U.S., Terminal Stations History: California Zephyr, City of San Francisco and San Francisco Chief

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; March 19, 2021

Enjoying the history of the California Zephyr, City of San Francisco and San Francisco Chief has to include the major terminal and intermediate passenger stations along their storied routes.

In the Amtrak era of the past half century we have become accustomed to a single intercity train station in each city, from an early 20th Century railroad temple still in use in major cities to something akin to a wide spot in the road for some small town intermediate stations. Along the route of the Sunset Limited there are “stations” which have a few feet of paved platform by the side of a road, accompanied by a sign announcing the “station” name. Some are more sophisticated and have a rudimentary three-sided shelter – akin to a city transit bus bench – to go along with the small platform. Others are real train stations with a building, platform and parking lot, but they are a shadow of what they once were pre-Amtrak.

In the summer of 1956, the year we have been using as a basis, both the westbound California Zephyr and the City of San Francisco departed from Chicago Union Station. Both the Burlington Railroad – California Zephyr – and The Milwaukee Road – City of San Francisco – used that station. The Santa Fe’s San Francisco Chief departed a few block away from Dearborn Station.

The most interesting part of this was the transfer of through Pullman sleeping cars arriving from or going to New York City for the Zephyr and City. The cars were flawlessly transferred from station to station and added to an existing consist of the westbound train, or reversed eastbound.

The Pennsylvania Railroad also used Chicago Union Station so that wasn’t much of a stretch for transferring through cars, but the New York Central called LaSalle Street Station home in Chicago which necessitated a more complicated transfer to and from Chicago Union Station.

In all, there were eight passenger train stations in Chicago with seven of them for intercity trains.

On the western end in the San Francisco Bay area, things were equally spread out between more than one train station.

Many ask why all long distance/inter-regional trains call at Oakland/Emeryville as the western terminus instead of San Francisco. The city of San Francisco sits at the northern point of a peninsula; immediately to the east of the city is the San Francisco Bay, and Oakland sits opposite to the east across the bay.

Before Amtrak, Southern Pacific and others ran passenger trains into San Francisco if they came from the south and terminated in San Francisco. Today, those tracks as used by Caltrain, bringing commuters from the Silicon Valley into the city.

The Western Pacific, the third partner in the California Zephyr, used Western Pacific’s Oakland station.

The City of San Francisco, at this point a Southern Pacific train (starting as a train of The Milwaukee Road, becoming a Union Pacific train (it’s primary owner) and then Southern Pacific) coming from Union Pacific’s Overland Route, called at SP’s 16th Street Station in Oakland, then proceeded to the Southern Pacific’s enormous Oakland Pier station where passengers transferred to a ferry to cross the San Francisco Bay to downtown San Francisco. After the ferry was discontinued, transfer bus service via the Oakland Bay Bridge was used.

The San Francisco Chief also terminated in Oakland, but at Santa Fe’s station.

Oakland had a total of four intercity train stations: one each for the Western Pacific and Santa Fe and two for the Southern Pacific, 16th Street and the Oakland Pier.

Southern Pacific’s 16th Street station became the Amtrak station, but is now abandoned as it was severely damaged in an earthquake. The station was replaced by a new, nearby Emeryville station, as well as a Jack London Square station in the former Oakland Pier area.

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