Peninsular

The Peninsular Railroad’s Car No. 102, above, has a card in the window that says “Flyer,” so it was likely used for direct commuting. The banner advertises Congress Springs, now a Saratoga park. 

If we look back on the transition from the horse to horsepower, chances are we imagine America put the horse out to pasture and hopped into a Ford. In fact, there was a very modern step in between, and it is one that might surprise today’s denizens of Silicon Valley.

In the early 20th century, with the machines of the Industrial Revolution everywhere in California, roads were nevertheless unpaved and automobiles still too costly for the average family. So, the Santa Clara Valley became an early adopter of a transportation innovation: the electric, interurban railroad.

The first Santa Clara Valley line began construction in 1902 as the San Jose-Los Gatos Interurban, featuring overhead trolleys to deliver the electric power. It began service in 1903 and was soon joined by two more lines. In 1909, the Southern Pacific Railroad – while still operating its own steam-powered trains – purchased the three interurban companies and joined them together as the Peninsular Railroad, under the management of Paul Shoup. In 1910, he expanded the Peninsular to include service to Los Altos, Palo Alto, Stanford University and Ravenswood. In Los Altos, the interurban line ran parallel to the SP tracks along what is now Foothill Expressway.

Eventually, there were 81 miles of track with hourly service around the valley on a system that carried mostly passengers, but also some freight. For a dime, you could travel from Saratoga to Los Gatos, or Cupertino to Los Altos. A longer trip – from Los Altos to San Jose, for example – might cost as much as 55 cents.

The electricity came from a main plant in San Jose, with substations in north San Jose, Saratoga and Los Altos. The building that held the Los Altos substation was on First Street and had a second life in the 1950s as the Los Altos Public Library.

Riding the ‘Big Red’

The Peninsular rail cars were made of wood and painted a deep red, so the line was sometimes called the “Big Red.” Some of the cars featured clerestory roofs with windows that brought in the California sunshine.

“It was really a beautiful line,” said historian Ray Cosyn, who has studied it extensively. “And it was representative of what was happening across the country at that time.”

By 1919, Cosyn added, there were 10,000 interurban railway cars in use in the U.S. and 18,000 miles of interurban track. Most of the lines were privately funded by investors who bought stock in the

companies.

To sell tickets, the Peninsular created a stop at Congress Springs, near Saratoga, where there was a park and a hotel. In the spring, when the beauty of the valley’s orchards was at its peak, the Peninsular advertised a scenic ride that wended its way through the blossoms.

“The greatest of deciduous fruit sections with entrancing valley, foothill, and mountain views,” said a Peninsular ad from that era.

Tourists descended on the valley with picnic baskets and hopped off the line – uninvited – to dine in the orchards. In an unpublished memoir in the archives of the Los Altos History Museum, one resident recalled those scenic tours because, she said, the picnickers often left behind their litter. She remembered her father grumbling as he picked it up from their orchard.

A portion of El Camino Real was paved along the Peninsula in 1912 – the first paved road in California. As paving increased and mass production decreased the cost of the automobile, interurban ticket sales declined. The Great Depression of the 1930s dealt another blow and, in 1934, the Peninsular Railway shut down.

Two cars from the Peninsular have been preserved at Solano County’s Western Railway Museum. One of them, car No. 52 – with a clerestory roof – has been fully restored and is in use for transporting visitors.

If you love the idea of electric technology, California innovation and startup companies funded by investors, this is the ticket for you. Visit to see the past’s take on the future and catch one more ride on the “Big Red.”

The Western Railway Museum, located at 5848 State Highway 12 in Suisun City, is newly reopened following the pandemic. Summer hours are 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. For more information, visit wrm.org.

Los Altos native Robin Chapman is a longtime journalist, author and historian.