Riding the Rails
A Tour of Alameda's Historic Train Stations Offers a Glimpse Into the Past
By Susan E. Davis
Old-timers like to say that Alameda’s traffic never used to be the way it is now, what with the backups on Park Street, the snarls at the Alameda Towne Centre and the jams at the Tube each morning. And mass transit advocates like to say that the secret to managing the burgeoning traffic problems here (as well as to making the city safer for pedestrians and bicyclists) is to run more buses.
But what a lot of people don’t know is that a model for better transit already exists. More than 100 years ago, Alameda had a tightly woven network of streetcars that criss-crossed the Island and moved thousands of people daily. The stations for those trains, built by three separate companies between 1860 and 1890, gave rise to small commercial and residential districts along Lincoln and Encinal avenues. In Alameda, in fact, the word “station” still refers to the neighborhood, as well as the actual train depot.
The stations are no longer there, but evidence of their existence—and influence—remains. Read on for a guided tour of Alameda’s historic train stations.
Bay StationLocation: Lincoln Avenue and Bay Street
History: The Central Pacific Railroad, which bought out the SF&A line in 1869, constructed the Bay Station at the request of Nathaniel Page, who owned an estate that was bordered by Lincoln Avenue, Pacific Avenue, Bay Street and Sherman Street. The station, just across the street from his villa, prompted a rapid growth of both commercial and residential development in the area (especially after Page subdivided his estate several years later). Within 30 years, in fact, the 1200 block of Lincoln contained more than a dozen business buildings that housed offices and other commercial establishments.
Look for: The Sommer Building, at 1220–1226 Lincoln Ave., which was designed by architect Joseph Leonard and originally housed a grocery store, liquor store, saloon and upstairs residences.
Trivia Point: The tiny stucco building with the tiled roof that sits adjacent to the Royal Motors garage was built in 1933 as a gas station.
Morton StationLocation: South side of Encinal Avenue, between Morton Street and Benton Street
History: This was the train station for the wealthy neighborhood we now call the Gold Coast. Built in the Queen Anne style, it was designed by architect A.W. Pattiani, who also designed residences on that same block.
Look for: 1420 Encinal Ave., which used to sport beautiful rows of tiles in front, most of which have now been covered up. The store was designed by Kent & Hass; Andrew Hass lived on Palmera Court.
Trivia Point: The Lewis Market was an early Bay Area “foodie” spot, selling gourmet items to residents in the nearby neighborhood.
Chestnut StationLocation: South side of Encinal Avenue, between Chestnut Street and Lafayette Street
History: Built in 1879, the Chestnut Station spurred the creation of the Notre Dame Academy, a Catholic girls’ school, on the site of the current St. Joseph Notre Dame High School. Leonardville—a wealthier neighborhood of some 70 houses designed and built by architect Joseph Leonard—also grew up in this area. (Leonard, in fact, designed and donated land for a new, fancier station in 1890.) Businesses attracted to the area included a small notions store built by Elizabeth Putznam (at the southwest corner of Chestnut Street and Encinal Avenue), a meat market, a barbershop and a laundry.
Look for: The Putznam Building (1910½–1916 Encinal Ave.) still stands, as does the grocer’s building (1900–1910 Encinal Ave.).
Trivia Point: Many of the residents of Leonardville took the train from the Chestnut Street station to the “Alameda Pier,” from which ferries left for San Francisco. By 1882, the South Pacific Coast Railroad had built a 13,000-foot trestle into the Bay to get to the ferries.
Caroline StationLocation: Central Avenue at Weber Street
History: Southern Pacific moved its first Morton Station to the Weber Street location in 1889. No one is exactly sure why this station was named “Caroline” rather than “Weber,” but one theory is that it was named for Caroline Chipman Dwinelle, who originally owned the nearby Encinal Tract and commissioned at least one commercial building in the neighborhood. Eventually this station included about a dozen businesses.
Look for: The building that housed the station is at 928 Central Ave. (now a travel agency). You can also see Dwinelle’s 1895 building, on the southwest corner of Encinal and Weber, although it’s been stuccoed over.
Trivia Point: Caroline Street is named for Caroline Chipman Dwinelle.
Mastick StationLocation: South side of Lincoln Avenue, near Ninth Street
History: Established in 1864, the original Mastick Station stood just outside the gates of attorney Edwin B. Mastick’s 35-acre estate. Mastick, as it so happens, was the director of the San Francisco & Alameda Railroad, which ran west to east across the Island and then down into Hayward. In 1891, SF&A built a new station just a block farther west on Lincoln. That new structure included a flared roof and a turret and inspired a small shopping district—including the Wheeler & Relfe feed and fuel yard—near what is now 839–841 Lincoln Ave.
Look for: The building on the northeast corner of Eighth Street and Lincoln Avenue, which now holds Ralph’s Market and was built as a grocery store in 1878.
Trivia Point: The building at 838–841 Lincoln Street was originally erected as a barbershop for barber Lorenzo Fillipelli.
Grand StationLocation: Corner of Lincoln Avenue and Grand Street
History: The first Grand Street Station (built in 1864) was identical to the Mastick Station. But the second Grand Street Station, built in 1910, was more of an alcove shelter than a full-fledged station. More than a half-dozen commercial buildings—as well as new houses—had sprung up in this neighborhood by this time, including Fassking’s Garden, which offered a hotel, a dance pavilion and live performances.
Look for: The two-story building at 1712 Lincoln Ave. (which now houses the Gaslight Emporium) was built right at the turn of the century; the Mission Revival building at 1700–1710 Lincoln was built for Charles C. Boynton, a bank director in town. The word “Grand” is still spelled out in brass letters in front of 1710 Lincoln Ave.
Trivia Point: Fassking’s Hotel was cut in half in the 1890s and moved to 1909–1911 Stanford Street, where it was put back together again.
Versailles StationLocation: Encinal Avenue at Versailles Avenue
History: Like the High Street Station just five blocks to the west, the Versailles Station was a modest building. Its commercial district grew slowly, however, with the primary businesses being a grocery store (on the northwest corner of Versailles and Encinal avenues, where the Good, Better, Best antique store now stands) and a large steam laundry on the northeast corner. But the long stretches of bungalow neighborhoods extending south from Encinal Avenue (on Pearl Street, Mound Street and Versailles Avenue) were triggered by the development of the Versailles Station.
Look for: Both 2707 and 2807 Encinal Ave. are in their original 1924 condition.
Trivia Point: The building where The Clock Shop is today (2707 Encinal Ave.) was originally a grocery store. The shopkeeper lived upstairs.
Willow StationLocation: Lincoln Avenue and Willow Street
History: Built in 1879, the Willow Street station (which had a flared roof and turret) eventually prompted the construction of more than a dozen buildings and 15 separate businesses in the neighborhood.
Look for: The storefront at 2045 Lincoln Ave., which was built in 1913.
Trivia Point: Lincoln Avenue used to be called Railroad Avenue, because it carried the standard-gauge trains of the San Francisco & Alameda Railroad.
High Street StationLocation: Encinal Avenue at High Street
History: The High Street Station was a key one in Alameda. It was the first station opened east of Park Street, and it spurred a whole wave of residential and commercial growth in that area. As the first station approached by passengers entering Alameda on the narrow-gauge South Pacific Coast Railroad line from San Leandro, the High Street Station was also an important gateway to the city, despite its modest design and proportions.
Look for: The building that now houses the Crosstown Coffee Shop used to be the Hotel Encinal; the building at 1238–1240 High Street (now used by a chiropractor) was built in 1891 and housed a grocery store.
Trivia Point: It was the development of electric train service through the Fernside District in 1911 (by another railroad company, Southern Pacific) that sparked the construction of hundreds of homes in the East End.
Fifth Street StationLocation: South Side of Encinal Avenue at Fifth Street
History: This tiny shelter served tourists heading to the bathing resorts along Central Avenue, including Sunny Cove Baths, Green Arbor Baths and Sandy Beach. Business development around the station never really took off, save for a handful of businesses in the immediate vicinity.
Look for: The two-story building at 500 Central Ave. was brought over from San Francisco by boat and was originally owned by a ferryboat fireman. The ground floor was converted into a train station in 1906, to replace the original shelter. The building housed a barbershop for many decades; it is now empty, but you can see the arched opening that once led to the station’s waiting room.
Trivia Point: The Croll Building at Webster Street and Central Avenue used to serve as the Neptune Beach stop on the South Pacific Coast Railroad.