Santa Clara Control Tower

I have been sketching a few of the remaining Southern Pacific water towers in California but I had yet to add a control tower to my sketchbook.

There are about nine Southern Pacific interlocking control towers still in existence in California and 16 are still in existence on the former SP system. These control towers where once ubiquitous on America’s railroads at busy junctions or rail crossings. Interlocking control towers centralized a group of signals (semaphore and lights) that were controlled by an operator to control the rail traffic by communicating different orders: proceed, caution, or stop. Think of it like a traffic signal for trains.

The Santa Clara Southern Pacific Interlocking Control Tower was built by SP in 1926 and put into service in 1927. The tower was in continuous use for 66 years at this very busy junction of the Coast Line and the Western Division. In the 66 years of operation, many trains, both passenger and freight, passed by. The famed Coast Daylight sped by the tower, stopping to take on passengers in San Jose.

The tower was in use until July 17, 1993 when the control of all switches and signals were moved to a centralized control center in San Jose.

A Southbound Caltrain pulls into Santa Clara Station on its way to the end of its run in San Jose. To the left is the restored control tower. On point is locomotive 915 “South San Francisco”.

Santa Clara is a busy junction where the Coast Line and the Western Division meet. It is busy today with both passenger and freight traffic. The passenger trains that stop or pass this way are Caltrain, Capital Corridor, the Altamonte Corridor Express (ACE), and the Coast Starlight. Four main line track pass Santa Clara, tracks to the northeast are used by Union Pacific for freight. The other three train a primarily used for passenger service with some routes turning off here to head north, on the east side of the Bay, towards Oakland (the Western Division).

A northbound Caltrain passes the control tower as it pulls out of Santa Clara Station heading toward San Francisco. This consist is being pushed by locomotive 905 “Sunnyvale”, an EMD F40PH-2CAT.

Sketcher’s Folly: Oops I did it again. I made a sketching mistake. In my sketch of the California Theatre in Dunsmuir I left out an “I” and now I made the egregious mistake of misspelling the county of my birth: Santa Clara. What next? Misspelling my own name?! Well at least I’m making new mistakes!


San Jose, the End of the Line

“I became quietly seized with that nostalgia that overcomes you when you have reached the middle of your life and your father has recently died and it dawns on you that when he went he took some of you with him.”
― Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America

My last historic station sketch was a short train ride down the line from oldest station on route in Santa Clara. This was the end of the line for most southbound Caltrains, San Jose’s Diridon Station.

This is a station that was built to impress, a station to represent a major city and not a town. Much like San Francisco’s old passenger station at 3rd and Townsend Streets.

San Francisco’s main train station was built in a Mission Revival style like Burlingame Station. It was opened in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. This grand station stood until July 1975. It was torn down because, according to Southern Pacific, it had “outlived its usefulness”.

San Jose’s Station, by contrast, still survives and is in use. The station was designed by SP architect John Christine in an Italian Renaissance Revival style. It cost $100,000 to build and was opened on December 30, 1935.

The interior is grand, featuring a high ceiling with large roof beams and hanging chandeliers. At the northern end of the depot is a mural by John MacQuarrie, at the south end is a clock.

This has always been a busy place. Many routes pass through this station. I remember boarding the Coast Starlight here for a trip to visit a friend in Eugene, Oregon. In its heyday the following routes stopped at this station: the Lark, Coaster, Daylight, Del Monte, and Sunset Limited. Today the station serves Caltrain, Altamont Commuter Express, Capital Corridor, and the Coast Starlight.

I set up my sketching stool on the lawn across the street from the station and started to sketch San Jose’s imposing station. In the background a woman loudly gave a sermon to an audience of none while she waited for a bus.


The last railway journey of this project was bittersweet for me.

The train ride was through the southern part of the line and through the memories of my youth. There were bits of my youth still standing but much of it altered or gone completely.

The Sunnyvale train station, where I would come to watch commuter trains with my father, was gone now, along with my father. In its place there was a parking structure with a shelter covering a few benches and a ticket machine.

An August 1977 still frame from one of my dad’s Super 8 reels showing a shirtless me watching a commuter train pull into Sunnyvale Station. My brother looks on from further back. I was six years old.

On the east side of the tracks, just out of the Sunnyvale station, was the former Westinghouse Plant (now Northrop Grumman). This is where my father worked for most of his adult life.

Beyond Sunnyvale, the line was surrounded by tech buildings, parking structures, and concreted clutter. The former orchards of the Valley of Heart’s Delight have been paved over years ago. Change is the creed and mantra of Silicon Valley.

The touchstones to the past where to be found along the line in the eight historic passenger train depots I had sketched. They could not be changed or destroyed because they were designated historical landmarks.

On my return journey from San Jose Station I sat on the east side of the train and watched the ever passing progress of the valleys build up. This was a landscape void of familiarity for me. Sunnyvale was much changed with multi-story buildings cluttering and changing its skyline.

We pulled into Mountain View Station, the next stop north of Sunnyvale, and I looked down at the platform at the passengers waiting to board. That’s when I saw an unexpected part of my past, not a place but a person.

It was Rosemary. My neighbor from Cormorant Court, the street in Sunnyvale where I grew up. But she was much more than a neighbor, she is family, so much so that my brother and I call her Aunt Rosemary. Our families still celebrate the holidays together, long after both families have left Cormorant Court.

I realized that the past is not just made up of places or things, but of people. Like Rosemary, who has known me longer than I’ve known myself.

I walked back a few cars to find her and we talked and I showed her some of my sketches and we enjoyed our brief journey together until I disembark at Hillsdale Station.

It seems fitting, that on my quest to find the past, that I found mine at Mountain View Station in the city of my birth. I’ve been finding the past in stone wood, glass, tile, and steel, forgetting the true treasures of the past that are made of flesh and blood.

These are not only the people we know and love throughout our journey here on earth, but also the people that designed, built and use these stations along the railway corridor. After all, these are not just buildings to be looked at but they are meant to be used by the people who fill them with love and life.



The Oldest Station on the Line

On Saturday Morning I took the earliest southbound train from Hillsdale Station. My destination was the oldest passenger station on the line, and it is was in the county of my own birth: Santa Clara County. This is Santa Clara Station.

This station was built by the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad in 1863. It is the oldest station on the Caltrain line and the oldest passenger depot west of the Rocky Mountains. The station was moved from it’s original location on the opposite side of the tracks, to the west side, where the University of Santa Clara is located. In 1877, the passenger depot was joined to the freight house.

The station is at an important junction to points north. The trains to left (Coast Division) head north to San Francisco and the tracks that head to the right (Western Division) takes train to points north: Dunsmuir, Portland and Seattle. So the junction sees a lot of rail traffic.

By the 1980s, the depot had fallen into disrepair but in 1985 the South Bay Historical Railroad Society was founded with the mission of restoring the depot to it’s former condition. The restoration was completed on 1990.

The passenger depot in January of 2020, looks in great shape compared to other historic depots I have sketched on the line. This is due to the hard work of the volunteer labor of the South Bay Historical Railroad Society.

The depot was a very busy place on a Saturday morning and many children and their families were gathered and waiting for the museum to open at 10:00. The museum houses railroad memorabilia and a large model railroad layout which is the big draw for children. Both child and adult children!

One of the few places you can still see Southern Pacific in action, although in HO scale, is at the South Bay Historical Railroad Society. I had a model railroad when I was a kid. My HO gauge railway ran in an oval with a small town in the center. I had a Santa Fe “Super Chief” locomotive but my favorite was a Daylight GS-4 number 4449. The full scale locomotive pulled its passenger consist past Santa Clara Station but did not stop. Passengers wishing to board the Daylight had to go to San Jose.

This an original bench in the passenger waiting room of Santa Clara Station.

This control tower was built in 1926 and was in continuous use until July 17, 1993. The tower was built at the junction of Southern Pacific’s Coast and Western Divisions.

A MP36PH-3C diesel locomotive Number 928 took me to my final destination on this sketching journey, the end of the Caltrain line at San Jose Diridon Station.


Palo Alto Station

The first stop of the streamlined Daylight out of San Francisco was Palo Alto, the town on the doorstep of the Stanford University campus.

There were two stations on this site before the current station was built in 1940-41 ( The cornerstone was laid on October 22, 1940). This Station was designed in the Streamline Moderne style to reflect the streamlined train sets of the Daylight that stopped to pick up passengers on their way to the southlands. The luscious curve of the station’s roofline is echoed in the sloped skirting of the GS-2 steam engine that pulled it’s twelve-car consist to Los Angles.

I really love this station and enjoyed sketching it’s streamlined profile. Looking up at this station, hemmed in by dark-grey skies, transported me back the 1940s. I felt like I was a two-bit character in a Film Noir, say Double Indemnity (1944), for instance.

The Coastal Route and Palo Alto are briefly featured in this seminal Film Noir, considered by many to be the best Film Noir ever made. The plot involves the murder of a husband by his wife and her lover. The husband, “a Stanford man”, is heading to Palo Alto from Glendale on a Southern Pacific passenger train for a class reunion. Mr. Dietrichson never made it to Palo Alto Station or his reunion. Any more information about the plot would surely be a spoiler. 

I took the number 424 Caltrain from Millbrae at 10:04 AM and I got into Palo Alto at 10:46. I had already scoped the station on a previous visit and I knew that I really wanted to sketch the curvaceous roofline and the round window from the street side entrance of the station.

What I was trying to do with the curvaceous roof was not to sketch the station in it’s entirety but focus in on it’s most emblematic elements. This was a refreshing approach because I chose where I wanted to frame my drawing and I left a lot of other details out of frame.

After I had finished the sketch and painted it, I went around to the front of the station, on the northbound platform and did a quick sketch of the profile of Palo Alto station. This is the view you see from the train.

One of the treats of Palo Alto Station is to be found on the inside of the building. This is the 1941 mural painted by San Francisco artist John MacQuarrie.

The mural was complete for the March 8, 1941 dedication ceremony of the new Palo Alto passenger station where the mural was unveiled.

The mural stretches above the wall where the ticket counter is. It depicts the past and future of transportation. A stream of men on horses, Indians with travois, wagons, stage coach, and men and women walking on foot, head to the right with the quad of Stanford University in the background. In the lower left corner the profile of Leland Stanford looks on towards the future of transportation (circa 1940). The future seems to come out from behind the trees as a Daylight GS-3 locomotive proclaims it’s entrance into the mural. This certainly a synthesis between a beautiful and functional form of transportation and a building that does the same.

Here is my quick sketch of Caltrain’s most “modern” historic station. I left details out, like the door into the station. I was really trying to get the shapes of the building.


Menlo Park Station

It was now time for an after work train station sketch.

I headed south to one of the oldest stations in San Mateo County and one of the stations furthest south on the line before heading into Santa Clara County. Menlo Park Station is the oldest active train station in San Mateo County. Rail service to Menlo Park began on October 18, 1863. At that time, a simple shelter was on the site before the depot was built. It is considered the oldest active passenger railway station in California. It was built by the San Francisco and San Jose Railway in 1867. The Queen Anne expansion, included a Ladies Parlor, was added to the south side which is featured in the sketch.

When Southern Pacific consolidated the line (in 1870), Victorian ornamentation was added in the 1890s to appeal to the students (and parents) of nearby and newly built Stanford University.

At one time Menlo Park Station had two separate waiting rooms, one for men and one for women. In the office, Stanford University co-founder, Jane Stanford, wife of rail tycoon Leland Stanford, would wait for her train in a private room by herself. In 1905, Jane Stanford died of strychnine poisoning and her murder has never been solved. It is claimed that her ghost has been seen pacing back and forth in the station.

The station is on the same level as the main line just as it was when it was first constructed. The interior is no longer used as a passenger waiting room. Southern Pacific closed the station in 1959. It now houses the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce.

This fancy vending machine has replaced passenger stations on Caltrain. I always prefer to buy my train tickets from a human being. You can’t do that here in Menlo Park. Nor can you buy tickets on the train from the conductor. Although you can chat with the friendly people at the Chamber of Commerce.

I sat on a north facing bench and started to sketch the elevation view of the station. There was something very comforting about this sketching experience. All around me I was surrounded by commuters. Both high school students and high-tech workers with their bikes milling about the platform or sitting on benches texting their friends waiting for their train. The overall feeling was of a vibrant station that is still in use and gave me hope for transit in the Bay Area. The scene at 4:30 PM in 2020 could not be too much different from a weekday scene at this same station, 70 years ago. Of course it helps to squint.

Menlo Park is a busy station on a Wednesday late afternoon. A southbound and northbound train pull into the station.

Engine Number 905 “Sunnyvale ” is on the point of a southbound train to San Jose. This engine is named after my hometown.

The train station at Sunnyvale is long gone. I never remember it as being an amazing piece of Southern Pacific architecture. The station has been replaced with a ticket shelter that connected to a parking shelter.

Quenching my thirst after my sketch at the redesigned British Bankers Club. I raised a glass to my father, who had to come to Menlo Park when he was at “The Farm” to buy spirits because Palo Alto was a dry town.


San Carlos Station

If there is any historic station on the line that has been truly marginalized by the march of modernity then it would have to be San Carlos Station.

This beautiful and unique station looks like no other on the line. It was built in 1888 and is constructed with Almaden sandstone from Greystone Quarry in the Almaden Valley which echos the building material used at nearby Stanford University. The station is designed in an Richardsonian Romanesque style which is very unique for a railway depot in California. There are rumors that the architect that designed Stanford, Charles Coolidge, also designed San Carlos station.

The railway line has been elevated and the trains now tower above the station. There was a time when this distinctive station was the focus of the growing town of San Carlos but it has been hemmed in with the elevated railway to the east and the newly constructed residential buildings to the north and south.

Sadly this iconic station is in the shadow of all that surrounds it and speaks to the Bay Area in the 21 Century: over populated and addicted to cars.

It was hard to get a clear view of the entirety of the building because I couldn’t back up far enough without backing into the new residential buildings or having the conical tower disappear as I backed under the railway overpass. It felt a bit like the blind men and the elephant. I could only see bits of the station but never the whole thing.

This station also represents what I have seen at Colma, Millbrae, and Hillsdale. They are all buildings that no longer function as a passenger railway depots. In other words they are just empty shells that no longer serve a purpose other than being a bookmark in historical time. They are there for those who read the passages of time and I am one of those.

The San Carlos Station has housed many things: a post office, a church, a library, and lastly, a restaurant. And this restaurant now is closed and the interior is stripped bare. Sad really, that this architectural gem should serve some purpose other than just looking nice.

The San Carlos Station is now surrounded on three sides. The towering new residential building to the left makes a weak attempt to echo the sandstone look of the station.

My northbound train heading to San Francisco from Millbrae Transit Center. Don’t let it fool you, this is the end of the train, the diesel engine is pushing the train north. I was going to take BART to Daly City with three sketches in my bag.


Burlingame: “The Prettiest Station on the Line”

Burlingame Station was the station I looked forward to sketching the most out of all the depots on the line.

It is certainly one of the most architecturally interesting stations anywhere between San Francisco and San Jose. The station is the first permanent example in California of the Mission Revival Style; a look back to the 21 Spanish Missions that line the California Coast from San Diego to Sonoma. It’s style influenced other train stations in California including Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and San Diego. The station building itself was designated a California Historic Landmark on March 29, 1971 (almost five months before I entered this world).

I had field sketched all 21 missions and was fluent in the architectural language of the missions, so the grade of my learning curve was flattened. In Burlingame I saw the tiled roofs, tower, arcades, and arches that defined the California Mission Revival Style. These elements are almost second nature to me because I had drawn many examples of them in the 21 missions. And who doesn’t love to draw an arch?

Burlingame Station was opened for service on October 10, 1894. And it was certainly a busy station in the heyday of rail service along the peninsula corridor. On a weekday in the late 1930s, 33 passages trains passed through Burlingame station each way. This included the Lark, Sunset Limited, Del Monte, Daylight, and Coaster which where all long-distance trains as opposed to the local commuter trains that took passengers from San Francisco to San Jose.

The old and the new. In the foreground is the Burlingame Caltrain sign and on the tower is the round shield of the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad. SP operated from 1865 to 1996.

As a comparison, the current passenger railway traffic through Burlingame is about 92 weekday trains with a weekday ridership of about 65,000 passengers. Burlingame Station is very much an active station with tracks running right in their original position and grade.

On a Saturday morning I took BART to the Millbrae Transit Center and then transferred to a southbound Caltrain. After a short ride, I got off at the train’s second stop, Burlingame. Once the train pulled out of the station, I crossed the tracks and set up my sketching stool on the opposite platform.

While I was sketching a young boy and his father had biked over to watch trains. They reminded me of my own father and told of a little touch of sanity in this insane world. The seven year old boy stood in front of me watching me work. “I draw trains!”, he announced with the candor and fearlessness of youth. I told him I also draw trains and train stations.

He then turned his attention to the train tracks and he looked both north and south along the line for the tell-tale headlights of an approaching train. There were none. Caltrain was operating on a weekend schedule which means less trains. The boy wanted to wait, until eternity if need be, for the next train to coast through Burlingame Station. This also reminded me of my own love of trains and it is always special to see a working train on the line. His father finally shepherded his son back home and he thanked me for sharing my sketch.

A little accent from Baja California, palm trees and Spanish arches.

An after work sketch at Burlingame Station. I had less then two minutes to roughly sketch this southbound train before it departed toward San Jose. Once I got the perspective correct, I added other details long after the train had left the platform. I put in the things that where still there: the platform in the foreground, the northbound tracks, trees, and power lines and towers.


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.