River City Depots
A brief history of depots in the River City, 1856-1910

When railroad historians and enthusiasts think of passenger stations, often their interests are limited to specific types and timeframes. This shouldn't seem too surprising given the fact that most of us have a favorite railroad and are drawn to specific types of architecture. Too, numerous communities saw their depots vanish decades ago; thus many modern-day Americans aren't even aware of the fact their towns ever had railroad passenger stations.

This situation is repeated in Sacramento. Here, at least seven different structures (four of them related to the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads) have served passengers for the myriad lines once operating within city limits since the mid-1850s. Unlike many American cities, however, Sacramento is blessed with the survival of two grand 20th-century depots plus a third, reconstructed 19th-century station.

Among these, the Amtrak (former Southern Pacific) station is currently receiving attention due to increased passenger traffic related to the successful San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento Capitol Corridor trains. Let's journey back through time now, and examine the railroad passenger depots of Sacramento and their places in history.

Early Stations
The Sacramento Valley Rail Road was California's first, running from Sacramento to Folsom and opened as a through route on the first day of 1856. Both freight and passenger trains departed from the Sacramento River waterfront, near Front and "L" streets. At first, patrons may have just waited around for the train and paid their fare to the conductor once they stepped aboard. Within a matter of weeks or months, a large, roofed structure with open sides (probably for handling freight and packages) and a ticket counter in one corner was completed at Front and "L" streets. A separate, enclosed passenger depot appears to have never existed.

Thus, the lack of a formal depot in Sacramento is entirely plausible in the late 1850s and early 1860s; enclosed passenger stations had begun appearing along America's existing railroads only a decade or so earlier. The Central Pacific Railroad could boast little better when it started building east from Sacramento in 1863. The company's first trains operated for the benefit of construction materials and crews, not the public. Within a year, once rails had reached to "Junction" (today known as Roseville), the CP's first scheduled passenger train was run.

Of the company's early situation, early CP/SP historian David L. Joslyn noted in his 1948 history of the Sacramento Shops that "The [Central Pacific] railroad had no shops, few tools, and only several miles of track ready for the reception of motive power. In fact, the biggest building they owned was a small tool house on the levee. This was later used as the first ticket office for the road. The little building stood there on the levee near the foot of I Street until…it was demolished."

The Sacramento Valley Rail Road was acquired by CP in August 1865. Central Pacific trains may have called at the SVRR's old freight shed depot near Front and "L" Streets for the next year, although by 1866 a small, purpose-built passenger depot had been erected near the foot of "J" Street. The railroad's owners knew this could not handle the expected traffic, especially since completion of the Transcontinental Railroad was imminent.

Front and "J" Streets
The following excerpt from the Sacramento Union of August 27, 1867, tells of the inception of what we today know as the Central Pacific Railroad Passenger Station in Old Sacramento, reconstructed in 1976 as the first portion of the California State Railroad Museum complex:

"Board of Trustees-…Application was made by Mark Hopkins, on behalf of the Central Pacific Railroad Company, for permission to erect a one story frame depot building, seventy-five feet wide by two hundred feet long on the west side of Front Street, between I and J streets. Objection by James Carolin and others was on file. After considering the matter, the application was unanimously granted on the condition that the east line of the roof shall not extend further east than the east line of the present platform on the north of the present passenger depot building." A week later, Charles Crocker asked the board for an amendment allowing the roof to protrude ten feet further east; the Union noted that "his request was politely granted."

This "one story frame depot" was just that for the first year. Then, on October 2, 1868, the Sacramento Union reported that the "Central Pacific Railroad made application for permission to erect an open shed thirty by seventy-five feet on the north end of the passenger depot, which was granted unanimously." At this juncture, the depot began to take on an appearance that closely resembles the impressive, rambling structure found today along the Sacramento waterfront.

Articles in the Union during 1868 and 1869 tell of other changes in the depot's vicinity. Arriving travelers were apparently subjected to a barrage of "runners, hackmen, or other parties" soliciting business for their carriages, local hotels, and the like; in response, the railroad issued regulations limiting access to the platform so that "passengers will have a chance to catch their breath after emerging from the cars before running the Jehu gauntlet." Shortly after this announcement, a fence was extended around the entire depot area "with a view to keeping hackmen, runners, porters, and a large crowd generally at a sufficient distance" from train passengers.

In February 1870, the Sacramento Union noted that workers were busy making yet another addition to the depot. This time around, they were "enclosing a small space, to be kept as a refreshment stand. It is understood that special officer J. W. Biderman will run the institution." (The Silver Palace Restaurant today occupies this general area in the reconstructed depot.) By July, workers were "fitting up rooms north of the restaurant for offices of the Assistant and Division Superintendents and for a telegraph office. The old apartments at present occupied for that purpose are to be turned into a waiting room for ladies."

The final addition to the building appears to have been made in 1873; a baggage room located at the north end of the structure. In the interim, the wood roof of the depot had caught fire several times; although disaster had appeared imminent, the flames were doused before serious damage occurred. Regardless, the depot was the center of life in Sacramento as elsewhere. By the mid-1870s, horse-drawn streetcars even trundled along Front Street past the depot, transporting Central Pacific Railroad passengers to and from Sacramento's hotels and other business establishments.

Acquisition in 1869 of the (first) Western Pacific Railroad assured CP of an all-rail route to the Bay Area via Stockton, Tracy, Altamont Pass, Niles Canyon, and San Jose. A year later the California Pacific Railroad arrived in Sacramento from Vallejo, crossing the Sacramento River via a large, wood truss bridge near the location of today's "I" Street bridge. Since the "Cal-P" (as it was known) was a CP competitor, it initially did not connect with the tracks of the Central Pacific. Instead, the Cal-P built a berm just north of "I" Street (in what then was known as Sutter Slough), with a short section of track and a turntable atop the berm-but apparently no depot. The result of all this activity was increased traffic through Central Pacific's depot.

Today, the reconstructed Central Pacific Railroad Passenger Station shows what Sacramento's main overland gateway looked like in its fully developed form, circa 1876. Opened to the public a century later, during the nation's Bicentennial, the rebuilt depot (along with the restoration of Old Sacramento) stands proudly as a part of California's largest historic redevelopment project. Interestingly, today's structure has served CSRM longer than the original structure did for CP.

Arcade Station
By the late 1870s, Sacramento had become a "rail crossroads" for the Central Pacific/Southern Pacific Railroad system. The Big Four's expanding rail network encompassed lines running north-south and east-west through California, intersecting in the state's Capital City. As passenger traffic overtaxed the CP's Front Street depot, the railroad made plans to erect an entirely new structure by filling in what was left of Sutter Slough, in the area bounded roughly by "G", "I", Front and Third streets.

Known as Arcade Station, this new "through" depot involved a complete reworking of trackage; trains would be able to arrive and depart without the constant need for back-up movements or other switching, as had been the case before this time in the stub-end depot on Front Street. Thomas Thompson and Albert West, in their History of Sacramento County, 1880, went so far as to suggest that the building would be able to accommodate "all the passenger business likely to come to Sacramento for all time," although this assertion would ultimately prove in error.

The new Arcade Station was described by Thompson and West in glowing terms, and touted as the finest building of its kind west of Omaha. "The general style of the building is Gothic and its architectural appearance is impressive and beautiful. It consists of a central pile of buildings, a portion being two stories in hight [sic], faced by a depot arcade or sheltered avenue, seventy feet wide and 414 feet long. This arcade contains the tracks on which the different trains enter and leave the depot. The roof of this portion is corrugated iron. The pile of buildings referred to is 164 feet long."

The detailed description goes on to tell of the ticket office; separate ladies' and mens' sitting rooms, furnished with "marble wash-basins, mirrors, and other conveniences;" a dining room and bar room; telegraph office, baggage room, and upstairs offices for a number of high-level railroad officers. "The dining room is an especially fine one," opined the authors. Their five-paragraph description of Arcade Station concluded that "The premises are well ventilated and lighted and have been constructed with the especial view of arranging everything for the comfort and convenience of the traveling public and the officers and employees of the Company."

Arcade Station served its purpose well through the last decades of the 19th century. Served at first by horse-drawn streetcars and later by electric trolleys, the depot was a source of local pride for its first 20 years. Its distinctive architecture and wooden construction unfortunately were not well-suited to changing operating needs and cultural tastes, however. As time marched on, the depot seemed more of a monument to the Victorian age than a suitable gateway to California's Capital City.

As early as 1908, according to several articles in the Sacramento Bee, city leaders and merchants began pressuring the conservative CP/SP management both locally and in San Francisco, the company's headquarters to fund a replacement for the now-unstylish Gothic depot. Convinced that the structure was severely outdated in terms of design, function, and location, citizen committees harangued the railroad, to little avail, in the years leading up to the United States' entry into World War I. The Southern Pacific finally conceded that it was time to look into the matter shortly before the United States Railroad Administration nationalized America's railroads dashing any such plans for years.

Seeds of Discontent
Probable cause for this local "depot discontent' was completion in 1910 of a new Sacramento depot by the Western Pacific Railroad (the second railroad to hold this name in California). This newly completed transcontinental line was affiliated with the Denver & Rio Grande Western and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroads in order to reach Chicago. It erected a fine, modern Mission Revival depot, designed by the firm of Willis Polk one of California's most distinguished architects between 19th and 20th, "I" and "J" streets. The new railroad and its depot opened to considerable local fanfare because of the simple reason that the WP was not controlled by the Central Pacific/Southern Pacific railroads, and thus competition seemed likely.

In order to complete its Oakland-Feather River Canyon-Salt Lake City main line via Sacramento, the Western Pacific purchased considerable property running directly through the heart of the city's main residential district. A number of grand 19th-century houses had to be demolished to make way for the tracks and the railroad's new Sacramento depot. In service through the demise of WP's famed California Zephyr streamliner, the depot lay dormant for several years until its 1970s sale and conversion into a restaurant.

Today this gracious structure survives in its original location, converted into one of many nationwide Old Spaghetti Factory restaurants. The distinctive Mission Revival styling has been maintained and even embellished inside and out, with the former open-arch train platform enclosed as the establishment's bar. A popular spot for residents and tourists, the depot remains a wonderful train-watching location situated alongside the Union Pacific Railroad's former WP main line in the heart of California's Capital City.

More Information

The story continues from 1910 to today in: