Growing up in the Santa Clara Valley, it was impossible to get through a single day without hearing the familiar whistle of a railroad train.
Los Altos came into being because the Southern Pacific railroad extended its San Francisco line to Palo Alto farther along the foothills into Los Gatos. Sarah Winchester, of Mystery House fame, owned a ranch that encompassed what is now downtown Los Altos and didn’t want her property split by train tracks. So SP purchased the entire ranch, using what it needed for the train line and developing the rest. Inaugurated in 1908, the line operated for slightly more than half a century.
“Therefore,” wrote historian Eugene Sawyer in 1922, “the orchardists of the valley have easy access to railway transportation.”
By the time Los Altos incorporated in 1952, the SP line along what is now Foothill Expressway proved popular with commuters – including World War II veterans like my father who built homes amid the apricot orchards and took the train to their offices in Palo Alto and San Francisco.
A 1947 cartoon-style map by Warren Goodrich, one of the founders of the Los Altos Town Crier, features a little railroad track with a steam train on it, poking along through the village. In the hills above town, he’s written a comic alert that cites another ancient ritual: “Warning! Keep off these roads between 7 & 7:15 a.m. – sleepy wives are driving their husbands to train.”
I found the map in my father’s things when he died in Los Altos at the age of 90 in 2010. He sent it home to Alabama long ago and, like a boomerang, it came back to him when his folks died. And then it came to me.
It made me recall the days when Dad worked in San Francisco and would walk to Rancho to catch the train. There was a little station there, though it was really just a covered redwood bench that sat just off Springer Road in front of the shopping center.
In the evening, when my sister and I were on the backyard swings and could swing high enough to see over the fence, we could spot the train chugging south, a Pufferbilly trailing its cloud of smoke. We knew Dad would soon be stepping off at the station and walking with his long stride the 9/10ths of a mile home. It was time to go in and wash up for supper.
The big Los Altos station was downtown at 316 Main St., a beautiful 1913 Craftsman building, now a historical landmark and home to Voyageur du Temps restaurant. There was another station at Loyola Corners, which, thanks to the train, developed into its own unique district. Steps from the station there was a cocktail lounge, The Echo. Maybe you could hear the train whistle echoing down the valley from there. Mostly, it was a place a lot of commuters stopped for refueling.
These real train days of sweet Los Altos memory are celebrated in the upcoming eighth annual “Train Days,” scheduled 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Los Altos History Museum, 51 S. San Antonio Road. Event chairwoman Kristen Fuller arranged a display of model trains from all over California to salute an age when the railroads played a key role in the life of the West. It’s a time when I look back and still see my father, forever young, hopping on the old SP in the little town he loved.
Robin Chapman is a local writer and author of “California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley” (History Press, 2013).