Caltrain needs a tour guide, someone who clicks on the PA and tells riders about the historical sites that are whizzing by. OK, I’m being facetious. Caltrain has enough to do running a commute line that dates back to 1863.
The Peninsula commuter service is the oldest continuously operating passenger service in the West. It also boasts seven depots that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Caltrain is a vital transportation resource, which today’s generation has received as a birthright,” said Janet McGovern, author of “Caltrain and the Peninsula Commute Service.”
McGovern, of Redwood City, knows what she writes and talks about. Now retired, she covered transportation issues as a reporter and later worked in marketing at Caltrain where she wrote news releases, edited a newsletter and organized special events, including the popular holiday train.
“Bay Area residents are fortunate that passenger rail service in this rail corridor has survived into the 21st Century,” she said.
High speed rail is a hot topic in the news today and so was the rail line from San Francisco to San Jose when it was proposed. The people of San Mateo County saw the railroad as a valuable resource for business, the growth of population and the general well-being of the area. The San Mateo County Times-Gazette was very supportive of the project.
“The enhancement of the value of property of every class, the increase of population, extension and enlargement of business and the facilities of trade, the addition of revenue to the county and the consequent general prosperity which nothing else imaginable could, by any way possible more rapidly or surely affect than the building of this railroad,” the newspaper said. In 1861, voters in San Mateo County approved a $100,000 bond issue 417 to 235. Voters in San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties also gave their approval.
The Redwood City Gazette was equally ecstatic when the train came to town in October of 1863.
“On Saturday last, the western portion of the great trans-continental railway was formally opened” with 400 passengers aboard an excursion train that went from San Francisco to Mayfield, which is today part of Palo Alto. “The work is being pushed rapidly forward and it will be but a few weeks before the road will be fully open to San Jose.” The Redwood City paper reported that a picnic was held where many “indulged freely in champagne.” A small marker commemorating the arrival of the train is located on Broadway across from the station in Redwood City.
Building what was initially called the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad, which would evolve to become part of Southern Pacific, was no easy task. Engineers knew that the original alignment to San Bruno Mountain would be tough going. The early operations on the steep single-track line showed they were correct.
“Helper engines were required to get longer trains over the grade of the Bernal Cut and on to the Ocean View summit,” McGovern said. It was not until 1907 that the almost ten mile Bayshore Cutoff opened, bringing the rail line closer to the Bay and eliminating the tortuous uphill climb.
The cutoff, which required the building of five tunnels, is the alignment used today. Think of that when you roar through those tunnels. Our imaginary tour guide should mention them, as well as the stations that line the route.
McGovern calls the stations “The Magnificent Seven.” The line has 32 stations and having seven on the National Register of Historic Places is quite a distinction. The stations on the list are Millbrae, Burlingame, San Carlos, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Santa Clara and San Jose Diridon. The stations are all worth a visit. A good place to start would be San Jose, which was built in 1935 to replace an outdated station. Renovated in 1994 to the tune of $5 million, the Diridon station features marble and terrazzo flooring and three large Art Deco-style chandeliers.
During the renovation, great effort was made to achieve historical accuracy, McGovern noted. The waiting room has wooden back-to-back benches that recall scenes from old movies such as “Union Station” along with bringing back memories of what San Francisco once had – a beautiful Mission style SP station at Third and Townsend that was built in 1915, also replacing an earlier building. Demolished in the 1970s, the station was home to such trains as the Coast Daylight, the Lark and the Del Monte.
The commuters who used the San Francisco station are vividly noted in Jack Kerouac’s “October in the Railroad Earth.” He described those rushing to get their trains as “… Millbrae and San Carlos neat-necktie producers of America...” There’s hardly a necktie to be seen when lines form at today’s Caltrain station a block away at Fourth and Townsend, which has been described as “a glorified shelter.”
Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after a 40-year career as a news reporter, a span split between United Press International and the Associated Press. He writes the “Rear View Mirror” history column that appears in the San Mateo Daily Journal. He also writes history stories for several magazines, including Climate, The Journal of Local History and La Peninsula.
Clifford, the author of “Philip’s Code: No News is Good News — to a Killer,” is veteran of both the Navy and Air Force. He and his wife, Peggy, met when they were students at San Francisco State. The native San Franciscans moved down the Peninsula to Redwood City where they raised seven children. “Times were good,” Clifford said.