A little known but very historic area of Long Beach has recently come under discussion: The Burnett School, which believed itself to be named for Peter Hardeman Burnett, the first governor of California, was renamed the Bobbie Smith Elementary School in September 2014, after charges that Peter Burnett was an alleged racist. But somewhere along the line, it was forgotten that the area of the city once known as Burnett was actually named after Thomas Burr Burnett, the general manager of the Terminal Railroad, whose rail line opened the future metropolis of Long Beach to the world.


Since 1888 there had been talk of a third transcontinental railroad line from Los Angeles, by way of the rich mineral fields of Southern Nevada and Utah, to Salt Lake City. The franchise to build the line was finally awarded to the Los Angeles Utah and Atlantic Railway. For two years the railway did nothing, and in 1890 the Los Angeles Terminal Railway Company asked for the lapsed franchise and land grants of the do-nothing railway.

The City of Los Angeles granted the new franchise with one stipulation: a levee had to be built by the railroad on the east bank of the Los Angeles River.

Cemetery derailment Burnett

Terminal railroad accident at the Municipal Cemetery, 1929.

Los Angeles Terminal Railroad Company was formed in September 1890 out of the Long Beach and San Pedro Railroad Company and the Los Angeles Pasadena and Glendale Railroad. Thomas B. Burnett was general manager, W.H. Workman, W. Winthup and D. McFarland directors.

In 1890, the Terminal Railway acquired Rattlesnake Island at San Pedro from the Dominguez family as a terminus for their rail line (eventually changing the name of the island to Terminal Island). Despite the protests of some that a rail line along Ocean Avenue would destroy the beauty of the town on April 5, 1891, the Long Beach Board of Trustees granted the Terminal Railway a franchise to build a line along the beach front, bringing the cars directly to the hotels. The citizens of Long Beach celebrated the momentous event by having a banquet and torchlight procession.

Driving of the Golden Spike – The Road is Dedicated

On November 7, 1891, twelve carloads of people flocked to the Long Beach’s shore to witness the opening of the new railroad. Flags were flown from housetops and a large crowd of people awaited the visitors. A stop made at Pacific Park allowed many more to board the train before it reached the terminus on Rattlesnake Island.

At the end of the line, passengers disembarked. They were given time to see the site of the city’s proposed new wharf. They then returned to Long Beach, got out and mingled with the crowd. A dedication ceremony followed with a golden spike driven into the rail line by Miss Lucia Burnett, daughter of the general manger of the rail line. The spike was a facsimile of the regulation railroad spike, but made of gold; it was engraved with the inscription: “Last spike driven by the Terminal Railroad at Long Beach, Cal.” (Los Angeles Times, 11/9/1891) The mallet then passed to W.H. Goucher, President of the Long Beach Board of Trustees, and Mayor Hazard of Los Angeles, each of whom gave the spike a couple of blows and drove it home.

Around 1911 two boys pried it out of the rail track, thinking it was pure gold. The police recovered the spike and placed it in the junk room at police headquarters where it was discovered in 1913. It was then put on display at the Chamber of Commerce. What happened after that remains a mystery.

After all the grandiose speeches came what everyone was waiting for: the barbecue. A hungry crowd of 1500 rushed from the speaker’s stand to the large tables set up in Pacific Avenue alongside the park. Two plank tables resting upon piles of railroad ties extended 200 feet along the thoroughfare.

They were heaped with smoking meats, stacks of white bread, coffee and apples. The men carved meat while dozens of boys and girls carried the portions to the eager guests. There was plenty of meat—beef, mutton and pork—bread, coffee and apples to go around. The Long Beach Band and Ahrend’s Band of Los Angeles furnished the music. The festivities ended with a grand ball. Some visitors brought home the bones from the barbecue as souvenirs.

A preview run of the rail line was held October 23, 1891, when manager Thomas B. Burnett arranged a trip for 200 farmers in Los Angeles for a convention to travel over his new line to Long Beach. The line, just completed the day before, was ready for a trial run. Nine cars were comfortably filled with the farmers, their wives and children as they anxiously anticipated this unforeseen honor. Burnett had promised to make the trip in 30 minutes, the fastest time ever made to Long Beach. But after the train had gone three or four miles at this high rate of speed, Burnett called a halt and ordered the train to go a little slower.

It seemed the farmers were not used to going at such a high rate of speed as the railroad men and some were getting a little squeamish. As it was, the trip was made in 50 minutes and everyone arrived healthy and happy. The farmers were greeted to a rousing reception; the band played and crowds cheered as the farmers left the train for their complementary lunch. Following lunch carriages were available to give those who did not care to stroll on the beach a ride about the city.

When it came time for the train to leave, the farmers gathered on the depot platform and gave the new road and the people of Long Beach a round of cheers that could be heard for blocks around.

Burnett rail scheduleA July 1898 article in an issue of Terminal Topics, the monthly magazine of the Los Angeles Terminal Railway, described a rail trip from the Terminal Station in Los Angeles to Long Beach and on to Terminal Island.The cost of the fifty-mile round trip from Los Angeles to Terminal Island was 50 cents.

There were two terminals in Long Beach: one at First and Alamitos in Alamitos Beach and the second on the northeast corner of Ocean and Pacific in Downtown. Two miles out of town there was the Burnett Station. Passengers who did not leave the train at Long Beach found themselves whirling along the ocean to TerminalIsland, described as “a new and very attractive resort, where neither money nor labor is being spared to make a most charming place of amusement and recreation for the people.”

From Los Angeles the train passed through “a luxurious country of gardens and dairies, acres of blackberries and strawberries, green alfalfa fields and waving corn, passing flocks of sheep and herds of cattle.” Four trains daily and five on Sunday made it easy for a businessman to summer at the beach and continue to work in Los Angeles.

Burnett Railway Station

Two miles out of downtown Long Beach, farmers south of Signal Hill decided they needed their own rail depot. The area was known for its beautiful flower fields, and taking their daily pickings into Long Beach meant that many of the fragile blooms would be damaged before making it to the Los Angeles market. 

burnett stationThey petitioned the Terminal Railroad for their own station.

Thomas Burnett, general manager of the Terminal Railroad, complied and a depot was built on the northwest corner of California and Burnett. Originally called the Signal Hill Station, it took on a new name in February 1897 (Los Angeles Herald, 2/28/1897). It seemed the post office didn’t like compound or hyphenated names for their post office stations.

Many remembered Thomas Burnett, who had suffered a stroke the previous year, and wanted the new station named for him to honor his achievements. Signal Hill station became Burnett. Within a few months, the area around the depot began to be referred to as Burnett.

Burnett was on high ground, overlooking the entire city of Long Beach, the harbor and Catalina Island, and the area lay just south of what is now the intersection of Willow and California. A school, the third in the Long Beach District, was established in 1888. Known as the Signal Hill School, the name was changed to Burnett Elementary in the late 1890s.

The fact the area had its own rail station proved a boon to the area. What was home to truck gardeners gradually gave way to housing.

In July 1903, the Evening Tribune reported a building boom in Burnett with land selling for $1000 an acre. A number of families had recently arrived from “Indian Territory” (as Oklahoma was known then). This influx of new immigrants meant that two new rooms had to be added to the school house.

Burnett was a prominent farming community. At one time three miles of farm land separated it from Long Beach, but with the all the real estate activity houses were quickly replacing agriculture. Burnett was the first station out of Long Beach to the north on the railroad line. Its fertile soil and climate meant that flowers and fruits could be raised year round. It was not unusual for the railroad to pick up 400 pounds of flowers and berries each day to take to market. A large cannery operated on the forty acre Densmore Ranch in Burnett. 4000 gallon cans of blackberries and 600 cases of jams and preserves of figs and other kinds of fruit were put up during the season.

In August 1913, Los Angeles businessman C. Dean Mc-Phail, bought a large section of what became known as the Burnett Villa Tract for development. Gradually the area known as Burnett would be absorbed into Long Beach, with only the name Burnett Street, Burnett school, and Burnett library remaining to mark the history of the district.

On March 22, 1920 (Long Beach Press, 2/23/1920), residents of the Burnett district decided they were satisfied with “Burnett” as the name of their school. While other schools in the district were changing their names from the area of the city where they were located to names of historical personages, Burnett decided to remain Burnett.

Over the years Thomas B. Burnett was forgotten. He had only been involved with the Terminal railway for 6 years when in 1896 he suffered a stroke and remained bedridden until his death on August 15, 1901. If he had lived his name may have been as well known as Henry Huntington. It was his ambition to see the Terminal railway become a link in a transcontinental system, which it did become when it was absorbed the the Salt Lake railway which later became the Union Pacific. He was a mover and shaker who died at the too young age of 57.

History can become confused, which is the case of Burnett school and library. The Long Beach School District in looking for a famous Burnett to keep the name of the school the same, found Peter Burnett, California’s first governor. Thomas Burnett’s short history with the railroad and Long Beach was forgotten. It’s too late to change the name of Burnett school back to the “real” Burnett behind the name, but fortunately the City of Long Beach is keeping its Burnett Branch Library name, despite an article which appeared in the Press-Telegram in October 1957 saying the library was also named for Peter Burnett.

History can also become embellished, such as the story told by a Burnett resident to reporter Walter Case in the 1930s. Case was told that the Burnett station had always been named Burnett and that the only reason it was constructed was because area farmers said if built they would name the station after the Terminal Railroad’s general manger. Let’s remedy the errors today, remembering the real history of the Burnett area and railroad man Thomas Burr Burnett.

(In case you’re wondering: I’m not related to either Peter or Thomas Burnett.)

This article originally appeared on Claudine Burnett’s blog, Historic Long Beach. She recently published a book on Long Beach’s history during the 1940s entitled Fighting Fear, which is now available on Amazon.