LAFAYETTE -- Rockridge resident Stuart Swiedler travels on foot and by bicycle along the long-lost, now-obscured tracks of the old Sacramento Northern Railroad, wondering and wishing for a ride on the "Alabama" or the "Comet."
"I'd give my kingdom for a ride on those trains," he told an audience at a Lafayette Historical Society forum at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center on Aug. 14.
Swiedler has given his intellectual (if not actual) kingdom to the pursuit of archiving and sharing the pictorial history of the unique transportation corridor that, into the mid-20th century, connected Contra Costa and Alameda Counties with Sacramento and Chico. An avid runner and biomedical scientist, Swiedler's curiosity was piqued by the backyards of houses he saw while running along Walnut Creek's Olympic Boulevard.
"The houses face away from the street. I wondered, why is that?" he said.
The question led him to Caltrans, 1950s Oakland City Planning notes and electric and railroad company archives, Bay Area historical societies -- and to photographers, historians, families and friends. Swiedler has nearly 2,000 images he plans to publish on the website he has created, eastbayhillsproject.org. Already, approximately 900 images tell the story of how the "Sac North" expressed colossal influence as an interurban railroad.
"In 1910, if you wanted to take the train from San Francisco to Danville or Walnut Creek, how long would it take?' he asked. "It was 48 miles and three transfers, because the trains went below the hills or outside the outer edges of Contra Costa County."
But the new railroad, which underwent numerous incarnations as the "Oakland Antioch and Eastern," "San Ramon Valley," and "San Francisco Sacramento" railroad before becoming the "Sacramento Northern" in 1929, shortened the trip to 28 miles. To achieve geographical economy, a massive works project began. Eventually, it determined the topography of the East Bay hills, and impacted electricity, water, parks, roads and bridges, building construction, new agricultural products, education, manufacturing, transportation and finally, the area's World War II and Korean War preparations.
Comparing the difficulty of his task to carving elephants in stone without a visual reference, Swiedler's presentation whirled through time -- from the railroad's short Bay Point to Lafayette branch of 1911 to the full flush of power in the 1940s to its demise in 1964, when he said it was finally "gobbled up and the right-of-way handed over to BART." Highlights along the way, made significant through still-recognizable landmarks that had the audience responding audibly, formed a narrative of life in the early part of the last century.
Trestle bridges over Lake Temescal, tracks carved through Shepherd Canyon that required two years to complete due to the amount of dirt moved, and a 3,200 foot, 1.9-percent grade downhill passage into the Canyon area were completed in 1913. Expanding eastward, there were three tunnels and four station stops to reach Moraga before "smooth sailing" and a few cuts took the trains through Walnut Creek, Concord and a 1,600-foot trench to arrive in West Pittsburg.
Electrical power came from the Great Western Power Company -- 16,000 volts were needed. "It was a bear," Swiedler said. Alternating current (AC) power had to be converted to direct current (DC) and portable power stations dotted the line. Swiedler showed the Lafayette power station--now the Moraga pumping plant--and made a suggestion: "Look for the little thing that looks like a grave marker; that's the old station."
Highway 24, Highway 13, Interstate 680 and other freeways were built, but others -- including a six-lane freeway from Park Boulevard to Miramonte High School and through Moraga and Rossmoor -- were quashed. Surprisingly, walnut groves and pear orchards largely withstood postwar development. Swiedler said that was due to homeowners who'd lived through artillery -- and tank-bearing rail cars, rumbling past their doors on Shafter Avenue in Oakland and Olympic Boulevard in Walnut Creek.
Competitors to SN arrived in the form of "steam railroad company bullies" like the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads.
"The Sac Northern lost the steel company that was their best customer in 1930. That eventually shut them down," he said. Passenger rail ended in 1941 and freight service between Oakland/Emeryville and West Lafayette came to a stop on Feb 28, 1957. The entire line was "de-electrified," although a diesel operation continued in Concord and Walnut Creek until the BART takeover in the '60s. The BART line through Concord and Walnut Creek north of downtown are on the old SN right of way.
Similarly, much of the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail is built upon the old SN right-of-way through Lafayette and Moraga.
The Sacramento Northern's final activity along a short, northeast leg near Pittsburg -- primarily freight service for the Concord Naval Weapons Station and a small Bay Point steel plant -- ended in the 1980s; a short stretch of track remains in place in and around Bay Point.
Swiedler plans to continue his presentations, add images and information to his website, look at the ground and never forget: "There used to be a railroad here."