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South Pacific Coast Narrow-Gauge Railroad Once Traversed Alameda

Trains ran the length of Encinal Avenue.

On December 2, 1877, the first South Pacific Coast Railroad train rolled through Alameda, nothing serious yet, a test run on the newly laid narrow-gauge tracks along Encinal Avenue from High Street to Park Street. The run capped off almost five months of work that included laying four miles of track from Alameda Point — about where Bay Ship & Yacht stands today — south on modern-day Main Street and then east on today’s Central and Encinal avenues.

Alameda Post - South Coast Pacific Railroad locomotive crosses San Leandro Bay
A South Pacific Coast Railroad locomotive makes its way across San Leandro Bay. The West End Wharf had no turntable and locomotives were unable to turn around. This required the locomotives to pull their cars “in reverse” as this one is doing. Notice the lamp on the coal tender. Photo Alameda Museum.

A South Pacific Coast subsidiary, the Bay and Coast Railroad, built the line north from Newark to Alameda Point. To accommodate these trains, Bay and Coast built a swing bridge across San Leandro Bay and the adjoining marshland. The bridge’s western anchor stood near the shoreline at today’s Fernside Boulevard and Encinal Avenue (the land east of Encinal did not exist at the time). The bridge swung open to accommodate boat traffic, mostly scow schooners and barges that traveled to Clark’s Landing and Damon’s Landing, both located near today’s Oakland Coliseum.

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Bay and Coast also built the “West End Wharf,” — actually a pair of 1,000-foot-long wharves, one for freight, the other for passengers — on the old shoreline near where today’s Main Street swings west near the ferry terminal. As you drive west on Main Street past the traffic light at the ferry terminal, you might imagine yourself on a wharf with nothing but bay water beneath you.

On March 20, 1878, just three months after that trial run on Encinal Avenue, service officially began from Park Street to Los Gatos. Locals road the trains for free, a deliberate move by SPC owners James Fair and Alfred Davis. Central Pacific Railroad trains also ran through town on today’s Lincoln Avenue; they charged a nickel for a local trip.

Alameda Post - Central Pacific Railroad on Encinal Avenue
This narrow-gauge locomotive is traveling westbound on Encinal Avenue. The home on the left still stands, as does the building in the background at Encinal Avenue and High Street. The smoke pouring from the stack means that the fireman aboard was not doing his job properly. It was his responsibility to control the locomotive’s exhaust to prevent this from happening. Photo Roy D. Graves Collection.

At first, SPC trains stopped at High Street, Versailles Avenue and Park Street. Fair and Davis built a hotel at Park Street at the site of today’s Alameda Fire Department’s Station No. 1. Over the next few months SPC train stops stretched west to the wharves. In South Pacific Coast, Bruce McGregor describes the progress. He writes that the railroad gradually opened stations at Chestnut, Morton, Webster and Fifth streets.

In the summer of 1879, the railroad completed work on the wharves. Work crews also completed the trestle out over the water on modern-day Central Avenue from today’s Fourth Street to Main Street and along Main over the marshland to the wharves.

The construction of the wharves took two years. The Central Pacific Railroad watched nervously as its rival poured fill onto the marshland MacGregor tells us that the fill came from a 2,000-foot-long strip of bay that later served as the approach for the ferries Bay City and Garden City.

Alameda Post - South Pacific Coast Railroad map
The South Pacific Coast Railroad and other railroad lines in Alameda in the late 19th Century. Map Adam Gillitt.

As soon as the railroad completed construction, the two ferries began carrying passengers and freight to San Francisco from the West End Wharf. This wharf with its massive buildings served the narrow gauge as its long-range passenger and freight headquarters. The railroad even required that conductors set their watches to coincide with the clock at the West End Wharf.

The Bay City, named for San Francisco, and the Garden City, named for San Jose, increased the both the frequency and reliability of carrying passengers and freight to San Francisco. The main deck of the Garden City had narrow-gauge rails to transport locomotives and freight to and from San Francisco. This put SPC in direct competition with the broad-gauge rival, the Central Pacific Railroad.

MacGregor tells us that the railroad built a rail yard and station at High Street to accommodate local trains. At two-stall engine shed housed a pair of Baldwin locomotives, while passenger cars stood at the ready on adjoining sidings. By 1888, thirty-three local trains were running through Alameda on a daily basis.

MacGregor relates the story of Wally Miracle, a young man who worked at the High Street rail yards. The railroad hired him as a pump-tender, operating the water pump on the trains that arrived at the High Street Station. Miracle had other duties as well. These included tending the San Leandro Bay drawbridge. Boats signaled with a horn that they needed the bridge opened. The signal would send Wally scurrying east along the track and out onto the bridge, where he turned the crank that swung the bridge open so the boats could pass.

Five years after the West End Wharf opened, the South Pacific Coast extended its pier two and one-half miles northwest to deeper water. The tracks carried trains on a stone-based wharf called a mole to a state-of-the-art ferry terminal that opened on March 15, 1884. The 1884 ferry terminal burned in 1902. The Southern Pacific Railroad owned the South Pacific Coast by then. They quickly replaced the smoldering wharf with a modern one.

Alameda Post - Central Pacific Railroad dwarfs South Coast Pacific Railroad trains
The Central Pacific Railroad once rolled through Alameda on standard-gauge tracks along today’s Lincoln Avenue. The South Pacific Coast Railroad trains used narrow-gauge tracks when they traveled on today’s Encinal and Central avenues. Standard gauge measures 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches wide, while narrow gauge comes in at 3 feet wide. The South Pacific Coast Railroad chose narrow gauge because their trains traveled from Alameda to Santa Cruz, using tunnels to negotiate the Santa Cruz Mountains. The difference in size, evident in this photograph, made the job of carving those tunnels less expensive. Wikimedia photo

In 1906 the old South Pacific Coast’s narrow-gauge inventory included 23 locomotives, 85 passenger cars and 500 freight cars. The transition to standard gauge began on April 18, 1906, a date that coincided with the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. The tracks in Alameda could only be used for local service after being isolated by the temblor. The SP electrified this line in 1911.

South Pacific’s Alameda terminal survived until ferry service was discontinued in 1939. “The ferry was abandoned in the early hours of January 15, 1939,” George Woodman Hilton wrote in American Narrow Gauge Railroads. The following year the Navy demolished the terminal to make way for the runways at its new air station. Trains ran along Encinal for a just two more years.

The Big Reds had been running through Alameda on SP’s electrified lines. They operated as part of the East Bay Electric Lines until January 18, 1941, when the right of way that had carried trains for sixty-four years finally went silent. We will cover their story another time.

Dennis Evanosky is an award-winning East Bay historian and the Editor of the Alameda Post. His grandfather worked as a fireman tending the boilers on locomotives for the Erie Lackawanna Railroad in Pennsylvania. Dennis carried on the tradition, He once worked as Gandy dancer (a track-hand) for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in Maryland. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at

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