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Train buff takes story of Surf across nation
Roskoski sits in a commuter shelter at Surf Beach, below, awaiting the next train to photograph. //Glenn Wallace/Staff

John Roskoski stumbled upon Surf Beach in 1974 as a young man and was fascinated by what he saw.

Since then, the 58-year-old Lompoc resident has gone to extraordinary lengths to capture some of that fascination, and share it with anyone who will listen.

Most recently that has included an eight-page spread in the March issue of Trains Magazine, with a worldwide circulation of 106,000.

Roskoski fell in love with trains in Clifton, N.J., as a 13-year-old, watching the trains roll through Paterson Junction. His love of trains only grew following a move to California, meshing well with his interest in photography.

Having moved to Lompoc in 1990, he now drags friends out to Surf Beach for hours at a time in hopes of spotting a special train, or just to enjoy the scenery.

During a recent photo shoot he delighted in telling an out-of-town traveler all about Surf/s history, from startup town, military depot, to its current role as an Amtrak commuter station.

BIf they ever turned Surf into some sort of historic park I/d become a ranger here in a heartbeat,C he said with a grin, even as offshore wind drove the rain into his face.

His years of meticulous photographing of the telegraphers station at Surf Beach led him to research the history of the spot, amassing photographs, interviews and historic sources, culminating in a slide show he has shown to local history buffs and train enthusiasts alike.

Entitled BSurf and the Southern Pacific,C the Trains Magazine article seeks to intertwine Roskoski/s technical appreciation of railroading and history with his enduring sense of wonder. This results in a piece Roskoski said he hopes will be enjoyed in circles beyond train enthusiasts, with lines such as, BSurf provided a time and place to photograph the last days of 40-foot boxcars, foreign line 50-foot cars, and to relish in the wanderlust a simple freight can conjure up.C

Roskoski had written a previous article about Paterson Junction for the magazine. There is a sense of history, of past lives in motion, shared by both locations, he said.

BThey were crying for a story; it was just coming out of the ground,C he said.

Southern Pacific/s rail system reached Surf in 1896, and in June 1899 the extension to Lompoc was complete. By 1901 the entire coast line was complete, with Surf becoming a small town to accommodate the manpower needed to maintain the trains and tracks.

Roskoski follows Surf/s history, interviewing citizens of the small town, which at its peak had a population of 40, its own post office and general store. Trains modernized, the town shrank, and plans for a resort development named Aloha Beach never managed to stay afloat.

By the fateful night Roskoski discovered Surf, the town was gone, leaving only the telegrapher/s station. Southern Pacific could send orders and track information to the station telegrapher, who would attach the messages to a post next to the tracks, where train conductors and engineers, moving as fast as 70 mph would grab the messages, attached to loop cords, with their bare hands.

The article looks closer at this portion of Surf/s history, chronicling the personalities of men like Sid Coffman, one of the station/s last telegraphers, and also the town/s last resident.

BThe best angle has always been the friends out at Surf, who helped me chronicle the place, and risking their jobs to do it,C Roskoski said.

Even as radio communication directly to trains improved, Point Conception offered enough interference from Los Angeles that Surf/s telegraphers stayed at their post longer than most of their peers.

The day came though 7 March 1, 1985 7 when the last order came, and the windows were boarded up. Roskoski photographed it all, and has stayed in touch with the friends he made in that station.

BSurf fell into my lap, so I/m trying to do it justice,C Roskoski said.

Those attempts include the slide show presentation Surf/s history. Roskoski said a DVD version is in the works.

BThe next step is a book,C Roskoski said.

He has a good start. The article for Trains was originally twice as long as published, and had to be Blovingly trimmedC by Managing Editor Kathi Kube to fit in the publication, said Roskoski.

Glenn Wallace can be reached at 737-1059 or

March 3, 2008

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