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Livermore History - Railroads 1

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Previous Page   Page 1:  History and aerial photos
Page 2:  Southern Pacific Depot (still on L St.)
Page 3:  SP Depot reconstruction
Page 4:  Western Pacific Depot (long gone)
Page 5:  Misc.
Current Photo Pages:
SP Depot Today
Old SP Bridge over the Arroyo Mocho
See Also:  Model Railroad at Fairgrounds, Niles Canyon Railway

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Brief History of the Railroads through the Valley

Southern Pacific Tracks
Western Pacific Tracks
Overview of the Railroads
References and web sites

There were two sets of railroad tracks that ran through the valley.  Both came through the Altamont pass, Livermore, Pleasanton, and Niles Canyon.  They are commonly referred to as the SP (Southern Pacific) line and the WP (Western Pacific) line, although both railroads are now part of the Union Pacific.

Aerial view of downtown Livermore about 1960 showing the two sets of railroad tracks at their original positions.  At the top is Stanley Blvd on the left, the Southern Pacific tracks next to it, and the Western Pacific tracks (current tracks) to the right.  The Southern Pacific tracks head down past the SP depot (on the left of the tracks, slightly below the center of the photo) at L Street to the very bottom right corner of the picture.  They are no longer present.  Railroad Ave is the small street about half a block north (right) of the tracks that then curves south at about P street.  Today Railroad Ave follows roughly this path, but is widened, and tends to jog a bit more to the south, continuing on to connect to Stanley.  The Farmer's Exchange building, probably the Greyhound bus station at the time of this photo, is where KFC is now, on L St between 1st and the SP depot.  See the Aerial Photos pages for additional information.  This is a cropped version of the aerial photo on page 1.


SP tracks

The SP tracks were built by the first Western Pacific Railroad, which is not the same company which built the 2nd set of tracks.  They were incorporated December 13, 1862, and built track from San Jose into Niles Canyon, but then halted construction.  The Central Pacific, which was building the western end of the Transcontinental railroad,  needed a link between Sacramento and San Francisco to complete the line.  They bought the Western Pacific in 1870, with the transaction being finalized on June 23.  The tracks were put through the valley August 1869, however, prior to the merger being completed.  Most likely this was through an agreement between the Central Pacific and the Western Pacific with the merger in progress.  An early Central Pacific timetable lists the route run through the valley as operated by the Western Pacific.  The line was opened on September 15, 1869

The route through the valley is described in the table below.  Aerial photos, including the one above, show the path through Livermore.

In downtown Livermore at about O Street several branches came off of the main line to serve local businesses.  The Altamont Pass was fairly steep, and often required helper engines to make it over the hill.  There was a turntable in Livermore to turn around the engines, and another one at the top of the pass.  The location of the Livermore turntable is indicated on the 1889 poster page.  It is at about N St, just south of the former tracks.  There are now townhouses there (it was probably just south of where the townhouse circle driveway is).  Close-up views of older aerial photos do not seem to show any patterns to reveal the exact location.

The Southern Pacific and the Central Pacific had various relationships.  One source lists that the Southern Pacific was bought by the Big Four of the Central Pacific in 1868, although still operated as a separate railroad.  There appeared to be a strong relationship between the two railroads as early as 1887.  In 1922 there was an attempt to have the government separate the two.  Another source lists the Central Pacific being bought by the Southern Pacific in 1947.

Over time the Southern Pacific used the tracks through the valley less and less, with the northern route from Stockton through Benicia being the main line.  This actually enhanced its historic preservation somewhat, in that some of the very old bridges still exist, having not been upgraded for heavy usage.

In 1976 the tracks through downtown Livermore were realigned along the newer WP route, with the work starting about 1974.  This began just east of the Arroyo Mocho Bridge (see photo of bridge and photo of realignment) until about a half mile east of 1st Street (see aerial photo during realignment).  This freed up land in downtown Livermore, and is why the SP Depot is not near any tracks!!  The tracks ran right through the land now occupied by the Albertsons building (Albertsons has since moved).  There are also townhouses and Groth Brothers back lot where the tracks once were.  Not long after, the 1st Street overpass was built so there was no longer a grade crossing.  East 1st St was rerouted along the path vacated by the realigned SP tracks.  It then rises up, curving to the north to cross the tracks.  This created Old 1st St. and Gardella Plazza from the former 1st St.

In 1984 the SP abandoned the tracks through the valley, and deeded the land to Alameda County.  Most of the track was pulled up.  The Union Pacific acquired the Southern Pacific on 9/11/1996, having already taken ownership of the WP route through the valley.  The SP tracks through the valley had been removed long before.  This served to reduce the freight train traffic through the valley, however, as the UP shifted more if it to the SP tracks that take the northern route.

The SP Right of Way now

The 1987 the Pacific Railroad Association rebuilt the track through Niles Canyon and has been running pleasure rides from Sunol ever since on Sundays (see photos).  This is a very entertaining and informative ride, staffed by volunteers who are very knowledgeable about the railroads.  They have been rebuilding track towards Pleasanton. 

The abandoned right of way can be seen in Pleasanton on the west side of 680, west of the WP tracks.  It crosses the Pleasanton-Sunol Road at near Verona Rd, at the same time as the WP tracks cross the road in the opposite direction on an overpass.  Part of that overpass is for Pleasanton-Sunol Road, and part is for the SP tracks.  The road has been paved since the tracks were removed.  The SP right of way then goes over Sunol Blvd on an overpass by Castlewood drive (the west most of a string of overpasses for 680 going over Sunol Blvd).  It then crosses under 680 about a quarter mile south of the WP crossover.  This right of way can be seen from the freeway, looking like a small dirt road.  The right of way then crosses Bernal just west of the Sunol Blvd intersection.  A small section of track can be seen there (it was presumably put there by the Niles Canyon Railway to mark the path).  North of Bernal it disappears for a while in parking lots of downtown Pleasanton, and reappears at Angela St, with a small section of track going by the old SP station.  It disappears again at Stanley until the point where it is side by side with the WP tracks.

There has been recent debate about the use of the right of way through Pleasanton.  The Niles Canyon Railway has proposed rebuilding the tracks to the Pleasanton station for its Sunday rides, but it appears that Pleasanton would prefer to use the right of way for other purposes.

Along Stanley Blvd, there are tracks existing, used by the UP.  I am not sure if these were the SP tracks, or if the UP rebuilt them.  This set of tracks is used for storage of rail cars.  Beginning somewhat west of Isabel, the right of way no longer contains tracks.  The right of way can be clearly be seen up to the vacant Arroyo Mocho bridge, which was built in 1925 (a replacement of an earlier bridge).  The path is obscured starting at Murrieta Blvd.  The underpass under the WP tracks was built after the SP tracks were removed.  Through downtown Livermore the original route is now obscured by development.  The realigned route is right next to the WP tracks.  The UP tracks now probably use one SP and one WP track, as the SP track was fairly new.  A short section of the SP route is used today:  East of 1st St, the line takes the SP route for about a mile and a half to the point where the two originally crossed (about a tenth of a mile east of the Arroyo Seco and Contractors St.).  For this section the WP route has been abandoned in favor of the SP route.

Through the Altamont pass the old SP route can be seen from the WP tracks (see photos from the Ace Train).  It passes under 580 in the pass at the same spot as the WP tracks, although it passes under both lanes, while the WP passes over the east bound lanes and under the west bound lanes.

Aerial Photo Page 4 shows the original path of the SP tracks drawn over the current downtown Livermore layout.


The first railroad station in Livermore was a boxcar.  It was replaced by a building in 1891, which burned in 1892.  In August 1892 the current depot on L St. was built.  The brick chimney collapsed in the 1906 earthquake, and was replaced by a metal one.  The station was not used by the railroad after 1961.  The building was almost torn down in the early 1970s.  It was saved by the Livermore Heritage Guild, which was formed for this purpose.  They restored the building in the 1970s, and it is now used by various businesses.  The restored building once again has a brick chimney, matching the original.

The Pleasanton station is at the corner of Neal St. and the old track location between 1st and Main.  It is also being used by several businesses.  The Sunol Depot is in the process of being renovated, and is used by the Niles Canyon Railway as their store.

This site has pictures of a number of SP depots: SP depot pictures


WP Tracks

The WP tracks were put in by the Western Pacific in May of 1908.  It is on this route that the Union Pacific operates today.  Initially the Western Pacific was sued by the Southern Pacific over the name, since the SP had acquired the Central Pacific, which had acquired the original WP.  The suit was later dropped with legal maneuvering.  The easy way through Niles Canyon had already been taken, so the WP had to use a more difficult route, requiring 2 tunnels, one being about 4500 feet long, the other about 450 feet.  The aerial view below shows both tunnels.  See also photos of the main tunnel.

USGS Aerial photo of Niles Canyon from the Microsoft Terraserver.

The WP track comes from the bottom left corner, by the old Niles Brick Factory (photos), and into the tunnel.  A faint line can be seen along the path of the tunnel through the trees.  This is most likely the path that the signal wires take over the hill, electricity having an easier time than trains in climbing hills.  The track emerges at the bottom of the curve in the road a little to the right of center, and immediately after the road passes over.  It then continues just north of the road, and crosses under to south of the road again.  Just after crossing under the road is the second tunnel, which is only about 1/10th the length of the first one.
The SP tracks (now Niles Canyon Railway) are north of the road from the right until crossing over the road about a third of the way from the left.
The Alameda Creek runs in the area between the tracks and road, always to the north of the WP tracks within this view, but on alternate sides of the road and SP tracks at different points.

When the SP tracks were put through Livermore there was not much of a town present, so the tracks did not displace anything.  This was not the case for the WP tracks, which were put in after the town was well established.  This required some displacement.  What is now the WP route through Livermore was Oak Street before the tracks were put in.  Only a very small portion of Oak Street remains, just west of Livermore Ave.  The route also required that a number of properties be condemned.  This resulted in a number of court cases.

The Western Pacific is probably best known for the California Zephyr train.  It ran a daily train which stopped in Pleasanton, and a 3 times a week train that stopped in Pleasanton and Livermore.  The full route was from San Francisco to Chicago.  It began on March 20, 1949, and made its last run on March 22, 1970, always through the valley.  The train was famed for its doomed passenger cars.  There is now an Amtrak train by that same name that runs through the east bay from Emeryville to Chicago.  It does not pass through the valley.

Both the Livermore and Pleasanton Depots of the WP no longer exist.  Photos of the Livermore station are included here.  It was located south of the tracks between K and L, was built in 1908 and demolished in 1956.  The Pleasanton station was located east of the tracks at Rose Ave.

The Western Pacific was bought by the Union Pacific in 1982, and the UP continues to use the tracks for freight traffic, although not as much now as before.  It is probably at the level of 5 to 10 trains a day.  The tracks are also used by the Altamont Commuter Express on weekday commute runs between Stockton and San Jose with three west bound trains running in the morning and 3 east bound trains in the afternoon.  The train stops at the fairgrounds parking lot in Pleasanton, and the Transit Center and Vasco Road in Livermore.  eLivermore.com has over 60 photos taken from the train including Altamont pass and bay photos.  Click here.

Overview of the Railroads

  SP Line WP Line
Built through the valley August 1869 May 1908.  Papers indicate that track was being laid through Livermore on May 16, 1908.
Altamont Route Abandoned right of way which can be seen from the current UP tracks (photos) Route used by Union Pacific now.
Livermore Route East of downtown it is the more northern route that is no longer used, except for an area from the 1st St overcrossing east for about a mile and a half, which is used as the UP tracks now (the two sets of tracks were fairly close together here).
Through downtown it crossed 1st St. at the Old 1st intersection, then ran slightly south of  Railroad Ave, through the land now occupied by the old Albertsons building and just north of the Depot on L St, through what is now the back lot of Groth Brothers and townhouses to the west.  It then ran right through what is now Safeway and Orchard Supply (probably towards the back of the buildings).
It finally ran just north of Stanley Blvd, through the parking lot of the Brickyard shopping center (probably right through Baker's Square).  It ran across the Arroyo Mocho where the abandoned bridge still stands (that bridge was built in 1925).
Somewhat west of Isabel there are still tracks present which are often used to store railroad cars.
In 1976 it was relocated through downtown to align with the WP tracks, crossing over just east of the Arroyo Mocho.
The WP route is the current Union Pacific Route.
East of downtown it is the more southern route that is used by the UP now.
For a mile and a half stretch just east of downtown (Travarno area) the WP right of way is abandoned in favor of the SP route.
Downtown and westward it is the tracks that are used by the UP now.
Down Stanley it is the more northern set of tracks which still are used.
Pleasanton Route The tracks continued just north of Stanley.  As Stanley curves and becomes 1st St. the tracks continued, now just to the west, and crossing Bernal just south of 1st.
It crosses 580 a little south of the WP line and heads south initially to the east of the WP line, then crosses over continues to the west of the WP.
The SP right of way can clearly be seen through downtown Pleasanton for most of that route.  There are a few small sections of track, one going by the old SP depot on Neal St. and another just south of Bernal.  The city? owns the right of way at this point and has been debating its future.
The county owns the right of way through Niles Canyon.
Current route of UP tracks west of downtown and east of the fairgrounds.
Niles Canyon Route North side of the canyon.  The right of way is now used by the Niles Canyon Railroad. South side of the Canyon, including two tunnels.
Ownership Western Pacific (not the same company that built the other tracks)
The Central Pacific bought the Western Pacific in 1870.
The Southern Pacific bought the Central Pacific, but they appeared to separate for a time by government mandate.
The Union Pacific bought the SP in 1996.  The tracks through the valley had already been abandoned, and much of the right of way deeded to Alameda County.
Western Pacific
Bought by the Union Pacific in 1982.
Abandoned The Southern Pacific abandoned the tracks 1984, pulling up the rails and deeding most of the land to Alameda County.  A lot of maps still show the tracks, however. Still used by the Union Pacific for freight traffic (several trains per day) and by the ACE train (3 west bound trains in the morning, 3 east bound trains in the evening on weekdays).


References and web sites

  Livermore Heritage Guild History Center at the Carnegie Building
  (coffee house on main)  
  Amador-Livermore Valley Historical Society No web site yet.  Museum at 603 Main Street Pleasanton; 462-2766  Some info Here

Niles Canyon Railway

Running the first and third Sunday of every month (Oct to March) First three Sundays of every month May to Sept,  every Sunday in April for the "Flower Train".  Contains history and photos, as well as schedules.
  ACE train web site history History of the areas where the ACE train runs.  A good read.  Tracy, Altamont, Livermore, Pleasanton, etc.
  Central Pacific Railroad History The Central Pacific built the portion of the original transcontinental railroad from the west.  They installed the original tracks through Livermore, Pleasanton, and Niles Canyon.  The Niles Canyon runs on this right of way.  In Pleasanton, it ran downtown by the old train station, and is no longer used, although most of the right of way and some track is still visible.  In Livermore the tracks were realigned with the Western Pacific route in about 1963.  It was later merged with the Southern Pacific, which was bought by the Southern Pacific.
  Union Pacific Railroad The railroad which passes through Niles Canyon, Sunol, Pleasanton, Livermore, and the Altamont. The UP bought the WP in 1983 and the SP in 1995/96, owning both routes through the valley, although the SP route no longer existed by the time of the purchase.
  Southern Pacific Historical and Technical Society The Southern Pacific was originally set up to run a railroad from San Francisco to southern California and east from there.  It was acquired by the Central Pacific's Big Four in 1868.  In 1885 the railroads merged and retained the Southern Pacific Railroad name.  The SP merged with the Union Pacific in 1995/96 with the name Union Pacific.
  SP depot pictures Includes a picture of the Pleasanton depot in 1913, and the Danville depot in 1912, which is the same design as the Livermore Depot.  It is labeled "Standard Plan #18".
  Western Pacific Railroad Historical Society This site provides a lot of history and photographs.  The Western Pacific built the second set of tracks through the valley about 1906-1908.  They are at the location of the current tracks through the valley.  The Western Pacific was bought by the Union Pacific in 1982.
  Western Pacific Railroad Virtual Tour Includes a timetable showing stops in Niles, Sunol, Pleasanton, Livermore, Altamont, etc.
  Western Pacific Railroad History Good source for the history of the WP.  Click the "Western Pacific" button that is centered on the home page to get to the actual content.

WP photos

A large number of photos of WP trains, including Photo of a WP train going through Pleasanton showing the depot in 1937. and several in the altamont pass.
  California Zephyr Virtual tour Western Pacific train from San Francisco to Chicago from 1949 to 1970.  The train ran through the valley, stopping in Niles, and Pleasanton and some trains in Livermore.
  The "Other" Canyon Description of the WP through Niles Canyon.

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Photo of Early Livermore Cover Page The Book
Early Livermore
contains 128 pages of Livermore Historical photos and commentary.
It is available for 19.99 plus tax at the
Livermore Heritage Guild History Center at the Carnegie Building.
Click here for more information

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