Southern Pacific Railroad Electrifies Alameda

Venon Sappers Collection Southern Pacific Railroad used this station on the Alameda Mole as a centerpiece for its new electric train system.
Venon Sappers Collection

Southern Pacific Railroad Electrifies Alameda

Part one in a series

Francis Marion “Borax” Smith, earned his nickname and a fortune dealing with sodium borate.

On Oct. 26, 1903, Smith’s Key Route system began operating with the ambitious name “The San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose Railway.”

Smith’s new railway, which would grow into the Key System, made Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) President E. M. Harriman very nervous.

Railroad historian Robert S. Ford tells us that by 1905 SP had worked out “all the cost estimates for a modern system.” This included not only rebuilding the SP lines in the East Bay but expanding the system.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire interfered with Harriman’s plans. On Aug. 15, 1906, some four months after the temblor, SP announced that it would electrify its East Bay lines. However, the railroad would continue to use Oakland Pier for its steam trains.

SP stated that “there were too many technical difficulties connected with operating both steam and electric trains on the Oakland Pier. Harriman made Alameda the centerpiece of his new system by converting the Alameda Pier completely to electricity.

That pier, pictured on the left was relatively new and uncomplicated. SP built in 1903 after a fire had destroyed the South Pacific Coast Railroad had built in 1884.

SP would convert these former narrow-gauge tracks — that began running on Encinal and Central avenues in 1878 — completely to broad gauge. New electric trains would carry passengers from the former rail-yard and station at High Street and Encinal Avenue to the newly converted Alameda Pier.

In addition, SP planned to run a second electric train on tracks that carried the Central Pacific Railroad steam trains along today’s Tilden Way and Lincoln Avenue..

The first transcontinental railroad train had arrived on these tracks on Sept. 6, 1869. The modern electrified trains would run on these tracks from Alameda Pier to the same station at High Street and Encinal Avenue.

In order to accomplish this SP would have to lay rails from Pearl Street along the San Leandro Bay shoreline to Encinal Avenue.

This would lead to the construction of today’s Fernside Boulevard. The Sun will look at this and other changes in the next article.

Contact Dennis Evanosky at