Thursday, October 7, 2021

Streetcars: Peninsular Railway Company

Some railroad projects evolve naturally out of either local initiatives or corporate planning. The Peninsular Railway, however, was the closest thing to a covert takeover that ever happened with local railroad schemes. In April 1904, James W. Rea, leader of the San Jose & Los Gatos Interurban Railway Company, convinced the company's board of directors to sell their shares to a local banker and investor, O. A. Hale. Hale became president on April 9 and, a month later, rumors began to circulate that Hale was in fact a secret agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Yet nothing came of this speculation at first—Hale continued the expansion of the interurban's routes and unsubstantiated gossip continued throughout 1904 and 1905. Then, without much notice, Hale incorporated the Peninsular Railway Company on December 21, 1905, and the scheme began to reveal itself.

Peninsular Railway interurban car #102 at Saratoga, ca 1930. [Palo Alto Historical Association – colorized using DeOldify]

On the surface, this new electric interurban railroad—which was linked with but separate from the San Jose & Los Gatos Interurban—was intended to connect San José to San Francisco via a new interurban line. Yet from almost the beginning it was clear that Hale intended to merge the older interurban into his new company. Lines were projected to extend to Los Gatos, Big Basin, Oakland, and Alum Rock, the first two of which were either already on the existing line or anticipated future stops. But the company's first project was to construct a double-lane track to the most unlikely of places: Vasona, a freight-loading station on the San Jose to Santa Cruz route of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Peninsular Railway ballast train in Los Gatos, 1910. [Clarence Hamsher Collection, History Los Gatos – colorized using DeOldify]

The San Jose & Los Gatos Interurban Railway funded construction, which was suspicious in itself. Speculators also suspected that only one of the tracks, if any, would be used by the Peninsular because it was a dead end on the southeast: there was nothing at there except the Southern Pacific tracks and prune orchards. But Southern Pacific wanted to build a new San José bypass route that would more directly link Santa Cruz to San Francisco. This proposed route passed directly through the interurban's territory, so the Peninsular Railway was formed initially to build this route and disperse the legal and fiscal liability of such a venture.

Promotional map of the route of the Peninsular Railway, ca 1914. [History San José]

Construction began on the route in June 1906. The first section was in the north, between Mayfield (Palo Alto) and Cupertino. Hale died on July 20, 1907, while construction was ongoing. His successor was Jere T. Burke, a lawyer for Southern Pacific. The section opened on November 5, 1907 while the Los Altos Branch of the Southern Pacific—more commonly the Mayfield Cut-Off—opened on April 19, 1908. Indeed, no interurban track was installed south of Congress Junction and this section to Vasona remained simply a Southern Pacific right-of-way. Immediately after completion, the Peninsular Railway double-tracked its Stevens Creek/San Carlos section while Southern Pacific shifted to repairing and upgrading its tracks to Santa Cruz, which were narrow-gauge and had been damaged in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

Peninsular Railway station at Palo Alto, ca 1920s. [History San Jose – colorized using DeOldify]

While the tracks were upgraded, the interurbans continued to operate under the name San Jose & Los Gatos Interurban Railway. The company was only consolidated into the Peninsular Railway on June 30, 1909, about the same time that through traffic resumed along the Santa Cruz line. The San Jose & Santa Clara Railway was also consolidated into the Peninsular, and it became abundantly clear by this time that the Peninsular was a Southern Pacific entity, with most of its directors shared with other Southern Pacific subsidiaries. The curtain was drawn back and Southern Pacific was revealed as the owners of all South Bay railroad and interurban trackage.

Map of the complete Peninsular Railway network, 1915.

The Mayfield Cut-off was primarily an expressway with the Peninsular catering to intermediate stops. Close coordination of schedules was required to facilitate two-way traffic on mostly one-track sections, some of which were scheduled to sync with Southern Pacific trains. Indeed, there was some shared trackage between the Peninsular and Southern Pacific in Campbell, while freight trains occasionally accessed locations along the Peninsular line, specifically in the Saratoga area.

Peninsular Railway interurban car #58, ca 1920. [History San José – colorized using DeOldify]

The Peninsular maintained its carbarn close to the Southern Pacific tracks at the corner of San Carlos Street and Meridian Avenue. This allowed the two railroads to exchange rolling stock as needed. Electrical power stations were located in San José, north San José, Saratoga, and Los Altos. The rolling stock was decorated in a deep red color, which earned the cars the nickname "Big Red" by many riders. Most of the cars also featured large windows, including ones along the roof, that let in a generous amount of light.

Peninsular Railway interurban cars on all three sides of Saratoga station, ca 1910. [History San José – colorized using DeOldify]

For nearly thirty years, the Peninsular served the people of the western portion of the South Bay. Fares were reasonable at 50¢ a ride between Palo Alto and San José or 10¢ between adjacent stations. Interurbans ran once hourly in each direction. Popular stops along the line included the picnic grounds at Congress Springs, the stadium at Stanford University, and the trails and campgrounds at Alum Rock. Limited freight traffic catered to a quarry on the Congress Springs branch, various customers near Alum Rock, as well as several seasonal fruit growers across the network. The Peninsular also acted as a common carrier for parcels to several of its stations.

Peninsular Railway interurban car #108 parked on a stretch of double-track just beyond the company's repair car, ca 1920. [History San José – colorized using DeOldify]

The financial situation in the late 1900s made it difficult for the Peninsular to begin its proposed expansion projects, while increased supply costs during World War I further slowed any growth prospects. At the time of its incorporation and in the first years after, Peninsular management announced plans to built a route beyond Palo Alto to Menlo Park, where it would have connected with the Market Street Railway for a continuous run between San José or Los Gatos to San Francisco. The interurban also hoped to revive the Dunbarton Bridge and use it to connect San José to Oakland. The most ambitious plan was to build a branch to the top of Mt. Hamilton, which would have required revolutionary technologies to overcome the steep gradient of the mountain. Unfortunately, the rapid expansion of automobile technology following the war rapidly reduced the annual revenue of the Peninsular, rendering all of its ambitious plans infeasible.

Peninsular Railway interurban car on Santa Cruz Avenue in Los Gatos, ca 1932. [Los Gatos Public Library – colorized using DeOldify]

By the middle of the 1920s, it was clear that the Peninsular Railway would not survive the rise of the automobile. Road-building projects across the South Bay were encroaching on rights-of-way and in 1929, Palo Alto petitioned the Peninsular to abandon its track between Mayfield and Palo Alto Depot. While the Los Altos Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad was allowed to continue to Palo Alto, the Peninsular had lost an important corner of its network—Palo Alto was now a dead end and Stanford was cut off. Los Gatos soon began demanding more space on its roads, too, including down Santa Cruz Avenue and along the Los Gatos-Saratoga road. To make matters worse, the Peerless Stage Company was given permission to run buses along many of the routes catered to by the interurban. Whereas the interurbans had to maintain their own rights-of-way and pay property taxes, the buses only had to pay a fuel tax.

Peninsular Railway conductors beside an interurban car, ca 1930 [History San José – colorized using DeOldify]

The Great Depression was the final nail in the coffin, with far fewer people commuting to work due to a lack of jobs. Southern Pacific took the opportunity to end many of its branch lines and in the Bay Area including all of its streetcar routes in the Oakland area and the southern of the two New Almaden Branches in 1933. On September 30, 1934, the last Peninsular Railway interurban car made its run from Los Gatos to Saratoga and then to San José. The second New Almaden Branch, from Campbell, with which the Peninsular shared trackage, was abandoned in 1937.

Peninsular Railway #52 at the Western Railway Museum in Suisun City. Photo by Jay Cross. [Wikipedia]

Because much of the trackage was in or along roads, most of which have since been widened, almost nothing survives today of this important network. Several of the interurban cars were shipped to Los Angeles, where they were used by the Pacific Electric Railroad, another Southern Pacific subsidiary interurban system, until 1963. The Western Railway Museum in Suisun City, California, holds a still-operation Peninsular Railway #52 as well as an inoperative #61 trailer car in its collection.

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