Riding the Rails
Restoring the East Bay’s Electric Rail History
At Wooden Window, we do a lot of restoration for architecturally historic structures, but the chance to work close to home, and to recreate the 18-foot tall doors for a landmark of East Bay transportation history was something special–the Interurban Electric Railway Bridge Yard Shop.
If you’ve lived in the Bay Area for some time, you may know that public transportation needs in San Francisco and the East Bay, much like similar urban areas from Brooklyn to Denver, were once served by a robust and vibrant network of electric rail cars. The system maintained routes on both sides of the Bay, as well as commuter trains running across the Bay Bridge.
Construction on the Oakland Bay Bridge began in 1933 and cost an estimated $77 million to complete. By then, electric interurban railroads had existed on both sides of the bay since the turn of the century.
“They were the backbone of our mass transit system for nearly 100 years, with dozens of routes and hundreds of cars, and when they were discontinued in the late 1950s, almost all evidence of their reign was swept away.” (“When Trains Ruled the East Bay – Oakland Magazine – January 2008 – Oakland, California”, 2017)
For the whole story of the East Bay rail system and trains over the Bay Bridge click here.
Shops were built in 1938 to maintain the cars, one for the Southern Pacific and IER Red Trains and one for the East Bay’s Key System. They Key System shop, once located near the West Grand Avenue freeway overpass, was eventually torn down. The second, Southern Pacific shop, dedicated to the “Big Red Cars,” still stands in what was once called “The Bridge Yard.” A sister facility, the West Alameda Car Shop was eventually converted into a winery. The cars operated out of main facilities on either side of the bay.
Over the years, the tracks were removed, the inspection pits were filled in and surfaced over, and the continuous original interior split up into 3 sections. Since the demise of Transbay electric train travel, the shops have been used for the equipment and supplies of the Bay Bridge painting crews.
As part of the new EAST Span Project for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the remaining shop was evaluated, included in The National Register of Historic Places and made eligible for rehabilitation to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.
At Wooden Window, our piece of the overall rehabilitation project was to restore and reuse components from the 1938 door sets to create 8 new doors, complete with hardware and steel window inserts, fabricating perfect-to-match new parts where necessary.
The first step was to bring the original doors into our shop, strip and restore the original wood, and survey them for all the engineering data necessary to create new parts where needed.
Of the historic 12 doors in the shop facade, 4 had been replaced by a roll-up door years ago.
The existing doors were salvaged for their original components to create 8 restored units.
Metal mullion inserts for the new doors were reclaimed from the 1938 sets and fitted with modern safety glass.
But after the war, with the growing popularity and affordability of automobiles, along with the explosion in infrastructure growth, the days of electric Transbay travel were numbered. The cheery little cars hung on until 1958 when $49 million was allocated to re-configure the bridge for all-auto traffic. The last Key System train departed Oakland station in April of 1958.
“The last train did not go quietly into the night. It was packed with more than 500 passengers, who managed to get into the control cabs and set off all the train bells and whistles. They also set off flares and trackside warning devices and made such a horrible racket the Oakland cops turned out in force to see what was the matter.” (Nolte, 2017)
By 1962, the railway system was gone and the bridge reconfigured to carry 5 lanes of auto traffic on each deck. Most of the train cars were scrapped, some were salvaged for rail collections, and a few “emigrated” to continue their life’s work in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Depending on how long you’ve been in the East Bay, you’ve probably experienced your share of change to the Oakland Bay Bridge. You may have seen the Key System cars first cross the bay. You may have seen them go and be replaced by auto traffic in the 1960’s. You may have seen the terrifying collapse of the span in the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, and you may have been here to usher in the spectacular, if controversial, new East Span.
|Bring the Carriage Around|
|Bring the Carriage Around|