By William Burg Photo from Author’s collection
On August 21, 2010, Sacramento’s Western Pacific passenger depot at 1910 J Street marks 100 years since the arrival of its first passenger train. On that day a century ago, the Western Pacific Railroad began passenger operations in Sacramento, on its route between Salt Lake City, Utah and Oakland, California. The tracks next to the depot are still in use by Union Pacific freight trains, but the depot is better known for spaghetti dinners than its historic role as Sacramento’s other passenger railroad depot.
Western Pacific, the last of America’s transcontinental railroads, was the western link of three roads all owned by financier George Jay Gould. Combined with the Denver & Rio Grande Western from Salt Lake City to Denver, and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy from Denver to Chicago, they competed directly with the giant Southern Pacific, breaking SP’s monopoly on northern California railroad traffic. Sacramentans welcomed the arrival of the Western Pacific, despite the disruption of a railroad that ran through the center of town. Since 1865, Sacramento had been a one-railroad city, economically dominated by Southern Pacific’s empire. Thousands of Sacramentans worked in the shops and on the railroad. Every product made in Sacramento bound for destinations outside the state, and every passenger entering or leaving northern California, rode on Southern Pacific trains or riverboats.
The arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in Los Angeles in 1884 spurred an enormous southern California real estate boom, and AT&SF’s arrival in San Francisco via the San Francisco & San Joaquin Valley Railroad in 1896 promoted growth in the Bay Area. Western Pacific investors and Sacramentans eager to see the same sort of growth come to Sacramento lobbied the city to permit railroad right-of-way between 19th and 20th Street. Sacramento’s city government, strongly influenced by Southern Pacific corporate policy, resisted at first but eventually relented. The era of political reform and anti-monopoly sentiment may have encouraged the city to accept this new competitor despite SP’s influence. However, Progressive regulatory reform also limited the railroad rate wars that fed Los Angeles’ enormous 1880s housing bubble. Sacramento grew because of the Western Pacific, but not to the extent seen in Los Angeles or the Bay Area.
The depot was designed by Willis Polk, an architect of the D. H. Burnham Company of Chicago. Polk later established his own firm in San Francisco, designing two other Sacramento buildings (the D.O. Mills Bank and the PG&E Powerhouse) and many more throughout the Bay Area, becoming one of northern California’s premier architects. The contractor was the Ransome Company of Emeryville, who built the 3rd Street depot in Oakland, also designed by Polk. The Western Pacific depot is one of Sacramento’s finest examples of the Mission Revival style, with deeply recessed quatrefoils in the gable ends, a clay tile roof, and broad arcades to shelter passengers from both rain and sun.
The building was completed in 1909, the same year that the Western Pacific began freight service, but passenger service had to wait until other facilities were complete. In the same year, Western Pacific built a freight depot, also in Mission Revival style, near 3rd Street in the alley between Q and R. Called “Whitney Avenue” and running parallel to the old SVRR/Southern Pacific R Street line, this alley railroad served WP freight customers between their main line and the waterfront. Today it carries Regional Transit light rail trains between 10th and 19th Street. Western Pacific also constructed their main repair shop in Sacramento, hiring from Sacramento’s skilled workers, many trained in the Southern Pacific shops.
The first day of operation, August 21, 1910, came with considerable fanfare, although the story was not carried by the local Sacramento papers. The official timetable establishing passenger service was not adopted until the following day, with the first official train leaving Oakland for Salt Lake City on August 22. The next great date in Western Pacific’s passenger history was March 20, 1949, the first run of Western Pacific’s streamlined California Zephyr trains. They operated until the last day of passenger service on Western Pacific, March 22, 1970. A few months shy of 60 years old, the depot ended its railroad career.
Today, Union Pacific has absorbed both Western Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, and the former Western Pacific shops in Curtis Park await redevelopment. Amtrak took over the California Zephyr trains in 1983, stopping at the old Southern Pacific depot on I Street. The WP depot remained vacant until 1978, when the Old Spaghetti Factory opened its doors. The silver and orange California Zephyr no longer stops there, but trains passing by close enough to shake the windows invariably attract the attention of families dining on spaghetti, spumoni and chianti.