The Ghosts of Hillsdale

As I was about to leave the Millbrae Depot, Peter, the docent, told me I should go and draw the Hillsdale Depot sometime before Monday. And it was now Saturday afternoon. “Why the rush?”, I wondered.

The reason he thought I should make haste to the depot was that it was going to be demolished, starting on Monday morning!

Hillsdale was not on my list of Historic Depots. It was true that it was squarely in San Mateo County, but the depot didn’t meet my criteria for age or architectural merit. The small depot, containing a ticket office and a tiny passenger waiting room, was built sometime in the 1950s. The building has a cupola topped by a weather vane, something I might imagine at Churchill Downs, an architectural reference to Hillsdale’s proximity (about half a mile south) to Bay Meadows Racetrack.

The racetrack was the longest running thoroughbred track in California. It opened in November of 1934 and was in continuous use until it’s last race on August 17, 2008. Many famed horses and jockeys raced here including Seabiscuit and Bill Shoemaker. It was demolished and housing was put in it’s place.

A southbound train on the main line, pulls into Hillsdale Station. The old station, on the left, is no longer near the railway which now has been raised above the station.

At Hillsdale, the mainline no longer passes in front of the platform. The tracks are now to the east and up a rise. The tracks were regraded and raised to cross over Hillsdale Boulevard. The grade separation project eliminates grade crossings (the intersection of automobile roadways and rail) and is part of a major transit development project which will move Hillsdale Station further north, near where the former race track lay. Hence the reason the older depot is now redundant and soon will be a few more spaces in the parking lot.

Engine Number 900 “San Francisco” pulls into Hillsdale Station.

I set up my folding camp chair on the south side of the abandoned station with a late morning winter sun at my back. I began to see the shapes and eventually, the beauty of the small railway station. As Zen sketcher Fredrick Franck noted, “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is.”

I also wonder about the memories and ghosts that have passed through or spent time in this station, the people who would have come to meet their loved ones on the platform as a commuter steam engine pulls into Hillsdale. The people who who worked here, perhaps the people met or fell in love here. The crowds returning from a race, either joyous or down on their luck. Or the young man who stopped to get a cup of coffee before boarding a northbound train to the City of Saint Francis.

All are silent now.

Corvidsketcher sketching in the parking lot of Hillsdale Station, the day before the building will be demolished. This may be the last drawing of the station while it is still standing.

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