History of the San Ramon Branch Line (1891 - 1978)
Information taken from San Ramon Branch Line of the Southern Pacific by Irma M. Dotson.Arrival of the Railroad
America's Golden Age of Railroads began in the late nineteenth century. California's first railroad was built in Sacramento in 1856 and the transcontinental line was completed when the "Golden Spike" was driven in 1869. This led to rail lines being constructed throughout the Bay Area.
The San Ramon Branch Line railroad opened in 1891 after much dreaming, lobbying and planning for rail service by local citizens. They knew train service would allow freight and passengers to be transported in winter rainy seasons when County roads were impassable. After Danville Grange No. 85 was organized in 1873, members were involved in several efforts to bring a railroad to the valley.
Early in 1890 a young entrepreneur, William Kye, grandly announced plans for a new transcontinental railroad that would go through Alamo, Danville and San Ramon. Kye said he was willing to pay for the right-of-way land and his crew proceeded to survey the valley.
This activity rekindled the interest of the Southern Pacific Railroad (which had done an 1887 survey) and meetings with landowners began in May of 1890. However, the Southern Pacific would not pay for the right-of-way. More meetings were held. Some landowners were willing to donate land, other were not. In the meantime Kye disappeared, leaving the field to SP.
San Ramon railroad crossing
A core committee of farmers, including August Hemme of Alamo, R. O. Baldwin of Danville, Charles Wood of Sycamore Valley and George McCamley of San Ramon, was determined that this time a railroad would be built. They and others helped raise $15,000 to purchase the right-of-way from reluctant owners; the rest was donated.
Grading of the route began late in 1890; early in 1891 tracks were laid and the Branch Line was completed. The line extended from San Ramon to Avon (3 miles east of Martinez) for 20 miles where it connected with the Oakland/Stockton line. The first regular trip took place on June 7, 1891. In 1909, SP extended the line to Radum (near Pleasanton) where it connected to the Oakland/Tracy line.Significance of the Railroad
Just as the railroad accelerated the West's development by providing passenger and freight movement, it accelerated development in the valley. Since Danville's main downtown was next to the SP Station, significant new building activities took place there. New houses, hotels, businesses, warehouses and boardwalks were constructed. There was less impact in Alamo, where the small freight depot was south of town and San Ramon, where the stores were nearly a mile away from the depot.
Throughout the valley floor, walnuts and fruits of all kinds were successfully planted because of the increased ease of transport, gradually shifting agriculture away from grain crops. With heavy freight moved to the rails, the dirt roads stayed in better shape and valley residents were able to travel with greater speed and ease.
In 1906, William Meese built Ramona Park next to the track (in today's Greenbrook Townhouses). It was a rustic amusement park with a dance floor, ball fields and picnic area. Groups from throughout the Bay Area reserved the park and came by train for a day in the warm sun, making the valley a premier destination for picnickers.
The Railroad's Demise
Although the Branch Line was a significant transportation asset for people in the valley, it soon came under the same technological and economic pressures as the rest of railroading. The San Ramon two-story depot was removed in 1927. Passenger service dwindled as automobiles and buses became more common. Trains with only passenger cars gave way to freight trains with a passenger car attached. Finally passenger transport ended on the Branch Line in 1934.
Freight trains continued to run but, even though more efficient diesel locomotives replaced steam by the 1950s, trucks proved more competitive. By the 1970s the rail line was a shadow of its former self. In 1973, only 413 cars ran the line; in 1975 there were a mere 123 cars. Southern Pacific petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the line and, after two years of intense local opposition, the request was granted. Operations ended in 1978.The Right-of-Way Without Tracks
The next several years saw considerable debate about the future of the right-of-way, including a proposal for light rail. Contra Costa County gradually bought up or obtained easements over the right-of-way. The County, Danville and San Ramon agreed not to allow buildings on the corridor. Finally citizen efforts established a multi-use trail and the Iron Horse Regional Trail was born. It follows the right-of-way, serving as a recreational trail and non-motorized transportation corridor. When completed it will link Martinez to Pleasanton.
The Danville depot was converted into a feed and grain store in the early fifties. Efforts to save and restore the depot began in 1989. It was moved to Prospect and Railroad Avenues in 1996 and opened as a Museum in 1999. Thus, with a restored depot and the Iron Horse Trail, the San Ramon Branch Line lives on as an integral part of the San Ramon Valley.
Important Branch Line Events
Branch Line Facts
Photographs, courtesy of the Bancroft Library and Museum archives
A publication of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, 2001.