maintenance and other continuing expenses, space in the building was rented to three nonprofit organizations. The Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce moved into rooms created in the old freighthouse, while the Institute for American Research and the Santa Barbara Audubon Society shared the upstairs rooms of the former agent’s apartment.
Early efforts to share the historical landmark with local residents and visitors alike consisted of weekly building tours offered by community volunteers on Sunday afternoons to coincide with the schedule of neighboring Stow House.
The collections at that time consisted of a handful of railroad artifacts and memorabilia that had been donated by local supporters during the Save-The-Depot campaign. Some of these items were displayed in a pair of used store showcases in the passenger waiting room. Others were used to begin the refurnishing of the freight office.
In 1983, ownership of Goleta Depot was turned over to the Institute for American Research by Goleta Beautiful’s directors, who decided that the Institute could better develop the landmark as a museum and community showpiece. Soon thereafter, the “Goleta Depot Railroad Museum” was formally established.
The Museum has undergone much change and development since its simple beginnings. Major acquisitions and improvements have included the Museum’s bay-window caboose (obtained in 1986), laying of the yard trackage in front of the station (1985, with an addition in 1987), and the 7-1/2-inch-gauge Goleta Short Line miniature railroad around the Museum grounds (1987).
Other program additions include the Museum’s annual “Depot Day” celebration (begun in 1983), rail excursions the general public, the Goleta Bunny Express held the day before Easter, (begun in 1983, formerly known as the Easter Bunny Express) and the Candy-Cane Train, which runs between Thanksgiving and Christmas.