Treasures of the Valley

The Great Tujunga Canyon Train Wreck

What? A train wreck in Big Tujunga Canyon? Didn’t know there was a railroad there!

Well, there was a short set of tracks, along with a locomotive and some cars, for a few weeks in 1942 in support of the movie “The Spoilers.” This quasi-western was actually set during the Klondike-Alaskan Gold Rush and starred John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich and Randolph Scott. It followed the exploits of a group of Alaskan gold miners beset by claim jumpers. John Wayne, playing his classic he-man character, portrayed a successful miner who is being swindled out of his mine by a group of con men. The con men are led by Randolph Scott, who portrayed a villain ­– a role he rarely played. Marlene Dietrich played the tough saloon owner who has fallen hard for John Wayne. There’s a fun brief cameo with the actual poet Robert W. Service, in which the saloon owner asks him about his poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”

John Wayne battles the con men for his mine, during which a train crash takes place. The film culminates in an epic fist fight between Wayne and Randolph Scott. The athletic brawl is one of the longest in film history, lasting an amazing four minutes. That fight alone is worth watching the movie.

But for us here in the Crescenta Valley the wow factor of the movie is the very obvious Big Tujunga Canyon background in many of the scenes. Filming of interior shots and action in the gold rush boomtown were at Universal Studios, but the mining camp and train set was in Big Tujunga Canyon.

Tom Gilfoy, in his book “Growing Up In Sunland,” describes the movie set he saw as a young boy.

“The set was elaborate with dozens of buildings and miners’ tents scattered across the wash from the foot of Oro Vista Avenue all the way to the cliffs where the bridge to Riverwood Ranch now crosses the stream. A false entrance to a gold mine was dug into the cliffs near this same bridge. Several hundred yards of railroad track were laid, and an old steam locomotive and ore cars were trucked in for the movie’s biggest scene,” Gilfoy wrote.

In the movie, the full-size locomotive races down the short track, hits a barricade, rolls over on its side and skids to a stop, hissing steam. This was before CGI, so they actually had to wreck a real train, right there in Big T Canyon!

The narrow gauge locomotive used in the movie has a story of its own. It was built in 1875 for the Carson and Tahoe Lumber Company, and later transferred to the Nevada County Narrow Gauge. But in 1940, the old steam engine with the classic funnel-shaped smokestack was picked up by Universal Studios for use in the many westerns being filmed. It was featured in over 100 movies and TV shows, including “Winchester ’73,” “The Virginian” and “Alias Smith and Jones.” In 1985 Universal Studios saw less of a need for the old locomotive and acquiesced to the pleas of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railway Museum to bring the “little teakettle on wheels” home to Nevada County in Northern California. It’s apparently under restoration currently.

And the movie itself? I found it more entertaining than most westerns of that era, mostly because of the Big Tujunga Canyon location shots and the train wreck, but for many other reasons as well such as the epic fight scene, for example, that I mentioned earlier. The wide cast of classic character actors is delightful, including Harry Carey and a host of other recognizable faces. As WWII had just begun, Marlene Dietrich makes a clumsy effort to squash her German accent, which comes off pretty funny. The political incorrectness of the movie is way over the top with numerous scenes of racial degradation and sexual impropriety. In what other movie can you see John Wayne in both blackface and wearing women’s clothing? The best feature for me, though, was the thick layer-upon-layer of double-entendre and sexual innuendo in the dialog.

“The Spoilers” (the 1942 versionl; there are others) can be seen on the IMDB channel. It’s a delight, and was filmed right in our backyard.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical
Society of the Crescenta Valley
and loves local history.
Reach him at