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One hundred years ago California was railroad country. In 1869 the Golden Spike celebration commemorated the fact that rails stretched across the entire country. Small farming community leaders believed railroad service to their communities would bring them prosperity.

San Ramon Valley farmers and ranchers were no different. Their cattle, grain, hay and fruit had to be hauled over dirt roads which were impassable during the winter rains. Yet the deep water ports of the Carquinez Strait were tantalizingly close.

So they dreamed, lobbied and planned for rail service, with Grangers prominent in the effort. Getting rail to the Valley was a prime topic of conversation at Danville Grange No. 85 meetings after 1873 when the farm organization was founded. The Grange included farmers and ranchers from Danville, San Ramon, Alamo and the Tassajara Valley.

Rival to Southern Pacific Plans a Train

A young entrepreneur, William Kye, appeared in the San Ramon Valley in 1890. Mr. Kye was the general manager of a new railroad called the Contra Costa and Eastern Terminal Railroad and he grandly announced plans for a new great transcontinental railroad. When Kye's crews surveyed the Valley, the locals caught railroad fever in earnest. Kye said he was willing to pay for the right-of-way if owners did not want to donate their land.

Three years earlier, in 1887, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company had raised and dashed farmers' hopes for a railroad. The Company had surveyed for a train and then removed the marking stakes. William Kye's activities piqued the interest of Southern Pacific and a Company representative, Mr. Field, began meeting with landowners in May of 1890. Field said the Company could begin to build the San Ramon Valley line in 30 days if the right-of-way was given to them without charge. He was empowered to accept deeds to the land immediately.

The battle was joined between William Kye and Southern Pacific. And the issue was the right-of-way. Since Kye had offered to buy land, many of the owners wanted Southern Pacific to pay as well. But Mr. Field was adamant: the Southern Pacific Railroad Company would not build the railroad if they had to pay for the right-of-way or any portion of it.

San Ramon railroad turntable
San Ramon railroad turntable

Right-of-Way Issues Debated

A whole series of meetings were held over this issue. The first was called by August Hemme on May 31, 1890. Hemme, who owned much of the flat land between Danville and Alamo, was willing to deed the right-of-way free. He believed the benefit and increase in land value was worth it.

Presenting the other side was pioneer R.O. Baldwin of Danville, another highly respected Valley leader. He wanted the railroad but did not understand why he and others would let a train split their best land without compensation. Others more distant from the tracks would receive the benefits without the inconvenience.

Mr. Field pressed for a decision; more meetings were held. It was determined that about 340 acres all-told were needed by the Southern Pacific for a right-of-way from Avon (near Martinez) to San Ramon. A committee composed of Hemme, Baldwin, J.A. Shuey, Albert Glass and J.M. Stow visited each owner of prospective right-of-way land. Each was asked if he was willing to grant the right-of-way free and, if not, what was the lowest price he would accept. They committee hoped that landowners off the line would contribute money to help buy some of the land.

Two-thirds of the right-of-way was obtained by the committee outright. Owners of the remainder had varied reactions: some needed time, some wanted to talk it over with friends, some dickered for a switch at their property and some wanted to be paid for "damage" to their property. Most were willing to take a reasonable amount if they could see the Company would actually lay the tracks soon.

In the meantime, William Kye had disappeared, leaving the field to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. There were still more meetings. Hemme even met with Charles Frederick Crocker of the Southern Pacific who promised to "blow his whistle in Danville in 60 days from the signing of the articles."

Fund-raising Brings the Train Closer to Reality

Subscriptions were made, including ones from the local school districts, with a goal of $15,000. By July of 1890, $8,000 had been pledged, then $10,000. August Hemme made strong speeches urging the citizens to grasp this opportunity while they had the chance.

Finally, the last $2000 was raised by guarantees, with subscriptions pledged by 20 Valley stalwarts, including Charles Wood, W.Z. Stone, M.H. Elliott, C.G. Goold, C. and N. Boone, George McCamley, William Meese, Hemme, Baldwin and Shuey. 

The Train Is Guaranteed

That September, J.F. Foulds, attorney for the Southern Pacific Railroad, Thomas Ramsden, civil engineer, and Valley representatives James Foster and J.A. Shuey met in Martinez. They examined deeds and records to make sure all titles were clear. Only a two-mile stretch of Patrick Tormey's land had not been secured and a separate arrangement between Southern Pacific and Tormey had been made.

The Southern Pacific was willing to pay for station land along the line. In Danville, John Hartz sold 8.65 acres to the railroad adjacent to the downtown, eventually creating a business boom. In San Ramon, George McCamley deeded land for the station, subject to continued use for railroad business. The station was over one-half mile from San Ramon's small commercial area.

Two-story Southern Pacific depots (using the train company's No. 18 gold and brown design) were built in these two communities. In addition, a garage for the engine and a turntable were constructed in San Ramon; the San Ramon Branch Line ended there until 1909 when it extended to Radum (near Pleasanton).

A small freight depot at Alamo on Hemme's ranch was also built. Flag stops were established at Baldwin's ranch (Osage) and at the Boone Ranch (Forest Home). Grading began in the winter of 1890-91, tracks were laid, and the job was done by May. An official inspection trip occurred on May 17, 1891 and the first regular train trip took place on Sunday, June 7, 1891.

A full year of debate, decision and commitment saw the community's dream come true - the Iron Horse had finally arrived in the San Ramon Valley!

**This article was written by Beverly Lane, based on the book by Irma M. Dotson, "San Ramon Branch of the Southern Pacific".