by Greta Taylor
photography by William Zeus Hardy
Trains that tied America together. Planes that won wars and also made aviation history. Vehicles that set land speed records, both on the track and on the salt flats. All are tucked away in world class museums close to La Verne.
Rail Giants Train Museum
The loud “whoo-whoooo” sure gets your attention. Its sound bounces off the hills three miles away. Your eyes may be wide, but the children around you have broken down into jubilant giggles. You spy the child who pulled the string. There is a smile on her face that won’t relax for at least an hour. These are the sounds and sights of The Rail Giants Train Museum located on the Pomona Fair Grounds.
Hidden out of sight from the road but within walking distance of the University of La Verne are 13 vintage trains being meticulously restored and maintained by volunteers. This is not just a museum but also a restoration site where trains are sanded, welded, engines repaired, and wooden components are rebuilt.
“I’ve always had an interest in the restoration of old things,“ says Museum President Rob Shatsnider. This museum allows individuals to get up close and personal with equipment that is no longer around, and they’ve probably never seen.” Since 1954, the mission of the museum has been to preserve trains so that future generations can see and understand the impact trains made on American—and California—history.
Among the trains is a Sunkist train built in 1909 that carried citrus, and a 1930s Santa Fe Horse Express Car that transported horses to the race track at the Los Angeles County Fair. The museum volunteers say with special pride that the rail car was in the movie “Seabiscuit” starring Tobey Maguire. A 1923 Pullman sleeper is on exhibit at Rail Giants. Its lavish red velvet, cushioned interior shows why riders would invest the equivalent of $2,286 for a trip from New York to San Francisco. Step inside, and you are transported back in time. Small chandeliers, interior bathrooms and air conditioning give the car a feeling of luxury. The miniature kitchen’s smart use of space would impress tiny house enthusiasts. You can imagine the emotions felt by the Pullman’s passengers. Maybe they waved from the window with tears streaming down their faces as they said goodbye to loved ones. Perhaps the train was boarded with great excitement for a new life or to be reunited with loved ones. Perhaps they were traveling in a bold move of courage with no one waiting for them at the other end.
But it’s not all about the past. New memories and love stories blossom at the museum. Rob Shatsnider joined the organization with his son John Shatsnider in 2005. It has been a bonding activity for the two of them. In 2010, Shelley Hunter joined with her father. She says trains are a hobby where she connected with her dad. She recalls playing with model trains as a child. “We would go there (Rail Giants Museum) every year during the fair. We finally joined in March of 2010. My first introduction to John was him signing me up for the museum. We were both in our teens. I was like, ‘He’s really cute, and he likes trains too.’ We had a common interest. I wanted to talk to this guy more. However, we didn’t start dating until the end of 2013.” On Nov. 6, 2021, John and Shelley wed, and, of course, they incorporated trains into their wedding decor.
Besides blowing the horns, guests are encouraged to create memories of their own via the museum’s night photoshoot, held once a year. The lighting setup and steam effects provide a movie set for stunning images. Some guests dress in vintage clothing. The Rail Giants Train Museum, located on the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, is free to the public and open during the second weekend of each month, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. In May, the museum is open on Los Angeles County Fair days.
Planes of Fame Museum
When World War II soldiers returned home, for them, it was a time of celebration and readjustment to civilian life. Their sleek war birds were left behind. Most of the planes they flew and maintained now sat idol, were destroyed in war, or quickly were dismantled as scrap for parts.
Weapons, physical strength, and technology are essential components in warfare, and mental health is also important. Sharing stories of home and hobbies were uplifting to the veterans and visitors alike. Representative warbirds that ruled the skies needed to be saved for future generations to see. The Planes of Fame Museum captures that thinking. “One of the missions of the museum is we want to honor our veterans,” says docent Ken Newman. “We want to be sure that their sacrifices and their memory, and what they accomplished is remembered.” Newman is a former Marine. His father was a power plant mechanic, and his father-in-law was a navigator on a B-17. “These veterans are the reason why we have the privilege of walking around as free citizens. We want to educate, inspire and preserve obviously.”
The Museum originally began in Claremont, near the intersection of Mills Avenue and Foothill Boulevard. It landed at its permanent site at Chino Airport in 1974. It is a fitting home. During World War II, Chino Airport was called the Cal-Aero Academy where more than 10,000 fighter and bomber pilots were trained. Post war, 1,900 planes were stored at Cal-Aero, about 500 were sold, and the rest were dismantled.
As a teenager, Planes of Fame founder Edward Maloney would drive from his home in Claremont to Cal-Aero to see the planes. It grieved him to witness the warbirds being scrapped for materials. He wanted to preserve the history, and so he did. Today, the museum has about 140 aircraft. Thirty-two are flyable. What’s unique about this collection is there are so many airworthy planes.
Planes of Fame is home to several one-of-a-kind aircraft, such as the “Lucky Lady II” the first aircraft to successfully make a nonstop trip around the world. A P-51A Mustang is on display, and is the only authentic and original flying plane of its type. The Mustang was built in 1943 in Inglewood, California and was used for military training during World War II.
Planes of Fame is also a part of film history. Museum president Steve Hinton and his son Steve Jr. (aka “Stevo”) flew B-25s in Sardinia, Italy for the 2019 remake of “Catch-22.” Warbirds from the collection were also used in the film “Devotion,” which was based on a true story of U.S. Navy fighter pilots during the Korean War. The Hintons have also made history themselves. Both men have broken aviation speed records and are among the few pilots certified to fly a majority of the planes at the airport.
Some of the aircraft artifacts in the museum speak of near-death experiences. There is the broken wing from Steve Hinton’s 1979 near death crash in his Red Baron plane. At the time, the aircraft held a world speed record of 499 mph. There is glory on display too. In 2017, “Stevo” broke the record for “Absolute Propeller Driven Piston Powered Aircraft” when his modified P-51 racer named “Voodoo” reached 531 mph.
The Planes of Fame Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is located at Chino Airport. On first Saturdays of the month, visitors have the opportunity to see a plane fly and then hear the in-depth story of the plane during hanger talks.
NHRA Motorsport Museum
The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Motorsport Museum is located on the Pomona Fairgrounds in what was originally the home arts building. Once the building’s interior was painted the colors of rainbow sherbet. It displayed doll clothes and model kitchens. The building now has industrial gray floors, and speed vehicles are parked everywhere—some are even mounted on the walls.
Motorsports can be tough. They demand skill, quick thinking and dexterity. But it is not dominated by males. Hot rodding especially has always been a sport that celebrates diversity. “It’s always been very inclusive. There were women driving in the early 1950s,” says Greg Sharp, NHRA Motorsports Museum curator and historian.
Hot rodding originated in the late 1930s. The sport organized and gained popularly after World War II. Many hot rodders were aeronautical engineers, military pilots and aircraft maintenance technicians. Some turned WWII fighter plane fuel tanks into hot rods. The city of La Verne prides itself on being a birthplace for timed drag racing.
The museum was the dream of the late Wally Parks, NHRA founder. “Parks was very emphatic. He didn’t want it to be all just drag racing because there’s so much of motorsports that evolved, and it began here in Southern California, Sharp says.
In the first room of the National Hot Rod Association Motorsport Museum, there is a mural depicting a scenic view of a dry lake where races were held. It is the backdrop for the Chet Herbert “Beast III” Streamliner. The car is a gorgeous shade of candy apple red. Even parked in the museum, its sleek sculptural design gives it motion. This one-of-a- kind vehicle is not just nice to look it—the Streamliner can reach a speed of 238 mph. It wows visitors.
In the hall of champions, Erica Lee Enders-Stevensher’s original dragster is on display. It is black and pink and looks delicate with its nimble front wheels. But its driver was the first female pro stock winner in NHRA history. A room over is a gleaming blue car known as “Swindler A.” It is part of the Stone, Woods and Cook legacy, the first Black-owned and racially integrated drag race team. “There are bonnevilles—land speed racing streamliners that go well over 200 miles an hour,” says Sharp. “Drag racing, hot rods, street custom cars—they’re all different. We try to salute them all in the museum.”
The NHRA Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is located on the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds. ■