California Railroad Stations - History

California Railroad Stations - History

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Built in 1939, Los Angeles Union Station is the largest railroad passenger terminal in the Western United States and is widely regarded as “the last of the great train stations.” The station’s signature Mission Moderne style makes it one of L.A.’s architectural gems. The station was commissioned in 1933 as a joint venture between the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroads and was intended to consolidate the three local railroad terminals.

It was designed by the father-son architect team of John and Donald Parkinson with an innovative blend of Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival and Art Deco architecture now commonly referred to as Mission Moderne. The stunning facility was completed in 1939 for a reported $11 million (estimated in today’s dollars at $1.2 billion) and opened with a lavish, star-studded, three-day celebration attended by a half million Angelenos.

In the 8 decades since its opening, Union Station has captured the spirt and soul of Los Angeles and has emerged as a vital portal to the promise of the California dream. The station was designed as an expression of the California lifestyle with a spacious ticket hall equipped with a 110-foot-long ticket counter crafted from American Black Walnut, a vast waiting room featuring towering 40-foot windows adored with brass, massive art deco chandeliers, inlaid marble floors and hand painted mission tiles, along with expansive shaded patios, towering palm trees and a clock tower looming 100 feet above the city.

Within just a few years of opening, Los Angeles Union Station transformed into a bustling 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation with as many as 100 troop trains carrying tens of thousands of servicemen through the terminal every day during World War II.

By the 1950’s Americans favored cars and planes to the rails and there were fewer passengers through the station but it remained a vital part of LA’s transportation scene for decades.

In 1972, Union Station was designated as a Los Angeles Historic–Cultural Monument and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Lost Train Depots of Los Angeles History

Before the Jet Age brought safe and comfortable air travel to the masses, most newcomers in Los Angeles arrived by rail. Train depots thus provided tourists' and emigrants' first introduction to Los Angeles, helping shape their ideas about the city. The city's grandest passenger terminal, Union Station, survives today. But its historic predecessors, which welcomed millions to the city, have all vanished from the cityscape.

Compared with those that followed, and especially to Union Station, Los Angeles' first passenger depot was a modest affair. In the days before tourism became the lifeblood of the region's economy, after all, there was little point in expending capital on an impressive structure or decorative embellishment.

Serving Phineas Banning's Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad, the city's first station was a tiny wooden structure on the southwest corner of Commercial and Alameda streets. When it opened on October 26, 1869, freight was at least as important as passenger service to the railroad's operations. Accordingly, amenities were sparse. Chronicler Harris Newmark was not impressed:

The Los Angeles & San Pedro's life as an independent railroad was brief in 1873, the Southern Pacific acquired the 21-mile line, and for a brief time the Commercial Street depot served as the terminal for the Southern Pacific's overland route to Los Angeles.

In 1876, the Southern Pacific opened a new depot on the current site of Los Angeles State Historic Park (the Cornfield). Known as the River Station, the two-story depot offered separate "ladies' and gentlemen's reception and waiting rooms," the Los Angeles Star reported, and was "finished on the outside with redwood rustic, all material being used of the very best quality." The railroad later upgraded the facility with many more passenger amenities, including a hotel and restaurants.

Though the River Station welcomed many of those drawn by the land boom of the mid-1880s, its location came to be seen as less than ideal. It was surrounded by the Southern Pacific's freight yards and, as the city's Anglo population shifted south of the historic plaza into the new central city, it was situated far from many passengers' ultimate destinations. Later depots, beginning with the Southern Pacific's Arcade Station, would be located to the south.

In 1888, the Arcade Station opened at Fourth and Alameda. Built on the former site of William Wolfskill's pioneering orange groves, the depot was flanked by gardens and landscaping meant to showcase Southern California's salubrious climate. A fully-grown Washington fan palm, moved from a site nearby, stood outside the station's entrance, symbolically welcoming newcomers to a supposed subtropical paradise.

The depot itself was a massive, wooden Victorian structure reminiscent of European train stations. Five hundred feet long, the depot's rail shed featured skylights and an arched roof that soared 90 feet above the platforms below. Upon its opening, the Los Angeles Times praised the Arcade Station as "second to none on the Pacific Slope."

Less than 25 years later, though, the newspaper was describing the depot as "ancient" and "unsightly and inadequate" as it welcomed the arrival of a new Southern Pacific depot, which came to be known as Central Station. Designed by architects John Parkinson and George Bergstrom, it was located at Fifth and Central, directly next to the Arcade Station. Central Station was the city's most impressive depot to date. The white stuccoed building was an imposing edifice. Steel umbrella-style train sheds replaced the arched roof of the Arcade Station, which tended to trap soot and smoke. Inside, the station offered passengers an elegant waiting room with chandeliers, fine woodwork, and marble wainscoting.

Central Station opened to passengers on December 1, 1914. The Arcade Station, meanwhile, "passed into history unhonored and unsung," the Times noted. There was no public outcry as wreckers dismantled the old wooden building to make way for new outdoor platforms.

Several blocks away, at the corner of Santa Fe Avenue and Second, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad's La Grande Station had been welcoming tourists and overland emigrants since 1893.

The station's exotic design incorporated several architectural styles, but what stood out most was its hulking Moorish dome that, wrote the Times, was "a suggestion of the Orient." Like the Arcade Station, the La Grande station boasted about the region's climate with lush gardens planted with palms and other exotic species. And although, unlike most Santa Fe depots in the Southwest, it did not include a full-service Harvey House restaurant, a Harvey lunch counter did open inside the complex in 1900.

The La Grande depot was also notable for its red-brick construction, selected because it signaled the station's importance and because it followed a rash of fires that had destroyed wooden depots. Unfortunately, the station's engineers failed to consider whether masonry construction was well-suited for earthquake country. When the 1933 Long Beach earthquake shook the region, the depot sustained serious damage. The Moorish dome, damaged beyond repair, was removed.

By then, plans were already well under way for a new, unified passenger terminal. The Union Pacific, having lost its depot on the east bank of the Los Angeles River to fire in 1924, had already moved its passenger operations to the Southern Pacific's Central Station. Now, the Santa Fe would join its two competitors at a grand new station, located on the site of Old Chinatown, where trains could more easily be separated from the city's bustling automobile and streetcar traffic.

By 1939, Chinatown had been razed and its residents displaced, and the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal opened to a huge civic celebration. The two legacy depots, whose histories are richly documented in this thesis by Holly Charmain Kane, meanwhile, faded into obscurity. The La Grande station, which despite the earthquake damage continued to serve passengers until 1939, became a freight terminal. It was torn down in 1946.

Central Station suffered a similar fate. The Young Market Co. acquired the site, and the old depot was demolished to make way for a meat-packing plant. Though the station had welcomed countless newcomers to Los Angeles, the end came with little fanfare. On August 22, 1956, the Times reported the station's demise in a 92-word story on page B-2.

Abandoned railroads across the U.S.

What places in the U.S. should I see before I die?

Anyone who has traveled the west coast of the United States knows how stunning the scenery is, and viewing the sights from a Coast Starlight train car is the best way to take it all in. This dreamy railway adventure meanders through California, Oregon, and Washington affording passengers incomparable city views of Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, and Seattle and unmatched vistas of lush natural beauty between. The range of landscapes along this route is considered to be among the most gorgeous in North America, from pristine snowcapped peaks of the Cascade Range and Mount Shasta, verdant emerald forests, and miles of breathtaking shoreline along the Pacific Ocean.

Southern California Railway Museum

Events Check out our special events for children and adults of all ages.

Give Help us protect and preserve Southern California's railway history.
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The Southern California Railway Museum has re-opened its campus, outdoor exhibits, and Weekend Train Trolley operations as of Monday, January 25th, 2021. Car Barn 1 is now open to the General Public Weekends and during Events! Car Barns 2, 4, and 6 (Grizzly Flats) will be open depending on volunteer availability. Weekend Ride Tickets Available ONLINE.

For your safety and the safety of others when riding the train or trolley, all guests over the age of two are required to wear face coverings. Please visit our COVID-19 GUIDANCE page for more information, and please note that this information is being updated continually.

In these uncertain times, the Museum needs your help and support.

We hope you and your family are in good spirits and health. We’re doing everything possible while we’re closed to sustain the Southern California Railway Museum and continue to ensure the health and safety of our employees and volunteers.

We’re usually funded by ticket sales, gift store sales, venue rentals, and donor support. This revenue helps us pay our staff, keep the lights on, continue our restoration efforts, and maintain the Museum’s historical treasures. Even when visitors aren’t coming in, we still have expenses and we look to our donors. We have to adapt quickly to the changing reality of these uncertain times.

Our community needs us more than ever. And we need you. Please make a one-time donation or support SCRM annually with monthly giving, if you can.

You can still help if you can’t donate at this time. Advocate for us by sharing our mission with family members and friends. A quick mention on your social media would mean the world to us.

In times like this, we’re reminded of how interconnected we all are. Thank you for being part of our community. Without you, none of what we do would be possible.

Sacramento, CA – Sacramento Valley Station (SAC)

Sacramento Valley Station
401 I Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

Annual Ticket Revenue (FY 2020): $19,411,782
Annual Station Ridership (FY 2020): 565,196

  • Facility Ownership: City of Sacramento
  • Parking Lot Ownership: City of Sacramento
  • Platform Ownership: City of Sacramento
  • Track Ownership: City of Sacramento

Alex Khalfin
Regional Contact
[email protected]
For information about Amtrak fares and schedules, please visit or call 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).

The historic Sacramento station, opened by the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) in 1926, succeeded at least two earlier SP stations on the site, which is part of a complex that dates back to 1863 and the Central Pacific Railroad’s construction of the western portion of the first transcontinental rail line. The station sits on an approximately 240-acre rail yard that was originally filled with every kind of building and equipment necessary for the fabrication of locomotives and rolling stock.

Designed by the San Francisco architectural firm of Bliss and Faville, the three story building with red tile roof employs a dignified Renaissance Revival style. A reinforced concrete frame is faced with Italian sienna-colored brick trimmed with terracotta. The famous waiting room includes a 40-foot-high barrel vaulted ceiling, Philippine mahogany woodwork and marble floors. Enormous arched windows allow sunlight, filtered through leaded, amber-colored glass, to stream into the space. A mural by John A. MacQuarrie located on the east wall of the waiting room depicts the 1863 groundbreaking ceremony of the Central Pacific Railroad.

The station is a key component in a massive development deal—more than a decade in the making—that is meant to create a multimodal transportation hub, revitalize Sacramento’s urban core and end 150 years of railroad ownership over a large area immediately adjacent to downtown. This vision includes redevelopment of the station complex and the Sacramento Railyards, which is reputed to be the largest infill development in the United States.

In late 2006, Union Pacific Railroad finalized a deal to sell the 240-acre railyard site to Thomas Enterprises, a private development firm. The entire railyards project came to a halt in the fall of 2010 as Thomas Enterprises was unable to meet its debt obligations and the property went into foreclosure. The lender, Inland American Real Estate Trust, subsequently took ownership. Prior to extensive construction over the site, the railyards must undergo environmental remediation. Soil contaminated by more than a century of toxic, heavy industrial uses will be hauled away and replaced.

Concurrent with the rail yards transaction, the city of Sacramento in 2006 acquired an 8.8-acre plot of land containing the existing rail station and an option on an adjacent 24 acres for $52 million. Three years earlier, the city used its own funds to put a new roof on the historic structure. Light rail service was also extended to the station site in 2006 and adds to local and Amtrak Thruway bus services. After taking possession of the building, the city moved immediately to improve parking facilities and other existing problems. The city also developed a three-phase program for renovating the facility that included realigning the tracks, rehabilitating the historic station and enhancing intermodal connections.

In order to retain tens of millions of dollars in federal grants that had been won for the project, it was imperative for the city and Inland American to move quickly to rewrite important contracts. A $45 million effort to shift the existing mainline railroad tracks approximately 500 feet north began in April 2011 as part of Phase I and was completed two years later. Moving the tracks allows for more efficient rail operations by eliminating a long curve, freight and passenger-train conflicts and other long-standing problems.

Additional Phase I work included construction of two double-sided rail platforms and two pedestrian and bicycle tunnels connecting the proposed intermodal center, platforms, and historic Union Pacific shop buildings on the north side of the tracks. Extensions of Fifth and Sixth Streets through the railyards site will allow Inland American to start selling parcels for development that could at full build-out include 10,000 housing units, enough retail space to fill a large shopping mall, 1,000 hotel rooms and more than 1.5 million square feet of office space.

Funding for the track and road construction came from the following sources: $20 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 $25 million through California Proposition 1B, which funds improvements to the state transportation system and $26 million from other sources.

To combat deferred maintenance and prepare the historic station building for its next generation of service, the city broke ground on Phase II of the project in September 2014. Lasting two years, it included rehabilitation of the facade and masonry installation of new mechanical, plumbing, electrical and communications systems addition of bicycle facilities and new signage relocation of ticketing and baggage facilities for improved operations and conservation of the mural and interior finishes. Funding for the $36.5 million Phase II came from a $15 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant matched with local funding obtained through the Measure A sales tax.

Phase III, launched in 2017, includes a master planning effort for the station and surrounding area with the goal of integrating transit-oriented development and supporting a sustainable downtown community.

In either 1806 or 1808 the Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga discovered and named the Sacramento Valley and the Sacramento River for the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The history of the city of Sacramento began in 1839 when Johann Augustus Sutter settled at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, founding Sutter’s Fort and taking advantage of a 48,000-acre grant of land by the Mexican government and Governor Alvarado. That grant would change American history forever, since Mexico had just given away a literal goldmine.

After gold was discovered in 1848, thirty miles away from what is currently Sacramento, the California Gold Rush, then the largest human migration in history, changed the face of the continent. California became a state in 1850 and Sacramento became its capital four years later. For the rest of the gold rush, Sacramento would be a major distribution point, a commercial and agricultural center, and a terminus for wagon trains, stagecoaches, riverboats, the telegraph, the Pony Express and the first transcontinental railroad. Even today it remains one of the fastest growing regions in the United States.

Within walking distance of the Sacramento station is the California State Railroad Museum, which since 1976 has introduced visitors to the region’s rich rail history. Original and reconstructed buildings house a diverse collection of railroad memorabilia and rolling stock, as well as a renowned library and archives that hold materials from more than 1,000 railroads. Permanent exhibits tell the story of railroading in California from multiple perspectives, and an assortment of locomotives and rolling stock allows museum-goers to explore changes in railroad technology and design from the origins of the industry in the 19 th century to the present day.

The San Joaquins service is primarily financed through funds made available by the State of California, Department of Transportation, and is managed by the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority. The Capitol Corridor route is primarily financed and operated in partnership with the State of California. It is managed by the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA), which partners with Amtrak, the Union Pacific Railroad, Caltrans and the communities comprising the CCJPA to continue development of a cost-effective, viable and safe intercity passenger rail service.

The history of railroad stations in Seattle reflects comprehensive changes in the overall architectural character of the city. Railroad development closely paralleled Seattle's urban development. It is therefore natural that the city's early wooden frame depots looked very much like other commercial and industrial buildings when they first appeared in the late nineteenth century. Seattle was then a growing town, a terminus of Western expansion highly dependent on the railroads. The rails were tied to population growth, the transportation of freight, and communications.

Seattle's Earliest Railroad Stations

Seattle's first railroad station was little more than a shack located on Elliott Bay's tidelands. This tiny wooden-frame building, obscured by the many sawmills and warehouses occupying the waterfront the late nineteenth century, was a simple unloading point for Northern Pacific trains.

This shed was replaced by a slightly more dignified wooden-frame structure, sometimes called the Columbia Street Depot. The new two-story building resembled many others in developing towns across the country around 1880 when it was built. It was a weatherboarded (sometimes called clapboarded) building with a simple gable roof heated from two sources, probably stoves. Depots like these typically housed a stationmaster who lived above the street-level offices and oversaw railroad operations and the daily maintenance of the station. The scale of the little depot matched its urban surroundings. This was before an enormous fire in 1889 destroyed most of Seattle's downtown.

The building's design looks a lot like the hotels of the period, for good reason. At this time in railroad history, railroad traffic was not the most reliable affair. Telegraph use was quite new in the Puget Sound area, and was directly tied to the coming of the rails. Railroad operations were still coming together, with bits and pieces of lines scattered here and there. Waiting at the station for freight or news required tenacity -- no one knew for sure when either would arrive.

The building's layout suggests that there were a few discrete offices in the lower level, and eventually, by 1884, a few small storage spaces attached to its northside. This was not a passenger-friendly building its design reflected an emphasis on freight and simple communications rather than on moving people. The "waiting area" consisted of a few benches located on the building's exterior. In the mid-1880s, the Columbia and Puget Sound's "shops," used for railroad maintenance and storage, along with planed lumber, was the primary view from the station's windows on trackside.

Beyond this lay Elliott Bay and the mouth of the Duwamish. Wooden pilings supported the depot. Piers also supported the railroad tracks and surrounding streets, such that the southern portion of town was sketched out by a raised grid of streets with watery blocks between them. Railroad business was distinctly unglamourous. The smell and sounds of saw mills, the clank and whirr of iron works, and soot belching from steam-powered trains formed the industrial environment around the station.

The Northern Pacific bought out the Columbia and Puget Sound Railroad's tracks around 1890, and replaced this station with another, which was much more accommodating to passenger traffic. Replacing the few wooden benches was a great shed roofed structure, reflecting "Stick Style" architecture then popular in train stations and domestic buildings. The Stick Style, closely related to the ornate, gingerbread Queen Anne seen in many houses during this period, is reflected in the supports in the outdoor waiting area. Note the springing brackets in the detail to the right.

As in the earlier station, offices were located in small compartments, many with separate entries. But in the new station, individual comfort and services were considered. Service windows and vendors selling magazines, books, tobacco, and cigarettes helped passengers pass time as they waited by the expansive tracks of Railroad Avenue. Although the station was cleaner and more urbane than its predecessors, passengers still endured the elements and the dirt covered tracks.

Stations Come of Age

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, stations were coming to represent a golden age in the railroad's history. New, opulent railroad stations such as those rising in New York and Washington, D.C. were what the great Roman baths and public buildings had been to that ancient empire. In the early twentieth century, these national symbols of a cultural renaissance asserted to the rest of the world that America had come of age. Seattle, with its high hopes of being a commercial and population center of the Puget Sound, saw this trend and advocated a more permanent, impressive looking station.

The Great Northern Railroad, which first came to Seattle in 1893, eventually conceded. The railroad's president James J. Hill (1838-1916) had purchased Northern Pacific in 1901. He built King Street Station between 1904 and 1906. This supported both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads. As in the building it replaced, it was fronted by an extended projecting awning covering passengers and the service crew. Behind this, however, rose an impressive structure, designed by Charles Reed and Allen Stem, architects of New York's Grand Central Station. The building's style, sometimes called "Railroad Italianate," incorporated a number of classical details.

Its most outstanding feature was a tall tower, or campanile, on which a prominent clock faced a quickly evolving Seattle. The station's operations were bound to the development of the town, much like a heart pumping life, in the form of new residents and freight, into the growing city. From the expansive drive fronting King Street, horse drawn carriages -- eventually replaced by motor cars -- whisked newcomers away to local hotels and boarding houses.

The waiting areas of this new King Street Station were focal points of the building. The interior was grand, with coffered ceilings and other highly ornate details. Although still compartmentalized like the earlier stations, these spaces suggested that passengers and their experience was extremely important to the railroad. Rather than a place for loading and unloading cargo, this new station was a distinctive civic portal through which visitors and newcomers passed into a great Western city.

Sanitary Elegance

The Union Pacific soon produced a station of its own next to the new Great Northern and Northern Pacific's King Street Station. Called the Oregon and Washington Station, after the Union Pacific line that ran through Seattle, the building was considered an architectural masterpiece, "the handsomest on Harriman's lines." Also called Union Station, it was completed in 1911, and opened on May 20 amidst great fanfare.

A high water mark of railroad architecture in Seattle, Union Station's design employed classical details as did King Street Station, but with a more grand effect. Its interior, dominated by a central barrel-vaulted waiting space, had tiled floors, engaged classical pilasters, tall oak benches, and a series of archways separating the compartmentalized offices and service spaces. Lit by a semicircular window facing trackside, the building's design is a distillation of Beaux Arts style common in larger railroad stations of the early twentieth century.

In the Beaux Arts tradition, the classical details decorated an expansive building, with massive spaces. These enormous volumes were made possible by metal-frame roofing systems and structural frames. In the case of Union Station, the vaulted ceiling is suspended by trusses. This construction method was common in warehouses, factories, and other industrial buildings of the period.

In contrast to the smelly, somewhat abject conditions of the earlier stations in Seattle, the Oregon and Washington Station was highly service oriented. A small hospital at concourse level, a restaurant, ladies' waiting areas, and other amenities made the station resemble today's airports. Efficiency and cleanliness were extremely important, and the operations of the station were mechanized and systematic, a far cry from the early station's random schedule.

Once and Future Glory

Soon after their construction, the stations saw a number of changes which foresaw the steady decline of railroad travel in Seattle and in the nation at large. Although World War II buoyed the use of the stations, it soon became clear that Seattle preferred automobile to train travel. Before long, airline travel created even more competition.

It is fitting that the renovation of Union Station in the 1990s was achieved by the efforts of transportation interests. Reopening in October 1999, Union Station houses Sound Transit's offices, and is the nexus of an intermodal transportation effort.

The evolution of railroad stations in Seattle directly reflects the city's growth, urban ideals, and the city's view of itself within a regional and national context. The earliest stations were ad hoc, purely functional secondary buildings, more warehouse than public space. In contrast, King Street Station and Union Station were civic spaces as much as they were transportation points. In the 1990s, the revised Union Station with its expansive administrative office spaces, and its role within regional public transportation, is a response to growing problems created by the area's recent population explosion and by decades of reliance upon automobiles.

Train stations at night, Seattle

Seattle's first locomotive, ca. 1871

Seattle's tidelands, ca. 1898

Courtesy MOHAI (1983.10.6049.2)

Seattle's first railroad depot, ca. 1880

Courtesy MOHAI (1983.10.6284)

Grounds at the Columbia Street Station, on Railroad Avenue

King Street Station (Charles Reed and Allen Stem, 1906), ca. 1913

Courtesy MOHAI (1983.10.8749)

Traffic around Union Station, 4th Avenue and Jackson Street, ca. 1913

Ladies Waiting Room, Union Station, ca. 1911

Courtesy MOHAI (1983.10.9332)

King Street Station (Charles Reed and Allen Stem, 1906), 1910s

The Oregon and Washington Station, also known as Union Station, 1916

Courtesy MOHAI (1983.10.10305)

Interior, Union Station, Seattle, 1911

Union Station and King Street Station, Seattle, 1910s

Renovated Union Station (Sound Transit headquarters), Seattle, 1999


Edwin P. Alexander, Down at the Depot: American Railroad Stations from 1831 to 1920 (New York: C. N. Potter distributed by Crown Publishers, 1970) Ralph D. Anderson & Partners, Daniel Mann Johnson & Mendenhall, Union Station Intermodal Terminal Interim Report (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1975) Margaret A. Corley, "National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form," Washington State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, 1969 John Albert Droege, 1861-1961 Passenger Terminals and Trains, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1916) Harold D. Eberlein, "Recent Railway Stations in American Cities," Architectural Record, Vol. 36, No. 2, August 1914 Alfred Fellheimer, "Railroad Stations," in Forms and Functions of Twentieth Century Architecture, Vol. IV, Building Types, 1952 Edition ed. by Talbot Hamlin H. Roger Grant, Living in the Depot: the Two-Story Railroad Station (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993) Carroll L. Meeks, The Railroad Station: An Architectural History (New York: Dover Publications, 1995) Janet Greenstein Potter, Great American Railroad Stations (New York: Wiley, 1996) "Union Station Redevelopment," Progressive Architecture January 1986, pp. 125-127 Walter Willard. "Evolution of the Passenger Station: Story of the Model Terminal at Seattle," Sunset Magazine, July 1912, pp. 105-107.

La Mesa Depot

The La Mesa Depot Museum is La Mesa, California’s oldest building in its original form and is the sole surviving San Diego and Cuyamaca Railway Station in existence. The building you see today on the corner of Spring Street and La Mesa Boulevard in downtown La Mesa has an colorful history.

In 1885 the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroads extended service to San Diego. At that time, the locomotives burned coal and access to the wharf to load coal from ships was critical. The section of the San Diego and Cuyamaca Eastern Railway extending through La Mesa Springs was originally planned to join with the Santa Fe or Southern Pacific Railroads at Needles, but, due to the mountainous terrain, never got past Foster, just east of Lakeside. Transportation past that point to Julian was accomplished via stagecoach, at a price thirteen times that of railway travel.

It was in 1888 that the railway came to La Mesa Springs and in 1894 the original station in La Mesa was constructed, its first name being the Allison Station. In 1915, the small original building was moved across the tracks and expanded to its current size.

The railway served the residents of the area in a variety of ways and the station was truly the center of town to its people. The City of La Mesa and its environs certainly would not have progressed as far or as quickly without the help of the trains. Students used to commute to San Diego High School for their classes, the alternative being a one-hour ride in a buggy. The many lemon farmers appreciated and took advantage of both their proximity to a railroad and their access to the flume for irrigation. The flume had been constructed in 1887 and brought water down from Cuyamaca Lake.

In 1928, passenger service stopped on this section of the what was, by then, a branch line of the San Diego and Arizona Railway. Freight service continued, though several floods and the construction of Gillespie Field for air travel had shortened the end of the working line back to El Cajon by 1943. In 1954 Spring Street was widened and the La Mesa Depot building was sold to the Lakeside Chamber of Commerce for one dollar, to be used as part of a “western town.” The city of Lakeside never used it, and shortly thereafter a woman by the name of Flossie Beadle purchased it and ran an antique store and museum out of the building. After she passed away, the structure was used as a worm farm and chicken coop over the years and fell into disrepair.

In 1974, the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association located and purchased the remains of the building, again for one dollar. In 1980-1981 the building was returned to its original site and, using money from a federal grant, was restored to its 1915 condition. Preservation was truly a labor of love for volunteers of the San Diego Railroad Museum, with help from members of the La Mesa Historical Society.

Today the Railroad Museum owns and maintains the building, and the City of La Mesa owns and maintains the grounds and land beneath it. The public is admitted free to the La Mesa Depot Museum for tours on Saturday afternoons from 1PM to 4PM. Visitors can inspect the steam locomotive and string of freight cars on the nearby track and pass through the ticket/waiting area and view the telegrapher’s station and a small exhibit area in the baggage room. This building and its past are a fascinating look at a bit of small-town railroading from yesteryear and its importance to the community it served.

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California Railroad Stations - History

Livermore History - Railroads 1

Brief History of the Railroads through the Valley

There were two sets of railroad tracks that ran through the valley. Both came through the Altamont pass, Livermore, Pleasanton, and Niles Canyon. They are commonly referred to as the SP (Southern Pacific) line and the WP (Western Pacific) line, although both railroads are now part of the Union Pacific.

Aerial view of downtown Livermore about 1960 showing the two sets of railroad tracks at their original positions. At the top is Stanley Blvd on the left, the Southern Pacific tracks next to it, and the Western Pacific tracks (current tracks) to the right. The Southern Pacific tracks head down past the SP depot (on the left of the tracks, slightly below the center of the photo) at L Street to the very bottom right corner of the picture. They are no longer present. Railroad Ave is the small street about half a block north (right) of the tracks that then curves south at about P street. Today Railroad Ave follows roughly this path, but is widened, and tends to jog a bit more to the south, continuing on to connect to Stanley. The Farmer's Exchange building, probably the Greyhound bus station at the time of this photo, is where KFC is now, on L St between 1st and the SP depot. See the Aerial Photos pages for additional information. This is a cropped version of the aerial photo on page 1.

The SP tracks were built by the first Western Pacific Railroad, which is not the same company which built the 2nd set of tracks. They were incorporated December 13, 1862, and built track from San Jose into Niles Canyon, but then halted construction. The Central Pacific, which was building the western end of the Transcontinental railroad, needed a link between Sacramento and San Francisco to complete the line. They bought the Western Pacific in 1870, with the transaction being finalized on June 23. The tracks were put through the valley August 1869, however, prior to the merger being completed. Most likely this was through an agreement between the Central Pacific and the Western Pacific with the merger in progress. An early Central Pacific timetable lists the route run through the valley as operated by the Western Pacific. The line was opened on September 15, 1869

The route through the valley is described in the table below. Aerial photos, including the one above, show the path through Livermore.

In downtown Livermore at about O Street several branches came off of the main line to serve local businesses. The Altamont Pass was fairly steep, and often required helper engines to make it over the hill. There was a turntable in Livermore to turn around the engines, and another one at the top of the pass. The location of the Livermore turntable is indicated on the 1889 poster page. It is at about N St, just south of the former tracks. There are now townhouses there (it was probably just south of where the townhouse circle driveway is). Close-up views of older aerial photos do not seem to show any patterns to reveal the exact location.

The Southern Pacific and the Central Pacific had various relationships. One source lists that the Southern Pacific was bought by the Big Four of the Central Pacific in 1868, although still operated as a separate railroad. There appeared to be a strong relationship between the two railroads as early as 1887. In 1922 there was an attempt to have the government separate the two. Another source lists the Central Pacific being bought by the Southern Pacific in 1947.

Over time the Southern Pacific used the tracks through the valley less and less, with the northern route from Stockton through Benicia being the main line. This actually enhanced its historic preservation somewhat, in that some of the very old bridges still exist, having not been upgraded for heavy usage.

In 1976 the tracks through downtown Livermore were realigned along the newer WP route, with the work starting about 1974. This began just east of the Arroyo Mocho Bridge (see photo of bridge and photo of realignment) until about a half mile east of 1st Street (see aerial photo during realignment). This freed up land in downtown Livermore, and is why the SP Depot is not near any tracks!! The tracks ran right through the land now occupied by the Albertsons building (Albertsons has since moved). There are also townhouses and Groth Brothers back lot where the tracks once were. Not long after, the 1st Street overpass was built so there was no longer a grade crossing. East 1st St was rerouted along the path vacated by the realigned SP tracks. It then rises up, curving to the north to cross the tracks. This created Old 1st St. and Gardella Plazza from the former 1st St.

In 1984 the SP abandoned the tracks through the valley, and deeded the land to Alameda County. Most of the track was pulled up. The Union Pacific acquired the Southern Pacific on 9/11/1996, having already taken ownership of the WP route through the valley. The SP tracks through the valley had been removed long before. This served to reduce the freight train traffic through the valley, however, as the UP shifted more if it to the SP tracks that take the northern route.

The SP Right of Way now

The 1987 the Pacific Railroad Association rebuilt the track through Niles Canyon and has been running pleasure rides from Sunol ever since on Sundays (see photos). This is a very entertaining and informative ride, staffed by volunteers who are very knowledgeable about the railroads. They have been rebuilding track towards Pleasanton.

The abandoned right of way can be seen in Pleasanton on the west side of 680, west of the WP tracks. It crosses the Pleasanton-Sunol Road at near Verona Rd, at the same time as the WP tracks cross the road in the opposite direction on an overpass. Part of that overpass is for Pleasanton-Sunol Road, and part is for the SP tracks. The road has been paved since the tracks were removed. The SP right of way then goes over Sunol Blvd on an overpass by Castlewood drive (the west most of a string of overpasses for 680 going over Sunol Blvd). It then crosses under 680 about a quarter mile south of the WP crossover. This right of way can be seen from the freeway, looking like a small dirt road. The right of way then crosses Bernal just west of the Sunol Blvd intersection. A small section of track can be seen there (it was presumably put there by the Niles Canyon Railway to mark the path). North of Bernal it disappears for a while in parking lots of downtown Pleasanton, and reappears at Angela St, with a small section of track going by the old SP station. It disappears again at Stanley until the point where it is side by side with the WP tracks.

There has been recent debate about the use of the right of way through Pleasanton. The Niles Canyon Railway has proposed rebuilding the tracks to the Pleasanton station for its Sunday rides, but it appears that Pleasanton would prefer to use the right of way for other purposes.

Along Stanley Blvd, there are tracks existing, used by the UP. I am not sure if these were the SP tracks, or if the UP rebuilt them. This set of tracks is used for storage of rail cars. Beginning somewhat west of Isabel, the right of way no longer contains tracks. The right of way can be clearly be seen up to the vacant Arroyo Mocho bridge, which was built in 1925 (a replacement of an earlier bridge). The path is obscured starting at Murrieta Blvd. The underpass under the WP tracks was built after the SP tracks were removed. Through downtown Livermore the original route is now obscured by development. The realigned route is right next to the WP tracks. The UP tracks now probably use one SP and one WP track, as the SP track was fairly new. A short section of the SP route is used today: East of 1st St, the line takes the SP route for about a mile and a half to the point where the two originally crossed (about a tenth of a mile east of the Arroyo Seco and Contractors St.). For this section the WP route has been abandoned in favor of the SP route.

Through the Altamont pass the old SP route can be seen from the WP tracks (see photos from the Ace Train). It passes under 580 in the pass at the same spot as the WP tracks, although it passes under both lanes, while the WP passes over the east bound lanes and under the west bound lanes.

Aerial Photo Page 4 shows the original path of the SP tracks drawn over the current downtown Livermore layout.

The first railroad station in Livermore was a boxcar. It was replaced by a building in 1891, which burned in 1892. In August 1892 the current depot on L St. was built. The brick chimney collapsed in the 1906 earthquake, and was replaced by a metal one. The station was not used by the railroad after 1961. The building was almost torn down in the early 1970s. It was saved by the Livermore Heritage Guild, which was formed for this purpose. They restored the building in the 1970s, and it is now used by various businesses. The restored building once again has a brick chimney, matching the original.

The Pleasanton station is at the corner of Neal St. and the old track location between 1st and Main. It is also being used by several businesses. The Sunol Depot is in the process of being renovated, and is used by the Niles Canyon Railway as their store.

This site has pictures of a number of SP depots: SP depot pictures

The WP tracks were put in by the Western Pacific in May of 1908. It is on this route that the Union Pacific operates today. Initially the Western Pacific was sued by the Southern Pacific over the name, since the SP had acquired the Central Pacific, which had acquired the original WP. The suit was later dropped with legal maneuvering. The easy way through Niles Canyon had already been taken, so the WP had to use a more difficult route, requiring 2 tunnels, one being about 4500 feet long, the other about 450 feet. The aerial view below shows both tunnels. See also photos of the main tunnel.

USGS Aerial photo of Niles Canyon from the Microsoft Terraserver.

The WP track comes from the bottom left corner, by the old Niles Brick Factory (photos), and into the tunnel. A faint line can be seen along the path of the tunnel through the trees. This is most likely the path that the signal wires take over the hill, electricity having an easier time than trains in climbing hills. The track emerges at the bottom of the curve in the road a little to the right of center, and immediately after the road passes over. It then continues just north of the road, and crosses under to south of the road again. Just after crossing under the road is the second tunnel, which is only about 1/10th the length of the first one.
The SP tracks (now Niles Canyon Railway) are north of the road from the right until crossing over the road about a third of the way from the left.
The Alameda Creek runs in the area between the tracks and road, always to the north of the WP tracks within this view, but on alternate sides of the road and SP tracks at different points.

When the SP tracks were put through Livermore there was not much of a town present, so the tracks did not displace anything. This was not the case for the WP tracks, which were put in after the town was well established. This required some displacement. What is now the WP route through Livermore was Oak Street before the tracks were put in. Only a very small portion of Oak Street remains, just west of Livermore Ave. The route also required that a number of properties be condemned. This resulted in a number of court cases.

The Western Pacific is probably best known for the California Zephyr train. It ran a daily train which stopped in Pleasanton, and a 3 times a week train that stopped in Pleasanton and Livermore. The full route was from San Francisco to Chicago. It began on March 20, 1949, and made its last run on March 22, 1970, always through the valley. The train was famed for its doomed passenger cars. There is now an Amtrak train by that same name that runs through the east bay from Emeryville to Chicago. It does not pass through the valley.

Both the Livermore and Pleasanton Depots of the WP no longer exist. Photos of the Livermore station are included here. It was located south of the tracks between K and L, was built in 1908 and demolished in 1956. The Pleasanton station was located east of the tracks at Rose Ave.

California Railroad Stations - History

Every railroad has a logo, CTRC is no exception.

CTRC is a California non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to preserving the historical heritage of railroading and trolleys in the Santa Clara Valley of California.

CTRC welcomes the public to come visit our collection of historic vehicles.

And if you want to become more engaged we invite you to join and help restore and operate them.

SP 2479 At San Jose Depot

This painting by Michael F. Kotowski shows the SP 2479 at the old San Jose railroad depot with an old Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) pickup. CTRC is proposing to base the future museum on this scene.

SP1215 Arrives

1927 Kleiber

This 1927 Kleiber truck was last owned by the Western States Oil Company of San Jose. It was used to deliver oil to merchants in the San Jose California area.

Little Buttercup Moving To San Jose

Little Buttercup being unloaded at History San Jose. This 1899 vintage locomotive spent time on the San Francisco docks, was at the 1948 Chicago Railway Fair, and spent time at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento. The move to San Jose was observed by many surprised children.

SP 2479 Drawing

The SP 2479 is a 1923 Baldwin P-10 Pacific that is being restored by CTRC. You can come to the site to see it or help with the work.

SP2479 Refurbished Drivers

Locomotive driver wheels have steel tires that have to be machined with high accuracy to a shape profile that helps keep the locomotive firmly on the rails at all times. Each wheel must be machined to have the same circumference. There are not many places that have the machine tools to perform this kind of work.

Santa Clara Railroad Map

The Santa Clara Valley is a natural transportation focus for the San Francisco Bay area. It is one of the oldest railroad centers in the United States.


The South Pacific Coast Railroad (SPCRR) was a narrow gauge line that ran between Santa Cruz and Alameda, with Santa Clara in the middle.

1921 Port Huron Traction Engine

The Port Huron Traction Engine was manufactured by the Port Huron Engine and Thresher Company of Port Huron, Michigan and shipped to Wichita Kansas July 20, 1921. It was used for hauling, plowing and operating machinery from a belt to the engine flywheel. It produced 16 horsepower from a boiler that was designed for 175 pounds of pressure. It took over 10 years of part time work to restore this traction engine.

Removing SP 2479 Wheelset

It takes a lot of work to remove the drivers from a large locomotive.


Car 1

Lenzen Roundhouse

The Lenzen Roundhouse used to stand between Coleman and Stockton Avenues in San Jose. The roundhouse the roundhouse and turntable were disassembled and are now stored awaiting eventual reassembly.

1916 Detroit Electric Touring Car

This car featured dual controls so it could be driven from either the front or rear seat. It is powered by 14 six volt batteries which can be connected as two 42 volt batteries in parallel or as one 84 volt battery depending upon the speed desired. The controller provides for 5 speeds with the top speed approximately 20 miles per hour. The range before the batteries require recharging was advertised as about 70 miles.

SP 2479 At San Jose Depot

This painting by Michael F. Kotowski shows the SP 2479 at the old San Jose railroad depot with an old Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) pickup. CTRC is proposing to base the future museum on this scene.

Established in 1982, CTRC, the California Trolley and Railroad Corporation, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a mission to preserve and reflect the rich legacy of rail transportation in the Santa Clara Valley for the educational and recreational benefit of current and future generations.

Among the numerous projects underway is the restoration of Southern Pacific steam locomotive 2479. CTRC has restored for operation a number of historic trolley cars.

The CTRC Blog contains postings and items of interest, in chronological order. Our search page is available to help you find items of intererst.

For the latest weekly updates please visit our Facebook page.

Our quarterly newsletter is The Clearboard.

A major undertaking is the creation of the San Jose Steam Railroad Museum with the focal point becoming the former six stall Lenzen Roundhouse and turntable.

Membership is open to anyone who is interested - you do not need to be an expert welder or machinist.