Monday, March 17, 2014

Historic Train Station Continues Its Travels Through Time

I wanted to share with you a piece I wrote for "Under the Oaks," the Los Altos History Museum's quarterly. The piece is about a recent renovation of the city's old train station, a station I recall my father using when he worked in San Francisco. Alas, in the early 1960s, the tracks were pulled up to make room for an expressway. The expressway is a handy route indeed: but now it would cost billions to reconstruct the even handier old rail line that carried travelers between San Francisco and Los Gatos. Here's the piece:

The newly renovated Los Altos train station. That is a nineteenth century caboose from the Gold Country.

      The local entrepreneur who recently renovated the Los Altos train station to transform it into a bakery and café, has joined a tradition begun half a century ago when the station also served as a restaurant.
     Completed in 1913, the Los Altos depot of the Southern Pacific was always a beauty. On its debut, the Palo Alto Times reported that the Craftsman style structure was one of the prettiest on the peninsula and had “... all conveniences, including the latest in drinking fountains.” At the peak of rail service, twelve steam trains a day called at this little stop. For five decades, the Los Altos depot was a place loved ones embraced before journeys; growers shipped out the summer apricot harvest; and, families dropped off one parent or the other for the daily commute to San Francisco.  

The Los Altos station in a photo from the files of the Los Altos History Museum. It was taken when the rails had been pulled up and before the porch area was enclosed.

     In 1962, with rail service ending and plans for Foothill Expressway in the works, attorney Morton MacLeod turned the building into a railroad themed restaurant. It was first called the Ole Station House and later the Old Station House, but under both names and three different owners the restaurant was a fixture, serving up burgers (and cold Coors beer) inside and on picnic tables on the patio. At some point, an old Southern Pacific passenger car was added on the lot’s north side. In 1968, under the ownership of the Donald Halversons, a retired red caboose also came on board. The passenger car is now in private hands in Woodside, but the caboose remains and is part of the latest restoration. 

The station when it was a restaurant in the 1960s. Courtesy of the Los Altos History Museum. 

     “The Station House made great burgers, cooked on an open grill,” remembers Dave Howser, a Los Altos native who grew up on University and now lives in Prather, California.     Reports Ginny Gilmore Brown, now of Paradise, California; “I remember those burgers! You could build your own, and I could put on all the dill pickles my little heart desired.” Dia Felt Batchelder, of Mountain View, recalls: “My mother used to take me there for lunch in junior high. The station with nine lives!”

     By 1976, after more than a decade as a restaurant, the old station became home to San Diego Federal Savings, which remodeled it extensively. Then, for many years afterwards, it housed Maria’s Antiques. 
     The creative force behind this latest change is Rie Rubin, who says it was her desire to give back to the community that moved her to restore the historic building. During the eight-month process, she uncovered what appear to be the two original station signs identifying Los Altos by name. She has put together an exhibit in the old caboose that gives visitors a look at the building’s railroad history. The inside menu is designed for light meals, snacks and baked goods. “We will see about the future,” says Rubin, when asked if the restaurant will be open evenings.
      “Voyageur du Temps” is the new eatery’s name: the words are French for “time traveler.” After a life that has spanned one-hundred-and-one years—and so many different uses—it is a title to which the beautiful Los Altos train station can definitely lay claim. 

The Los Altos station today. The restaurant opened late last week.


Joseph Conrad said...

I'm always saddened by the removal of railroads anywhere in the country. I doubt that the value of the rails is why it's done. Robin, I wonder who makes the profit on the sale of the land when the railroads are pulled up? Nice blog!

David Kline said...

Here's a piece of history about the pulling up of those particular tracks. My dad commuted from Los Altos to Stanford from the early 1950s until 1976, at first along the "back road," old Fremont Road winding all around out by the country club, before Foothill Expressway was built. Lots of people commuted that way, to the University and the Stanford Industrial Park. The traffic got worse and worse over the years. There was a plan to put in the expressway, but the obstacle was the Vasona Branch railroad, the one that once ran through Los Altos to Saratoga and San Jose. The railroad wanted to abandon the line, but that needed the approval of a federal commission. The few remaining railroad passengers would show up to the hearings and object, and the commission would deny permission to abandon the line. Eventually Dad heard about how this was happening. He went to visit his congressman. "How many people ride that train line?" the congressman asked. "A dozen, maybe." "And how many cars are on the road you're talking about?" "A few thousand." "OK," says the congressman. "I'll fix it." The next time it came up, permission was granted to abandon the line and as we know, the Expressway went through.

Jim Napier said...

David, do you remember when the tracks were actually pulled up? Also if I recall correctly they weren't pulled up in their entirety to build Foothill Expwy. There were some sections that remained for awhile that ran alongside the new expressway. I vaguely recall around 1971-72 having to cross railroad tracks when turning onto Foothill from St. Joseph Ave. Would love to see photos/maps of the original train tracks and any remnants that might still exist.