THE MONORAIL COMES TO FILLMORE – ALMOST
P. E. Combs, 1927
The good, commonsense people of Fillmore are not wont to take off on flights of fancy. But in 1927 the idea of a monorail to Sespe Hot Springs took off like a Condor looking for dinner.
In May of 1927 a gentleman by the name of P.S. Combs arrived in Fortune Favored Fillmore. He was a self-styled developer who introduced himself as a former city engineer for the city of Chicago. Claiming to be backed by Chicago financial interests, he stated that his company, the Sespe Development Co., was capitalized at $2 million. He announced the soon to be started construction of a monorail to the Sespe Hot Springs, an area which was difficult to reach because of steep terrain and essentially no roads.
1920s "Sespe Hotel" at the Hot Springs
1920 Sespe Hot Springs Sweat House
He began by meeting the local “powers that be” and visiting all the local booster organizations.
The first group to hear about the project was the Fillmore Rotary Club. President, John McNab, headed the meeting on May 13, 1927. McNab was the son of Fillmore founder and founder of the Sespe Land and Water Co., Joseph McNab. He was one of the organizers and a director of the Ventura County Coop Association and a developer of Farmers and Merchants Bank. Like all of the principals of this story he was level headed and not prone to flights of fancy. He will be on the platform on the day ground will be broken for the project.
John McNab at the Monorail Groundbreaking Ceremony
The Fillmore Herald described Combs as “one of the most forceful speakers that it has been the privilege of the members to listen to.” Combs predicted that “within 24 months the city will have 3 times the population it currently has.” “Every property in the city will be worth double its present valuation.” “Within 12 months every newspaper and magazine in the United States will have an article about Fillmore.” (Remember this promise.) He proposed that lines could be built for 1/3rd the cost of any other transportation and that they had been used in Germany for a “great many years.” Additionally he proposed to build an electric plant on the Sespe that would produce 180 KW hours of power per year. Combs was quoted at the time saying that “He is not asking for money and flatly states in all his talks that the money is ready and waiting for the construction of the monorail.” (Fillmore Herald May 30, 1927.) Not asking for money must have made the project much more tempting to the locals and apparently they responded by purchasing whatever shares they could.
On May 30 Combs showed a motion picture of the Monorail development at the Stearns (formerly Barnes) Theater. With enthusiasm being generated locally and throughout Ventura County, Combs added W. E. McCampbell, local realtor and insurance agent, to his board as a “local” director. It was through McCampbell’s office that local investors bought their shares in the company. McCampbell also fielded all the questions about the project as it was being developed and, later, its aftermath.
William E. McCampbell
Very quickly the local Chamber of Commerce officers joined the band. They included Milo Cobb, an insurance broker and future mayor of Fillmore; Edgar Goodenough, businessman and rancher and in 1927 a Ventura County Supervisor (He made possible the completion of Goodenough Road soon to be proposed as Monorail Blvd.); attorney, Fergus Fairbanks; E. C. Fuller, vice president of the Chamber; and Judge Merton Barnes, theater owner and businessman.
Fillmore Chamber of Commerce ""Monorail" Letterhead
The project began with a giant sign on the terminal site near the river on Telegraph Rd. Every week for months there was a photo or article in the Fillmore Herald relating to the monorail.
1927 Monorail Terminal site
On July 16, 1927, ground was broken with representatives of the State, County and City of Fillmore, and the principals of the company present. Perhaps, due to the hype, Mayor Price was more than a little wary. The day of the groundbreaking, as the final part of the ceremony, he turned the first shovelful of earth and said “Well, I think there has been enough talking, now let’s get on with it.”
July 16, 1927, Monorail Groundbreaking
By June 17th work had started on the monorail. According to Edith Jarrett there was nothing more than a few red flags on sticks to mark the area where the terminal was to be built. Additionally, a baseball team, the Fillmore Monorails, had been formed and a schedule of games set.
And then – NOTHING! August, September, October and November passed by. There was a great silence. Not a word about progress, not even a scathing letter to the editor questioning the lack of progress. The first question raised actually appeared in the Fillmore American newspaper in October.
Was the whole thing a scam?
Research done by Tony Jones of the Fillmore Herald in 1986 seems to at least cast a little doubt on whether or not it started out to be a scam.
The president of the Sespe Development Co., Frank Buren, and a partner had purchased a 320 acre tract of land on which the Sespe hot springs was located in 1924 for $60,000 signing 3 promissory notes at 6% interest. They managed to repay only $15,000 through April 1927. Buren had also purchased a 160 acre tract outside Fillmore in 1922. The two partners failed to pay any taxes on the land and managed to pay only $600 on the debt by October 1928. By 1929 the property had reverted to the County for lack of tax payments.
The original owners, Jessie and Walter Ilenstine and Lillie May and Cecil Cary, bought the property back for $20,000. The Ilenstines and Carys then resold the property for $60,000.
It is possible that Buren and Combs thought they could get enough funds through sales of shares in the project to Fillmore residents to help pay off the debt. Possibly P. S. Combs scammed Buren and the other investors as well as the Fillmore investors.
No one will ever know if it was a scam and no one who bought shares ever spoke of it again. No shares have ever been found. Perhaps someone in Fillmore will find a dusty share hiding in the back of a closet someday.
The following poem appeared in the Fillmore American in October of 1927:
Oh, where are those monorail pictures Bill McCampbell was wont to show,
In his real estate office window,
Lined up in entrancing row.
They showed these suspended carriages,
Like mechanical birds on wings,
That would waft us in twenty minutes
Up to the famed Sespe Springs
But those pictures that charmed the public
No longer draw gaping crowds.
That dreamed of a monorail journey, through the canyon up to the clouds.
And we wonder, oh how we wonder,
Just where the line was broke.
Was it just another fine day dream?
Just another promoter’s joke?
And yet in a manner of speaking,
This town it has well repaid.
It got Fillmore in all the papers,
And we still have the silver spade.
Written by City Attorney John Galvin
Music by Mayor W. H. Price