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.

Electric cars passing over the Bay Bridge (c. 1940)

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)

When the bridge was built, it carried 3 lanes of car traffic in each direction on the upper deck, while the lower one was dedicated to truck traffic--with space reserved along the south side to allow for 2 electric rail tracks to shuttle passenger cars back and forth across the San Francisco Bay. Eastbound trips originated at the San Francisco Terminal Building facing Mission Street between First and Fremont.

Putting electric cars on the bridge was anything but straightforward. There were actually 3 existing rail systems feeding into the East Bay and San Francisco sides--the Sacramento Northern, Interurban Electric lines, and the East Bay's own Key System--each running on a different voltage. And all 3 lines had to split off to their own set of destination routes once they arrived in Oakland.

Key System Car 187

The cars themselves were orange and cream white, with a pale green stripe at the window level. They had woven reed seat covers in one section, and leather in another. During WWII the roofs were painted gray to camouflage them from the air. ("Key System", 2017)

“...it’s said that not only was the Key’s Transbay commute about as fast as ours today on BART, [but it was also] a decidedly more upscale experience: one could buy a newspaper, order breakfast, the dining cars had silverware, linen tablecloths, fresh cut flowers, etc.).” ("Key System", 2017)

Each train was tagged with a "train describer" that sent the destinations for the first 3 approaching trains, as well as the 7 behind them, to the Bridgeyard Interlocking Tower, from which they were routed by operators through a system not much less complicated than the ones used by air traffic controllers today. But somehow, they made it all work.

Key System "C" Train and Yerba Buena and Adeline Streets in Emeryville

The Godfather of the Key System was Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, the "Borax King" (of 20-Mmule Team Borax fame), who put together a vast fortune in borate mineral mining operations in the Mojave Desert starting in the 1870's. He built an estate in the East Bay across from what is now Oakland High School that he dubbed Arbor Villa. ("Historic Bay Area Rails - Railroads, Trains of the past and present - Santa Fe, Sacramento Northern, Southern Pacific and More!", 2017)

The first connection across the Bay to San Francisco was by ferryboat via a causeway and pier ("mole"), extending from the end of Yerba Buena Avenue in Oakland. The Key System began as a fleet of these boats operating between the Key Route Pier and The Ferry Building in San Francisco.

Ferry passengers in the 1950's
“The name is based in part on the shape of the ferry slips on the old Key System Mole. On a stylized map first issued in 1903, the system’s routes were drawn to resemble an old-fashioned key, including a three-looped handle covering Berkeley, Piedmont (or Piedmont/Claremont) and Oakland, a shaft in the form of the Mole, and teeth representing the ferry slips.” ("Key System",2017)
The East Bay "Mole." The teeth of the Key.

The Key System's electric cars operated under the name "Oakland Traction Company," out of several carbarns. The Central Carhouse was on the east side of Lake Merritt on Third Avenue, with the Western Carhouse located at 51st and Telegraph Avenue in the Temescal District of Oakland. The Elmhurst Carhouse was in the East Oakland district of Elmhurst, and The Northern Carhouse was in Richmond. ("Key System", 2017)

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.

The bridgeyard shop was erected in 1938 to provide maintenance and light repairs for the railway cars. Built as a long, unbroken vault bookended by sets of huge bi-fold doors, the shop was designed in the International Style for industrial buildings--focussing design considerations around the provision of expansive open spaces, clearstory banks of windows for light and attention to supporting the actual work to be done in the structure. Three tracks ran longitudinally through the building over inspection/work pits to provide access to traction motors, brake system and other operating components of the cars.

The Interurban Railway Shop in 1958

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.

The great bi-fold doors at either end of the bridgeyard shop had been repaired and modified multiple times over the years.

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.

Restored doors ready for glazing

Of the historic 12 doors in the shop facade, 4 had been replaced by a roll-up door years ago.

The massive strap hinges being installed

The existing doors were salvaged for their original components to create 8 restored units.

Metal window inserts

Metal mullion inserts for the new doors were reclaimed from the 1938 sets and fitted with modern safety glass.

Setting the doors upright and bolting in the iron hardware

The hinges and metal strapwork are forged steel with a hot dip galvanized finish

Hardware was purchased from Crown Industrial in San Francisco, the same company that provided the original pieces in 1938

Forged steel hinge knuckle

Crown also supplied track parts of the original design

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.

The little cars weren't completely forgotten, however. In 1998, Bay Area voters approved a ballot measure to study the possibility of restoring trains to the bridge. Although the study returned that it was feasible technically, interest in furthering the project faded in the face of a multi-billion dollar budget.

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.

From the top clockwise: The west span, the Loma Prieta Quake damage, lights on the west span, the new east suspension span

The nature of history carries with it the inevitability of change, and we've seen our share in this little corner of the country. At Wooden Window, our mission is to bring our craft and our experience to the job of preserving the structures that connect us to the most important moments of our past and remind us of who we were then. It's a privilege.

Wooden Window Inc. · Oakland, CA

Created By
Steve Bragato
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