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By Tom Marshall
Currently, San Clemente is served by two passenger railroads, Amtrak and Metrolink. A total of 12 trains a day stop in San Clemente, plus summertime beach trains. Besides local commutes, you can travel to almost anywhere in the country. And for that, you can thank longtime local travel agent Bonnie Koch and her late husband, Ralph.
When the Kochs first set up shop here in 1952, no trains stopped in San Clemente. The San Diegan passenger trains of the Santa Fe Railroad just blew through town on their trips between Los Angeles and San Diego. When the Kochs set up their travel agency, El Camino Travel, in Ole Hanson’s former office building at El Camino Real and Avenida Del Mar, the town population was only about 2,000. But it was already a popular spot for surfers and other beachgoers. Those who didn’t want to drive the narrow highway that linked us to Los Angeles and San Diego could only get here by bus. The Kochs made it their mission to change that.
“We made several trips to Santa Fe’s L.A. headquarters trying to convince them to stop in San Clemente. Finally, they agreed, but with one condition; we had to meet every train to sell the tickets,” Bonnie Koch told us during a Historical Society Oral History interview. Five trains per day would now stop at a small station in North Beach, where the Metrolink station is today. Sometimes, there were only two or three people who wanted to board, but they met each train, seven days a week, including one that stopped at 2 a.m. each night. “Ralph usually met that one,” Bonnie said, laughing.
The Kochs’ commitment to the trains lasted for years, and took up a considerable amount of their workday. We in the Historical Society would like to see the current Metrolink station named after the Kochs. Keep in mind, they did all of this while also booking trips all over the world for San Clemente’s growing population. In fact, El Camino Travel had grown into one of the top travel agencies in all of Southern California, which required an expansion of their offices.
They personally led numerous trips to Africa, Asia and many other countries all over the world. “Those trips were so much fun, since nearly all the people on them were from San Clemente, and we knew them personally,” Bonnie said.
During the early 1970s, they also handled travel for the Secret Service and staff members of the Western White House, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Even private travel for Richard and Pat Nixon was arranged by the Kochs.
“When booking airplane tickets for the Nixons, we never used their real names, for security purposes. Even the airlines didn’t know they were flying the former president until they arrived at the boarding gate. Times were different then,” Bonnie recalled. “They were booked to fly in regular coach seats, but when the flight crew saw them, the Nixons usually got bumped up to first class. “
Bonnie is retired now after spending 65 years in the travel business in San Clemente. And it all started with getting the trains to stop here.
Tom Marshall is a member of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist