Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Passenger Trains


At the turn of the twentieth century there were passengers train service to, it seems, just about everywhere. Cities and towns of just about any reasonable size had some type of passenger train service. When the age of electric railways dawned after 1900, passenger trains increased greatly. This was the time prior to the National Highway System and train travel, whether long distance or short line was the primary way people got around.

danville california train depot
Danville CA SP Train Station, 1890's
The Museum of the San Ramon Valley

The Museum of the San Ramon Valley is located in Danville California at the corner of Railroad and Prospect Avenues. Danville is about a 22 mile drive east of Oakland California


The museum presents a wealth of information regarding the San Ramon Valley. Housed in the old railroad station of the Southern Pacific Railroad, each summer the museum puts together an excellent display of railroad history of the valley including the town of Danville. The station, today's museum, was built by the railroad on eight acres of land purchased from John Hartz. A hotel was constructed across the street on Railroad Avenue to provide accommodations to both railroad passengers and  SP train crews.

The Electric Trains and Danville California

The electric trains enabled efficient and dependable service for people who wanted to just travel to the next town or so up the line. Compared to the steam trains, the electric trains didn't fill the air with soot. Imagine a steam locomotive running through the center of a town. Imagine the smoke and soot put out by the boiler. The fact is, they did go through town and the SP steam locomotives operated at the same time as the electric trolleys during the first few decades of the 1900's. The electric trains were both cleaner and much quieter. This fact alone added to their immediate acceptance as a reliable interurban.

electric railcar speed control
Speed control mechanism for electric railways
One of the heaviest used electric spur lines ran a short distance from what was then a town called Saranap California south to Danville California. Today, Saranap is the the greater city of  Walnut Creek. This is in the San Francisco East Bay area east of the hills behind Oakland and Berkeley. During the early 1900's this was primarily an agricultural area. Today, it's a booming metropolis of towns and cities and freeways. The cities also serve as convenient bedroom communities to the greater San Francisco region.



Danville California was named after Daniel Inman who, along with his brother, purchased 10,000 acres of land in the area. This would have been the time of the California Gold Rush in the Sierra foothills to the east. The catalyst for the rail line down to Danville California came from the Oakland Antioch and Eastern Railway, an electric line, that ran from Oakland to Sacramento California. The line actually allowed passengers to travel straight through to San Francisco via the Key Line Ferry in Oakland. In Saranap, just outside today's Walnut Creek, a car was removed from the train and sent down the tracks to Alamo, Danville and further to  the site of Diablo Station at the foot of Mount Diablo.

electric trolley car
Early 1900's electric trolley
The Toonerville Trolley Passes Through the Center of Town

While the Southern Pacific Railroad and their steam locomotives came to Danville and the San Ramon Valley in 1891, the electric trains from the Oakland Antioch and Eastern came in 1914. This was the period when electric railroads in the U.S. were taking off. The car that served Danville from the main line in Saranap, about ten miles north,  had various names. It was at times referred to as The Alligator, The Dinky, The Riveter and The Toonerville Trolley. When the tracks were laid through the center of Danville in the early 1900's, it symbolized to many it's transition from a purely agricultural community to that of a growing town. Train car 1051, was sometimes called "The Toonerville Trolley" in reference to the comic strip of the era, "Toonerville Folks". In fact, the comic strip continued into the 1950's. The car that was used, 1051, was a converted baggage car made into an electric trolley. The trolley car and the Danville Branch rail line operated from 1914 to 1924.

After 1924, electric railways still had a future in Danville's Contra Costa County. Although not running to Danville, the Sacramento Northern served the county from 1929 to 1941. The Sacramento Northern was at that time the nation's longest interurban electric railroad. The Sacramento Northern was also the only interurban that employed a ferry boat to take the rail cars across Suisun Bay.

A Decade of Service 

In addition to the trolly's job of helping people get to their jobs in surrounding communities, the electric rail line also allowed city folk an easy way to visit the countryside. During the early 1900's, Mount Diablo just east of Danville was a very popular summer getaway for families form the big cities of San Francisco and Oakland. Many people passed through Danville on the summer weekends heading for Mount Diablo and the panoramic views seen from it's summit.

In addition to passenger service the electric trolley also hauled freight which helped the economies of the San Ramon Valley.  The Danville Branch Line operated all throughout World War One and carried workers from the San Ramon Valley all the way to the shipyards at Port Chicago to the north.

Three additional Western Trips photo articles you'll enjoy are the San Francisco Cable Cars...the Electric Streetcars of San Francisco and the old steam  Passenger Ferries of San Francisco Bay.

Another article you'll enjoy is a self-guided tour of the old railroad tracks that were built by the Central Pacific Railroad as part of the first transcontinental railroad. The following link will take you to Rails, Tales and Trails on our Western trips site.

toonerville trolley streetcar
Courtesy San Ramon Valley Museum
The End of the Line

Progress spelled the end of the Danville Branch of the Oakland Antioch and Eastern Railway. Roads were improving and buses and cars were more convenient. It's ironic that with today's heavy highway and freeway traffic and with the price of fuel, the electric railways have and still are making a dramatic comeback. The San Francisco bay Area today has the electric third rail BART system connecting most of the Bay Area and it's bedroom communities. Where BART currently does not operate, other electric train systems serve most of the other communities.

Another venue to further explore the electric railroad is located between San Francisco and Sacramento.In Solano County California you want to stop by the Western Railway Museum. In addition to a very large exhibit collection, the museum also features a ten mile ride on an electric railway car. The electric rail car ride follows the original historic main line of the Sacramento Northern Railway. The Western Railway Museum is located at 5848 State Highway 12, Suisun, CA. This is about 40 miles north/northeast of the San Francisco Bay Area. The most direct route is via Interstate 80 eastbound toward Sacramento.

(Control mechanism photo from author's private collection. Remainder of photos Courtesy of the San Ramon Valley Museum)

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