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January 2, 2018 > A train ride through time

A train ride through time

By Robbie Finley

Railroads are much more than just modes of mass transportation. Their steel tracks crisscross throughout the greater Bay Area, the State of California, and the entire nation, connecting cities and towns in more ways than one. The rich history of railroads helped create the Bay Area as we all have come to know it. Since 1988, the San Leandro Historical Railway Society (SLHRS) has preserved this history with its museum and expertly crafted model railroads based in a former Southern Pacific railroad depot.

ÒCalifornia is absolutely drenched in railroad history,Ó said SLHRS historian Pat LaTorres. The society, sole tenant of the depot, currently has a roster of 25 members and a number of associates. First started as a model railroad club, SLHRS grew out of a shared love of railways and the desire to preserve local history found in longstanding members such as LaTorres, who has been with SLHRS since its beginning. ÒSan Leandro has had seven different railroads in the area,Ó LaTorres said of the extensive history between the city and the industry. He continued, ÒIn 1988, we got the keys to the depot from Southern Pacific,Ó adding, Ò[then] we moved the building from its original location in December 1988 to its current location in the San Leandro city park.Ó

Depot hours are every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m., and Tuesdays from 7:30 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. Throughout the year, they also open for special events. ÒPart of the commitment we made to the City is to be open a certain number of hours a week and to do two shows a yearÉ Our two big shows are the Open House just before Christmas and then one at the beginning of summer.Ó

In addition to activities at the depot, society members participate in Operation Life Saver, an outreach program at local schools to educate students about safety around train tracks. The program was started by major U.S. railroad companies in cooperation with various state Departments of Transportation. ÒWe go into middle schools and address all of the sixth-grade history classes,Ó LaTorres said. ÒWeÕve been doing this for well over 10 years now, [we discuss] proper track crossing techniques. We stress how to avoid the tracks.Ó

The depot building itself has a storied history in the East Bay. Built in 1898 by the Southern Pacific Railroad, it was a larger, more functional replacement depot for San LeandroÕs original depot erected nearby in 1865. ÒThe local farmers said, ÔWe need a bigger facility to ship our product out,ÕÓ LaTorres explained, adding, ÒAfter all the lobbying, the City built the depot.Ó Depots were essential to getting the agricultural product out of the area and to vendors. ÒAll up and down the East Bay, thereÕd be farms and ranches all along the highway. The railroads were built for the area,Ó LaTorres said. Once San LeandroÕs depot was open for business, it became a hub of activity for the agricultural and industrial industries based in the East Bay during the turn of the 20th century. ÒWe can stand on the front porch of the depot at its current location and see where it was,Ó LaTorres noted, continuing, ÒIt was fortuitous that we managed to get everything to come together. The City gave us 12 months to get the depot restored and occupied. We had 18 months to restore the building and get a certificate of occupancy. It was a lot of long nights.Ó

Besides over 100 years of history, the depot currently houses a museum dedicated to the local railway history, as well as elaborate, intricately detailed indoor and outdoor model railroads. ÒThe HO scale model inside the depot models the railroad from San Leandro to Donner Summit,Ó LaTorres explained. HO scale in model railroading is 1:87 in size and the most popular scale in model railroading around the world. The second complete model display is in the outdoor garden area, modeled in the G gauge & O gauge scale layout, which contains an interactive childrenÕs layout that allows people to operate the trains and become a model conductor. Decorations outside change with the seasons.

The depot could not continue to preserve this fascinating aspect of the East BayÕs history without the generosity and assistance of the public. ÒWe are a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, so we ask for any donations people might have: old railroad books, tools, collectionsÉ if dad was a model railroader, anything thatÕs donated to us, weÕll give a form for a tax write off. ItÕs fully deductible,Ó LaTorres explained. The depot itself, a historic landmark, requires meticulous upkeep to preserve it for future generations.

The San Leandro Historical Railway Society is located at 1302 Orchard Avenue, and is open every Saturday, 9 a.m. Ð 1 p.m., and every Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Ð 9 p.m. Admission is free. To learn more about the San Leandro Historical Railway Society, visit

San Leandro Historical Railway Society
Tuesdays: 7:30 p.m. Ð 9:00 p.m.
Saturdays: 9:00 a.m. Ð 1:00 p.m.
1302 Orchard Ave, San Leandro
(510) 569-2490

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