In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, trains played a central role in the developing west. In small towns with train stations, “train time,” the time of day when the train arrived, was the day’s highlight. This was delivery hour. The town received produce shipped from farmers by train; all goods and services arrived by train. In areas where there was no development yet, like Contra Costa County in the early 1900s, bringing trains there was a common strategy realtors used to create new suburbs where they could sell more homes. “You could take empty land, run a streetcar line out to it, and property would immediately rise in value,” recounts Don Olsen, a longtime Temescal resident and hobbyist historian, “That’s the way many early suburbs got started.”
The Sacramento Northern Railway station at Shafter ave and 40th Street ran through the Temescal and Rockridge neighborhoods, around Lake Temescal, into Montclair, through a tunnel at the top of Shepherd Canyon, and on to Sacramento and Chico by way of a ferry across the Sacramento River. It was the longest “interurban” electric railway in the country, and a very popular means of transportation (commuter, leisure, and commercial) at that time before the rise of the automobile. In the 1940s the rise of the automobile converged with a now bustling Temescal neighborhood to lead to a decade-long petition for the railway to be removed. In 1957, the Sacramento Northern Railway relocated the line to West Oakland. Within a year, the rails along Shafter were torn up and the road was re-paved for automobiles. An office building went up shortly thereafter where the depot had stood, but the building was devastated in a fire in 2002. In 2005, the “Temescal Station” condo and townhouse complex was erected. In the process, all remnants of an era when trains and streetcars were “the way to go” were dug up and discarded.
When the railroad was “thriving,” approximately twenty-five trains ran up and down Shafter each day, according to Paul Smith, another local resident who grew up documenting the railroad as a hobby. The trains were usually two-car passenger trains, although freights ran at night. Everybody used the train. There were parlor cars and coaches; meals served and smoking sections. People used the train to commute to work, to go shopping, to visit friends and family. There was even a school train that took kids to Concord’s big high school, and a train that ran between San Francisco and St. Mary’s college in Moraga. Farmers and other producers distributed their goods by train. During WWI, the railroad carried troops by the carload and hundreds of people would wait to greet them at the platform.
“What killed the railroads and took the passengers away was the automobile and the ‘free’ highways that people could travel on—door to door,” Smith describes. “As a culture,” he recounts, “we got fascinated with freeways and built them like they were going out of style. Everything became oriented toward automobile transportation. Now they’re finding that it isn’t the greatest thing in the world. We see light rail systems being built again and surviving, like in San Jose, Sacramento, Portland, and Seattle. Of course in Europe, rail has remained the way to go. It’s very efficient. So I think interurban rail transportation probably will be revived.”
Unfortunately, when Temescal finally won the battle to remove the railroad from its mid-section, which was to elevate safety, quiet, and property values, the city decided to create the Grove-Shafter Freeway in its place, which in turn worsened these assets considerably. (For more on the Grove-Shafter Freeway, see source below.)