Alameda in history: Trains in Alameda

Alameda in history: Trains in Alameda

David Baker

Anyone who has spent time touring Alameda, whether by car, bike or foot, will notice a series of red signs with black trim placed around the city depicting a group of people standing next to a steam engine. Many residents – or even longtime visitors – know that these signs are more than just a monument to a bygone era of travel by steam trains, but they mark the locations of Alameda’s many train stations. These signs, along with the train trestle that still stands crossing the estuary at Fruitvale, are the only remaining remnants of the network of rails that once inhabited the city.

Alameda saw its first train roll into town in 1864 when the would-be Island city was little more than a collection of three settlements. However, Alameda made its mark on the railroading world when it briefly became the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. Trains making their way West would end their journey on a pier that was built out of a marsh on what would become the airfield at the Naval base in Alameda. Ferries would dock at this pier and take passengers on to San Francisco.

This honor was short lived, however. When the Central Pacific Railroad completed its pier in Oakland a short two months later – on November 8, 1869 – to carry passengers across the bay to San Francisco, Alameda was once again relegated to being a backwater of Bay Area rail traffic. Trains in Alameda became more like the end of the line commuter service, not a stop along the path of the nation’s greatest railroad project.

This was not the end of the railroad in Alameda, however. The Central Pacific owned the Transcontinental Railroad in the San Francisco Bay Area along with the ferry terminal that was the end of the line. Fifteen years after the Central Pacific abandoned its ferry terminal in Alameda, the South Pacific Coast Railroad (Southern Pacific) rebuilt the pier that would once again serve as a ferry terminal to take passengers across the bay to San Francisco. This ferry terminal burned down in 1902, but was promptly rebuilt the next year to resume ferry service to San Francisco until the Bay Bridge was completed and began to replace the multitude of ferry services on the bay.

By 1911, Alameda had well more than 100 trains passing through the city each day. At the end of this year, the transition was made from steam trains to electric. While this was more environmentally sound, it put a strain on the railroads’ pocketbook. With rising costs and technological advances in alternative transportation, the age of railroads began to come to an end in Alameda. While passenger trains would cease operation in Alameda by the beginning of World War II, freight trains would continue to roll down Alameda’s streets until 1998.

So the next time you are out and about in the great city of Alameda and you see one of the many station signs that adorn Alameda neighborhoods, remember that Alameda was once a bustling center for railroad transportation during the height of one of the most romantic periods of travel in the nations history.


Submitted by Jim Pruitt and ... on Fri, Oct 25, 2013

Thanks for the article. It is very interesting. By the way, on the corner of Webster and Lincoln is a commemoration of Alameda's one-time status as the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. It was placed there about sixty years ago by the Native Sons of the Golden West.

Submitted by old native (not verified) on Fri, Oct 25, 2013

My grandfather would catch the train at Lincoln and Broadway and ride it to the "Mole", where he would hop on a ferry to San Francisco during the first half of the twentieth century.

Submitted by New Alamedan (not verified) on Fri, Nov 1, 2013

Great article!