Why "Rails Across the Bay"?
The theme for the 2009 Pacific Coast Region/NMRA Convention is “Rails Across The Bay”. We selected this theme because it reflects the rich and colorful history of railroading in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. We are fortunate to live in a region that has long been prominent for its railroads and their impact on all aspects of life in our community.
Before the railroads came into this area, the only way to get here was by cross-country wagon train, or later, stagecoach, both of which were long, harrowing journeys. The only other way was by ship, either across the Isthmus of Panama or around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. These trips were fraught with personal loss and danger. And of course, the cost of these trips was very expensive, even in the early days.
So it was that in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln approved a Transcontinental Railroad to ease travel from the east to the west. In our early history courses we learned that this “Transcontinental Railroad” was completed with the driving of the Golden Spike in Promontory, Utah, on May 10th 1869. At last, we had a railroad that would enable us to travel from sea to sea without the hardships that early travelers endured.
But was this railroad truly a “transcontinental” railroad? No, it was not. Because the Central Pacific Railroad terminated in Sacramento, passengers had to get off the train and travel another 120 miles by wagon, horse or riverboat to get to San Francisco. Almost transcontinental, but not quite.
The need to close this gap from Sacramento to Oakland and San Francisco led to fierce competition among railroads for the easiest and fastest routes to the area. The result was that there were several railroads competing in the East Bay and this competition for passengers and general freight lasted many years.
It was a rail fan’s paradise, with traffic moving in all directions on ferryboats, bridges and through a maze of trackwork that crisscrossed the area. It was also a time of transformation as steam, which, at first ruled the roads, was later replaced with diesel power. Thus, the entire railroad infrastructure in the Bay Area was undergoing change. For those of us who love trains, it was an exciting time, but one filled with foreboding about the future.
During our convention we will try to relive this railroad history in our clinics and programs. One example is Niles Canyon. This obscure little canyon became very important in the rush to complete the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. The railroad history of this canyon goes back to the 1840’s and an unknown little railroad, the Western Pacific.
The first WP sought to build a railway from Livermore into Oakland and obtained a right-of-way through Niles Canyon in the 1850’s. They completed roadbed about halfway through the canyon, but then ran out of money and had to shut down construction.
After completing the Transcontinental Railroad, the owners of the Central Pacific recognized the importance of closing the gap between Sacramento and San Francisco. In 1869 they started construction south through Galt, Lodi, and Stockton, then, over the Altamont Pass into Livermore and Pleasanton.
Because of the need to run tracks from Pleasanton to the Bay Area, the Central Pacific bought the old Western Pacific and its trackage rights into the Niles canyon, The company then proceeded to build its railroad through the canyon to Niles and on to Oakland.
Most railroad fans know that in the 1920’s the Central Pacific changed its name to Southern Pacific. And as for that old “Western Pacific” railroad that was taken over by S. P, it is not the Western Pacific Railroad that we know today. The new Western Pacific was incorporated in the early 1900’s and was not related to the old W. P.
The new WP Company was formed to build a railroad from Oakland to Salt Lake City, Utah, using the Feather Canyon as an important right-of-way. This new Western Pacific built a second road through Niles Canyon in the early 1900’s.
One of our prototype tours is a steam train ride through the historic Niles Canyon, the transcontinental gateway to the San Francisco Bay. We will stop at “Brightside”, where the storage and repair shops for the Pacific Locomotive Association are located.
You will hear about the summer fun this area offered and where, during the 1900’s, as many as seven SP trains brought passengers here from all parts of the Bay Area to swim, fish, dance and picnic.
You’ll see Sunol, the sleepy little town that once had four of the largest hotels in California for guests from other areas.
You’ll also hear about the early days of motion picture production in the area. Before Hollywood became well known, film stars Mary Pickford, Gilbert Anderson (a.k.a. Bronco Billy), Charlie Chaplin, Wallace Beery, Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy were making films for the Essanay Film Company in the Niles Canyon and Sunol area.
One film, “The Tramp” was actually filmed in a real railroad hobo camp next to the Niles Canyon Railroad. It was here that Chaplin created the baggy pants walk for which he later became famous for during his career.
There can be no doubt that railroad traffic was critical to the history of the entire Bay Area. For those who lived here, railroads were an intrinsic part of life, producing fond memories that still live in our hearts and minds.
Steam engines and cars on ferryboats, streetcars, other light rail, passenger trains and freight traffic all dominated life in Oakland-San Francisco and the Bay Area before the numerous bridges across the bay were built. We still have lots of train traffic in our area, but there is no doubt that early train operations and “Rails Across The Bay” created memories that still live with us.
During the convention, we will provide attendees with historical and informative information about the railroads, routes and railroad traffic that operated through out our area. Our goal is to offer you the sights and history so you will know why the area has been so prominent in railroad history.
Please come and join us at the Rails Across the Bay 2009 convention and have loads of fun.
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