|The Railroad Stations of Sacramento|
The Railroad Stations of Sacramento
A brief history of depots in the River City, 1910-present
Following conclusion of "The Great War," the 1920s were a time of general prosperity for Americans. The good times were mirrored by America's railroads, which enjoyed some of their best years in terms of peacetime traffic levels. Passenger trains especially were well patronized; the railroads had done an excellent job during the past two decades of convincing folks to "see America first." In this age before freeways and jet airplanes, long distance travel was synonymous with trains and Americans wanted to travel.
Sacramento would see the good times reflected in its passenger depots, with two grand railroad structures opening during the Roaring Twenties. As things would turn out, these depots would also be the last of their kind constructed in the Capital City during the 20th century. While one of these has long since vanished from city maps, the larger and more imposing former Southern Pacific station remains in service, with passenger traffic counts among the Golden State's highest and rising every month.
A Modern Station
In order to minimize disruption to current traffic, and to allow for a completely new track arrangement to be constructed, a site for the new depot was chosen just to the southeast of the old Arcade Station. Soon, SP had begun work on filling in what was left of the old China Slough, where the new depot was to be sited. Tons of sand and rubble were dumped along the slough's southern shore (near Fifth and "I" streets), and company engineers were brought in to begin the task of settling on new trackage alignments and general facilities arrangement.
Architectural design work on the station building itself would not begin until 1924, apparently, due to an ongoing disagreement between the U.S. government and SP regarding reparations for the railroad's mandated participation in the USRA. Finally, however, San Francisco architects Bliss & Fairweather were brought aboard to design the structure, in cooperation with the railroad's own architectural bureau. Within two years, the completed facility would replace the aging Arcade Station forever.
The March 1926 Southern Pacific Bulletin heralded completion of the Capital City's new landmark transportation hub with the headline, "Sacramento and Reno Open New Stations During Month." In the article which followed, the new depot building was glowingly described as "one of the finest stations built by the company in western states. It recalls again the birthplace of the company."
The August 14, 1926 issue of Railway Age waxed even more eloquently about the new facility. "The Southern Pacific's new passenger station at Sacramento is one of the most modern stations on the Pacific Coast and one of the finest structures in Sacramento. The total cost of the project, including the main and auxiliary buildings, together with the necessary adjuncts and track work, entailed an expenditure of $2,317,000."
Indeed this was a large sum, due to the project's complexity. Not only did the site require filling in, but also completely new trackage and signaling arrangements had to be devised and constructed while still keeping the adjacent Arcade Station in service. The new depot's location atop landfill would necessitate that the steel-frame, reinforced concrete structure be built atop piles driven deep into the ground for stability. Its second and third floors would serve as offices for SP's Sacramento Division and "lines north of San Francisco" personnel.
"The passenger station proper is of the Italian type of architecture. It is 370 ft. long, with a width of 54 ft. at the west-end and 128 ft. at the east-end. The Central portion of the building, which houses the waiting room and concourse, is 83 ft. wide," noted Railway Age. "The exterior walls are faced with brick with a mingled light russet color, while a darker russet tiling is used on the sloping roof. The entire building is trimmed with architectural terra cotta and the lines of the structure, enhanced by eight circular topped windows, 35 ft. high and glazed with amber colored cathedral glass, combine with the color treatment of the walls and roof to furnish a harmonious and pleasing aspect."
Fronting on two city blocks between Third and Fifth Streets north of "I" Street, the building was accessed via a driveway along which were laid out two small parks planted "artistically" with flowers and shrubbery. Local streetcars of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company served the building directly, terminating at and departing from within just a few steps of the structure's main entrance; automobiles shared the driveway as well.
"Features of the new terminal include a well ventilated waiting room 60x120 feet; a modern restaurant, men's smoking room, open counter ticket offices, spacious baggage room, new-type [butterfly] train sheds, comfortable women's rest room, ample office space for the divisional offices, marble floors, tile roof, and scientific electric and heating appliances," reported the Southern Pacific Bulletin. On hand for the opening was California Governor Friend Richardson. Sacramento Chamber of Commerce President Harold J. McCurry, and numerous SP officials.
Railway Age provided additional detail in its station coverage, noting the waiting room's vaulted ceiling was "decorated with five-color stencil work, harmonizing with the cathedral glass and Venetian drapes of the large windows. The floor is of California marble, trimmed with travertine, while the wood trim is of Lamao mahogany, imported from the Phillipine Islands." Indirect lighting was furnished by large central chandeliers and side-lighting fixtures "of artistic design." A lobby extended across the full width of the waiting room, in which was located a telegraph office, "a battery of phone booths, and a traveler's aid bureau where a matron is always available during train hours."
Seven passenger train tracks extended along the building's north side, with three butterfly sheds each flanked by two tracks and the seventh track located adjacent to the waiting room's concourse. A ramp led underground from the concourse, with a "well-lighted concrete subway" safely accessing each of the platforms. Additional tracks to the north served as a coach yard, with a car shed built over a portion to protect waiting Pullman cars "from the direct rays of the sun and keeping them cool and comfortable for occupancy at night" in this pre-air-conditioning age. Another five "team tracks" to the east of the station served local businesses needing a place to unload rail shipments.
As it would turn out, opening year would also be the peak for passenger traffic through the depot, at least in terms of the number of trains. A 1926 Sacramento Division employees' timetable lists a total of 32 passenger trains daily including first class, secondary, and local "motor express" and "mixed" passenger and freight runs as originating, terminating, or stopping en route in Sacramento. During peak periods, this number would have been even higher, as extra "sections" (additional passenger trains running on the same schedule) would have been added to accommodate the demand. Just one year later this number had declined to 28, reflecting the beginning of a nationwide decline in rail travel. To ease congestion and minimize delays, freight trains bypassed the new station via a "freight main," running between the depot and SP's Sacramento Shops complex.
The pioneering Northern Electric Railway running from the Capital City north to Marysville and Chico operated from an unimposing, circa 1906 depot located at 8th and "J" streets which was later given a Mission Revival architectural facelift. The Oakland, Antioch & Eastern electric interurban line (later known as the San Francisco-Sacramento Railroad and connecting these two urban areas) entered the city via the old "M" Street bridge, continuing along city streets to a utilitarian, downtown terminal at 3rd and "I" Streets adjacent to SP's Arcade Station.
The Central California Traction Company initially sold tickets out of the Union Electric freight house on Fourth Street, between "Q" and "R" (which once served electric railway freight customers and today still stands), for passengers wishing to travel its route to Lodi and Stockton. It appears to later have moved its passenger terminal to 8th and "L" Streets in downtown Sacramento, although little is known about this facility. Since they were competing with SP and WP for business, both CCT and NE promoted the fact that passengers could connect from their "electric trains" to San Francisco via Sacramento River steamboats.
Few electric railways ever bothered to construct grand depots in major cities, and by the 1920s, automobiles and trucking firms had begun to affect the interurbans (which mainly offered medium-distance freight and passenger service that was highly susceptible to competition). Thus it did not go unnoticed when Sacramento's three interurban service providers in the early 1920s jointly proposed a downtown "union electric terminal." Ironically, however, it was control by main line (steam) railroads that made available the necessary capital to complete such an undertaking. The Western Pacific Railroad had bought NE in 1922, and later the SF-S as well combining both into the renamed Sacramento Northern Railway. And SP, WP, and the Santa Fe jointly took control of the CCT in the mid-1920s, after several individual takeover struggles had failed.
The June 5, 1926 Electric Railway Journal headlined its related article "Union Station Built at Sacramento," noting that "electric railways enteringâ€¦the capital city of California, have joined hands in [its] construction." Located at Eleventh and "I" Streets, "in the heart of the hotel and business district," the station was reached by automobile and "by the local street cars of the Sacramento Northern Railroad, which issue and honor free transfers from the Pacific Gas & Electric Railway street car system" (Sacramento's dominant local transit provider at the time).
"Architecturally the station is a departure from established precedent in California," the article opined. "It is an adaptation of the Corinthian style, with the front divided into five sections by full length columns. Materials used are brick and cast stone, finished with colored cement. The foundations are of concrete. The primary supporting frame members are of steel, while the joists and studding are of Oregon pine. Floors are of pine in the offices and of dark red cement in the waiting room, toilets, etc." The article went on to describe a covered concourse extending the full length of the building, with four tracks running parallel. There was a 50-by-80 foot waiting room with walls of rough-tooled plaster "decorated in warm tones" and highlighted by gray-stained Oregon pine trim; and quarter-sawn oak ticket counter, telephone booths, concession counter, and settees.
Above the waiting room, a mezzanine level housed trainmen's rooms and office accommodations for the San Francisco-Sacramento Railroad; the general offices of the Sacramento Northern Railroad were on the second floor. A baggage room was at one end of the structure, while a restaurant under separate management was reached via a lobby off the main waiting room. "The investment in land and terminal facilities approximates $350,000," noted an earlier article in the Electric Railway Journal announcing the start of construction. Approximately 7,000 passengers daily were expected to use the facility, which apparently opened for service in late 1925.
Passenger service ceased completely on the CCT in 1933, and SN service to Sacramento followed suit in 1940. The Union Electric Terminal continued to provide office space for the SN for some time, then served a variety of retail and commercial uses into the 1970s. Demolished circa 1980, the former terminal's site is today occupied by a motor hotel and restaurant, and a parking lot. Sacramento Regional Transit's light rail line passes within a half block of the site, on 12th Street.
Back to the Future By 1971, when Amtrak assumed responsibility for operation of the nation's railroads, only one of Sacramento's numerous passenger depots still served in its original role. The grand SP station so proudly touted as "one of the finest structures in Sacramento" upon its 1926 opening had soldiered on through prosperous years, Depression, the Second World War, and the age of the streamlined passenger train. Even as the supposed end of rail travel approached in the mid-1960s, the depot continued to serve ever-dwindling numbers of passengers.
But no one in 1971 could have foreseen that this decline would actually be slowed and ultimately reversed, at least on specific routes. Especially in northern California, the Coast Starlight and California Zephyr would continue as strong performers even as Amtrak's funding dwindled and other routes were cut. Beginning in 1982, both trains passed through Sacramento daily, keeping activity up at the former SP station in spite of the facility's gradual deterioration. (Amtrak's Zephyr and its SP predecessor train, the City of San Francisco, have always operated via Sacramento; the Coast Starlight and its predecessors, the Cascade and the Shasta Daylight were routed via SP's East Valley line [Davis-Woodland-Orland-Tehama] until 1982, originally bypassing Sacramento, Roseville, Marysville, and Chico.)
Then came the 1990s, and the beginning of an active partnership between Amtrak and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). New locomotives and bi-level, push-pull "California Cars" were built for service on specific short-to-medium distance inter-city routes, and the first of the Bay Area-Sacramento Capitols was introduced. Utilizing the shiny new equipment, the Capitols' ridership has grown steadily with a total of nine trips each way daily as of May 2001, and more on the drawing board. Beginning in early 1999, one daily San Joaquin began and terminated its run to Bakersfield in Sacramento, and additional trains are planned to follow suit within two years.
By 1999, the future looked bright indeed for the former Southern Pacific Sacramento station, which was serving 500,000 riders annually and hailed as Amtrak's third busiest California stop. In support of this expected growth, and in anticipation of the need for better coordination among the region's various land transportation options, a partnership was developed in 1996 to renovate the building and convert it into an "intermodal" transportation center. Union Pacific (successor to Southern Pacific), owner of the structure and surrounding land; the City of Sacramento; Amtrak; Caltrans; Sacramento Regional Transit; and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board cooperated in a study of the needs, purposes, scope, benefits, and costs of the proposed project.
In December 1997, the City of Sacramento and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board released the results in a document entitled "Historic Sacramento Rail Depot Final Project Study Report." Its description of the project and its scope read thusly:
"The City of Sacramento proposes to renovate Sacramento's Southern Pacific Depot, which is served by Capitol Corridor service, and undertake public improvements on the surrounding site which will redefine the Depot as a true inter-modal depot. The project would maximize opportunities for inter-modal connections, providing for coordination between Capitol Corridor service and Sacramento Regional Transit commuter light rail and bus service. The project would also enhance connections between the Depot and Old Sacramento, which, according to City surveys, is the primary destination for rail passengers arriving in Sacramento. The renovation project would restore the Depot, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, to its original elegance while enhancing its utility as an inter-modal terminal. Improvements to be completed include repair and replacement of damaged roof areas; seismic, mechanical, and electrical upgrades; Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance; brickwork cleaning and repair; building weatherization; improvement of ticketing facilities; and restoration or replacement of interior fixtures and finishes. Portions of the Depot suitable for commercial enterprises complementary to transit use would be reconfigured and improved to suit potential tenants.
"Improvements to the site surrounding the Depot would include separation of bus operations from private vehicles and pedestrian flows; improvement of parking areas to maximize the efficiency and convenience of vehicle parking; and improvement of hardscape [paved areas], landscape, signage, and lighting to enhance the site's overall appearance."
"In conjunction with improvements to the Depot and site, renovation and commercial reuse of the Railway Express Annex (which sits adjacent to the Depot and which is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places) would be pursued by Union Pacific and the City as a separate, but supportive, redevelopment project."
Centerpiece for the Future
With improvements made in early 1999 to better connect the depot to Old Sacramento, and with even more ambitious plans being developed for facility expansion and overall renovation, the former Southern Pacific Sacramento passenger station complex has entered the new millennium with a new lease on life. Its future as a centerpiece for transportation seems well assured in Sacramento's future.A brief history of depots in the River City, 1856-1910
When railroad historians and enthusiasts think of passenger stations, often their interests are limited to specific types and timeframes. This shouldn't seem too surprising given the fact that most of us have a favorite railroad and are drawn to specific types of architecture. Too, numerous communities saw their depots vanish decades ago; thus many modern-day Americans aren't even aware of the fact their towns ever had railroad passenger stations.
This situation is repeated in Sacramento. Here, at least seven different structures (four of them related to the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads) have served passengers for the myriad lines once operating within city limits since the mid-1850s. Unlike many American cities, however, Sacramento is blessed with the survival of two grand 20th-century depots plus a third, reconstructed 19th-century station.
Among these, the Amtrak (former Southern Pacific) station is currently receiving attention due to increased passenger traffic related to the successful San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento Capitol Corridor trains. Let's journey back through time now, and examine the railroad passenger depots of Sacramento and their places in history.
Thus, the lack of a formal depot in Sacramento is entirely plausible in the late 1850s and early 1860s; enclosed passenger stations had begun appearing along America's existing railroads only a decade or so earlier. The Central Pacific Railroad could boast little better when it started building east from Sacramento in 1863. The company's first trains operated for the benefit of construction materials and crews, not the public. Within a year, once rails had reached to "Junction" (today known as Roseville), the CP's first scheduled passenger train was run.
Of the company's early situation, early CP/SP historian David L. Joslyn noted in his 1948 history of the Sacramento Shops that "The [Central Pacific] railroad had no shops, few tools, and only several miles of track ready for the reception of motive power. In fact, the biggest building they owned was a small tool house on the levee. This was later used as the first ticket office for the road. The little building stood there on the levee near the foot of I Street until it was demolished."
The Sacramento Valley Rail Road was acquired by CP in August 1865. Central Pacific trains may have called at the SVRR's old freight shed depot near Front and "L" Streets for the next year, although by 1866 a small, purpose-built passenger depot had been erected near the foot of "J" Street. The railroad's owners knew this could not handle the expected traffic, especially since completion of the Transcontinental Railroad was imminent.
Front and "J" Streets
"Board of Trustees -- Application was made by Mark Hopkins, on behalf of the Central Pacific Railroad Company, for permission to erect a one story frame depot building, seventy-five feet wide by two hundred feet long on the west side of Front Street, between I and J streets. Objection by James Carolin and others was on file. After considering the matter, the application was unanimously granted on the condition that the east line of the roof shall not extend further east than the east line of the present platform on the north of the present passenger depot building." A week later, Charles Crocker asked the board for an amendment allowing the roof to protrude ten feet further east; the Union noted that "his request was politely granted."
This "one story frame depot" was just that for the first year. Then, on October 2, 1868, the Sacramento Union reported that the "Central Pacific Railroad made application for permission to erect an open shed thirty by seventy-five feet on the north end of the passenger depot, which was granted unanimously." At this juncture, the depot began to take on an appearance that closely resembles the impressive, rambling structure found today along the Sacramento waterfront.
Articles in the Union during 1868 and 1869 tell of other changes in the depot's vicinity. Arriving travelers were apparently subjected to a barrage of "runners, hackmen, or other parties" soliciting business for their carriages, local hotels, and the like; in response, the railroad issued regulations limiting access to the platform so that "passengers will have a chance to catch their breath after emerging from the cars before running the Jehu gauntlet." Shortly after this announcement, a fence was extended around the entire depot area "with a view to keeping hackmen, runners, porters, and a large crowd generally at a sufficient distance" from train passengers.
In February 1870, the Sacramento Union noted that workers were busy making yet another addition to the depot. This time around, they were "enclosing a small space, to be kept as a refreshment stand. It is understood that special officer J. W. Biderman will run the institution." (The Silver Palace Restaurant today occupies this general area in the reconstructed depot.) By July, workers were "fitting up rooms north of the restaurant for offices of the Assistant and Division Superintendents and for a telegraph office. The old apartments at present occupied for that purpose are to be turned into a waiting room for ladies."
The final addition to the building appears to have been made in 1873; a baggage room located at the north end of the structure. In the interim, the wood roof of the depot had caught fire several times; although disaster had appeared imminent, the flames were doused before serious damage occurred. Regardless, the depot was the center of life in Sacramento as elsewhere. By the mid-1870s, horse-drawn streetcars even trundled along Front Street past the depot, transporting Central Pacific Railroad passengers to and from Sacramento's hotels and other business establishments.
Acquisition in 1869 of the (first) Western Pacific Railroad assured CP of an all-rail route to the Bay Area via Stockton, Tracy, Altamont Pass, Niles Canyon, and San Jose. A year later the California Pacific Railroad arrived in Sacramento from Vallejo, crossing the Sacramento River via a large, wood truss bridge near the location of today's "I" Street bridge. Since the "Cal-P" (as it was known) was a CP competitor, it initially did not connect with the tracks of the Central Pacific. Instead, the Cal-P built a berm just north of "I" Street (in what then was known as Sutter Slough), with a short section of track and a turntable atop the berm-but apparently no depot. The result of all this activity was increased traffic through Central Pacific's depot.
Today, the reconstructed Central Pacific Railroad Passenger Station shows what Sacramento's main overland gateway looked like in its fully developed form, circa 1876. Opened to the public a century later, during the nation's Bicentennial, the rebuilt depot (along with the restoration of Old Sacramento) stands proudly as a part of California's largest historic redevelopment project. Interestingly, today's structure has served CSRM longer than the original structure did for CP.
Known as Arcade Station, this new "through" depot involved a complete reworking of trackage; trains would be able to arrive and depart without the constant need for back-up movements or other switching, as had been the case before this time in the stub-end depot on Front Street. Thomas Thompson and Albert West, in their History of Sacramento County, 1880, went so far as to suggest that the building would be able to accommodate "all the passenger business likely to come to Sacramento for all time," although this assertion would ultimately prove in error.
The new Arcade Station was described by Thompson and West in glowing terms, and touted as the finest building of its kind west of Omaha. "The general style of the building is Gothic and its architectural appearance is impressive and beautiful. It consists of a central pile of buildings, a portion being two stories in hight [sic], faced by a depot arcade or sheltered avenue, seventy feet wide and 414 feet long. This arcade contains the tracks on which the different trains enter and leave the depot. The roof of this portion is corrugated iron. The pile of buildings referred to is 164 feet long."
The detailed description goes on to tell of the ticket office; separate ladies' and mens' sitting rooms, furnished with "marble wash-basins, mirrors, and other conveniences;" a dining room and bar room; telegraph office, baggage room, and upstairs offices for a number of high-level railroad officers. "The dining room is an especially fine one," opined the authors. Their five-paragraph description of Arcade Station concluded that "The premises are well ventilated and lighted and have been constructed with the especial view of arranging everything for the comfort and convenience of the traveling public and the officers and employees of the Company."
Arcade Station served its purpose well through the last decades of the 19th century. Served at first by horse-drawn streetcars and later by electric trolleys, the depot was a source of local pride for its first 20 years. Its distinctive architecture and wooden construction unfortunately were not well-suited to changing operating needs and cultural tastes, however. As time marched on, the depot seemed more of a monument to the Victorian age than a suitable gateway to California's Capital City.
As early as 1908, according to several articles in the Sacramento Bee, city leaders and merchants began pressuring the conservative CP/SP management both locally and in San Francisco, the company's headquarters to fund a replacement for the now-unstylish Gothic depot. Convinced that the structure was severely outdated in terms of design, function, and location, citizen committees harangued the railroad, to little avail, in the years leading up to the United States' entry into World War I. The Southern Pacific finally conceded that it was time to look into the matter shortly before the United States Railroad Administration nationalized America's railroads dashing any such plans for years.
Seeds of Discontent
In order to complete its Oakland-Feather River Canyon-Salt Lake City main line via Sacramento, the Western Pacific purchased considerable property running directly through the heart of the city's main residential district. A number of grand 19th-century houses had to be demolished to make way for the tracks and the railroad's new Sacramento depot. In service through the demise of WP's famed California Zephyr streamliner, the depot lay dormant for several years until its 1970s sale and conversion into a restaurant.
Today this gracious structure survives in its original location, converted into one of many nationwide Old Spaghetti Factory restaurants. The distinctive Mission Revival styling has been maintained and even embellished inside and out, with the former open-arch train platform enclosed as the establishment's bar. A popular spot for residents and tourists, the depot remains a wonderful train-watching location situated alongside the Union Pacific Railroad's former WP main line in the heart of California's Capital City.