Noe Valley Voice November 2009

As the city grew up around the SP route, houses constructed adjacent to the railroad tracks often were built with odd, triangular shapes like this one on San Jose Avenue. To the left of the pie-shaped house is Juri Commons park, a diagonal sliver of land through which the Southern Pacific once rumbled.
Photo by Corrie M. Anders

Noe Valley's 'Lost' Railroad Remembered

By Corrie M. Anders

On a momentous January day in 1864, an engineer sounded his whistle, and the inaugural Southern Pacific pulled out from the heart of San Francisco, belching black smoke and startling the wildlife as it rolled through the Mission District and Noe Valley en route to San Jose.

The train carried passengers and cargo for the next 80 years, even as the cattle-grazing land along the single-track route started to fill in with houses, street grids, and automobiles.

The story of the SP line is unfamiliar to many people. But it will be retrieved from the history bin Nov. 24 when the San Francisco History Association presents a talk and slide show at St. Philip's Church.

Architectural historian Richard Brandi will trace the course of the long-defunct line using historical and contemporary photos. He also will discuss how the Southern Pacific Railroad affected the growth and architecture of San Francisco.

Signs of Tracks Still There

Brandi says the maps and photos will help people who'd li ke to "actually go out and look at the route and follow it if they want to."

The SP route was laid out to follow the flattest contours of San Francisco's terrain. Early on, the train ran south along Harrison Street to 22nd Street, and then angled west. The tracks crossed the wide-open spaces that today comprise 24th,Valencia, and Guerrero streets.

Near the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Dolores streets, the SP curved gently southwest. Once across Dolores Street, the train traveled diagonally across Noe Valley to Duncan Street, then ran south to 30th Street.

The line continued toward Glen Park, across the current site of the 30th Street Senior Center and the Pritikin Mansion, before heading to Colma and on to San Jose.

Some reminders are the triangular-shaped houses built along the SP right-of-way that are still standing today.

The popularity of the Southern Pacific started to wane in 1907, after an alternative track opened on newly filled-in wetlands along San Francisco Bay. After that time, Bran di says, the original SP main line became a branch line, and that too petered out in 1942.

Roundhouse Preservation

Brandi, 56, is president of the nonprofit Western Neighborhoods Project, a historical preservation group. A fourth-generation San Franciscan, he was born in the Mission District and currently resides in West Portal. When he was a toddler, his family lived on San Jose Avenue near 26th Street, a block from where the SP used to chug through what is now Juri Commons Park.

Fascination with the odd angles of buildings in his old neighborhood led him to the story of the SP line.

In his talk, Brandi will provide an update on efforts to preserve the old SP roundhouse, or locomotive barn, in Visitacion Valley.

The Nov. 24 program starts at 8 p.m. at St. Philip's, 725 Diamond Street between Elizabeth and 24th streets. Parking is available via the lot on Elizabeth Street.

Admission is free for History Association members and $5 for non-members. For further information, c all the association at 415-750-9986 or visit the website