Southern Pacific’s Golden State (GS-4)

There is a concept known as a “spark bird” in birding. This is the bird that first ignites your passion for birds. For the pioneering field guide artist, Roger Tory Peterson, it was the northern flicker. Why can’t a child also have a spark locomotive?

My “spark” locomotive is Southern Pacific’s GS-4 number 4449.

Many children are attracted to trains. Most often it might be a locomotive on static display or maybe watching a commuter or freight train pass by. My passion for steam locomotives comes from my father, who, as an only child growing up in San Francisco, loved anything that rode on two rails: street cars, cable cars, and trains.

While many children, “put away childish things”, my connection to trains, railroads, and locomotives connects me to my father, and that bond has grown stronger since his passing five years ago.

One Christmas, my father gave me a HO scale model railroad. Together, well, mostly my dad, created an oval layout on a large piece of particle board. It came out on our dining room table, a few weeks before Christmas, and stayed up, certainly as long as our neighbor’s Christmas lights. On a part of the oval track was a paper mache tunnel which spanned the tracks. It was made by my father, probably with some help from his father.

My first locomotive was a Santa Fe F7 in the ironic warbonnet paint scheme. This locomotive pulled a short, motley freight consist around the oval, over and over again.

Then one Christmas came an HO replica of one of the most beautiful steam locomotives ever built: Southern Pacific GS-4 #4449. And later came a Daylight baggage car, a few passenger cars, and an observation car.

A GS-4 was a Northern class (4-8-4) of passenger steam locomotives, built for the Daylight route from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Southern Pacific reached it’s zenith with the design of this streamlined locomotive that also had plenty of power and speed to make the 470 mile trip.

The four drive wheels of a GS-4 provide traction to the rails. The four wheels on the other side makes the wheel configurations a 4-8-4. This is the only surviving member of it’s class, 4449 at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center in Portland, Oregon. The white star on the drive wheel indicates an internal bearing and the type of axle grease used.

Out of the 28 GS-4s built by the Lima Locomotive Works, only one survived. As a point of comparison, Union Pacific produced 25 “Big Boys” and now eight are still in existence, including 4014, which has recently returned to steam, making it the largest steam locomotive in operation.

The last remaining GS-4, 4449, was built in May of 1941 and was retired from service on October 2, 1957. It was donated to the City of Portland, Oregon where she was placed on static display at Oaks Park. In the following years the locomotive was vandalized and it builder’s plate and whistle stolen.

In 1974, as our Bicentennial was approaching, 4449 was evaluated to see if she could be restored and brought back to life to haul the Freedom Train, a traveling exhibit featuring historical artifacts aboard train cars that visited all of the Lower 48 states. 4449 was restored and pulled the Freedom Train for many stretches on it’s national tour. 4449 was given the moniker, “The Queen of Steam”.

4449 at speed. This is a still from a Super 8 film my dad took when 4449 was in its Freedom Train livery from May of 1977.
Another still from one of my dad’s Super 8 films of 4449. The amount of steam exhaust emitted from 4449 in this shot would have defiantly put a smile on my dad’s face. Here you can see 4449’s livery of red, white, and blue.

After 4449 was done with it’s two year tour, she returned to Portland, Oregon when in 1981, she was repainted in her red, orange, and black paint scheme of Southern Pacific’s Daylight. During the 1980’s my father and I followed 4449 around the state, this time I took the Super 8 footage while my dad took stills. We even rode on a train pulled by 4449 on a two day excursion from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

One wonders how to keep connected to someone who has passed? While they are in the ethereal and unknown world, that touchstone is often something earthy and physical. It could be a photograph, a house, or a landscape. For me, that touchstone is a locomotive that was built in 1941, nine years after my father was born. While my father is no longer here, 4449, a touchstone to the past, still lives and breaths. When I look into the eyes of her ever-moving mars light, I somehow see the eyes of my father.


Salinas Station

After sketching historic passenger train stations between San Francisco and San Jose, I decided to expand my scope by visiting all of the existing stations on the Daylight Route from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Salinas is probably best known as the birthplace of writer John Steinbeck. It is also known as the “Salad Bowl of the World” because its marine climate makes it an ideal location for agriculture. But I was here because it was the third Daylight stop on the line out of San Francisco. This would be the connection point for any traveller from the Monterey Bay Area wishing to head south to The City of Angels or north to the City of Saint Francis.

Salinas Station was built by Southern Pacific in 1941. It is designed in an Spanish Revival Style, with its red tiled roof, mixed with touches of the then popular Art Deco style, shown by its clean lines, letter design, and interior.

The station’s construction coincided with the rise of Southern Pacific’s premier passenger train, the Daylight Limited. Promoters called the Daylight, “the most beautiful passenger train in the world”. And this was not mere hyperbole.

This station bears a few commonalities with the two Daylight stations that still exist in the Bay Area, Palo Alto and San Jose. All three stations have murals painted by John MacQuarrie. And two of these murals feature Southern Pacific’s most beautiful locomotive at the the time the GS-2. This streamlined 4-8-4 is in the Palo Alto Station and here at the Salinas.

When the station was completed in 1941, the zenith of Southern Pacific’s passenger steam locomotives had arrived in the “super power” of the GS-4. The increased ridership of this route is evidenced by the the fact that Southern Pacific ordered 28 locomotives from the Lima Locomotive Works between 1941 and 1942.

The John MacQuarrie mural at Salinas was painted in 1941 (the same year as the Palo Alto mural) and prominently features the star motive power at the time, the Golden State 2 (GS-2). Six of these locomotives were built and went into service in 1937.

It was a beautiful winter day in Salinas with a high of 70 degrees. I walked around the station and at the platform, a Los Angles bound Coast Starlight was paused to pick up passengers for destinations to the southland. This Amtrak train replaced the Daylight in 1971. At least from Salinas to Los Angeles.

Salinas station was a station that was still in use. There are actual humans attending to the ticket window who could actually answer questions and issue tickets. The interior contained bathrooms, food vending machines, and benches for passengers waiting for their train to arrive. It was nice, for a change, to see a train station being used for its intended purpose.

It’s great to see that Salinas Station is still a vibrant station on the former Daylight Route. The car to the right is where I would probably be: the Lounge Car! To the right is a couple waving their loved one goodbye and safe travel.

I set up my camp/ sketching chair across from Salinas Station and started to sketch. I originally wanted to sketch the station from a formal view but the parking lot was being rebuilt and was fenced off. So I sketched a little bit off center.

Next to the station is the Monterey & Salinas Valley Railroad Museum. They have a collection featuring a Southern Pacific steam locomotive switcher, a Southern Pacific caboose, and a few rail cars on static display.

Southern Pacific switcher Number 1237 on static display in Salinas. This locomotive is pointing to the north but will likely never move north again.


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.



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.