Trains of Concord, Clayton, and Cowell

Concord Historian

By Robert A. Campbell, Sr. March 2005

While Concord was not located on a main railroad line, is still a town blessed with a rich railroad history. The first railroad to reach Concord was the Southern Pacific’s San Ramon Branch which began service in May 1891. In the beginning, both freight and passenger trains contributed to the extensive rail traffic on the branch line.

Southern Pacific

Concord’s Southern Pacific Depot on Market Street was of a standard design developed by the Railroad. The upstairs apartment could be on either end, depending on the standard blueprint selected. Concord’s own Erv Lehmer first came to Concord when his father took the railroad agent’s job and lived in the apartment with his parents.

The coming of the Oakland & Antioch Railway changed things considerably. The trip from Concord to San Francisco was 33.7 miles via the Oakland & Antioch and 42.5 miles via Southern Pacific. At Walnut Creek, things were more dramatic; by the Oakland & Antioch the trip was 28.4 miles to San Francisco, and by Southern Pacific it was 48.2.

In 1909 the gap between San Ramon and Radum (Pleasanton) connecting with the Southern Pacific Altamont Pass line to Livermore was closed. The route the trains then traveled was from Port Costa to Avon, to Concord, to San Ramon and on to Livermore. The only water tank on the San Ramon Branch was at Concord for filling locomotive tenders. At San Ramon there was a turntable and a one track engine house.

By the 1910s, the Southern Pacific, in order to cut costs on light traffic branch lines used a McKeen car. The McKeen cars, which sat 71 passengers, were gasoline mechanical cars that were very unpopular with both crewmen and patrons due to exhaust fumes. The appearance of the McKeen cars was likened to upside down boats with pointed noses and porthole windows.

By the early 1920s things had changed again. Southern Pacific finally got rid of the McKeen cars and instituted mixed use trains that carried both freight and passengers on the same train. The last mixed use train ran in Fall 1934, thus ending all passenger service on the San Ramon branch, except for a few excursions.

In the mid-1950s, the steam engine gave way to diesel engines on the San Ramon branch. The Southern Pacific abandoned more than 20 miles of the branch from Willow Pass Road in Concord to the Alameda County line in 1978. The Concord Depot lasted from 1891 to 1959.

The second railroad in Concord was the Bay Point & Clayton Railroad built in 1906-1907. It ran a distance of 9 miles from Bay Point to the then sizeable Lime and Cement plant at Cowell. There were plans to extend the line to Clayton, but the acquisition costs for right of way from ranchers along the proposed route was too costly.

Bay Point & Clayton had two small six-wheel steam engines built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, PA in 1907. The first was labeled “Cowell Portland Cement Co.”, and the second was labeled “Bay Point and Clayton Railroad”. Both were used interchangeably. If the Bay Point & Clayton was short of engines, it rented one from the Santa Fe. The two engines, being six-wheeled would compare well with “Thomas the Train” engine but the Bay Point & Clayton engines had tenders. They were also known as being oil burners.

The Cowell Cement Plant had a standard gage in plant operation plus four narrow gage tank engines to haul limestone from the quarry operation that provided raw material for the plant. There was no connection between the standard gage and narrow gage as they were on different levels. The cement plant operated only six months of the year, from May through October, to ease the problems of drying the limestone. The six months that the cement plant was in operation were considered months of heavy activity for local construction companies.

A third six-wheel steam switch engine was purchased in 1944 from the State Belt Railway of San Francisco for use in construction of the Navy’s Inland Storage area and to switch munitions. The Navy began condemnation proceedings in 1944 and finally acquired the Bay Point & Clayton Railroad in 1947. Today about 1/2 to 3/4 of the Bay Point & Clayton Railroad still exists within the Concord Naval Weapons Station. The cement plant in Cowell shut down operations at the end of the 1946 season. In 1946 the last run for the Bay Point & Clayton Railroad was made.

The third railroad in Concord was the Oakland & Antioch, on which construction began in 1910 between Bay Point (Port Chicago) and Concord. This was considered a country trolley line intended to operate between the two cities with just two interurban motor cars. Built by Holman Car Co. of San Francisco in January 1911, these two cars (#1001 and #1002) were combination cars that carried passengers, baggage and express.

The first train to operate between Bay Point and Concord, ran February 13, 1911, with car #1002 making the run. The conductor on the first single car train was Ernest “Nobby” Knowblock, who later became the famed school train conductor. Nobby Knowblock, who became a Concord resident in 1912, previously resided in Stockton where he occasionally worked for the Central California Traction Co. that ran a 1200-volt third rail interurban train between Stockton and Sacramento.

While the two cars were outwardly similar, had the same body construction, and both had four 75 H.P. motors, they differed electrically. Both ran on 1200 volt direct current overhead trolley wire. But, car #1001 used Sprague-General Electric “type M” or magnetic control in which a small low voltage direct current operated switches in a “switch group” under the car. This cut in and out resistance as the car accelerated from a standing start. Both cars were double ended with controls at both ends. Car #1001 could have operated in multiple units in a train of several cars with the same magnetic controls, but never did. Car #1002 was quite different in its controls. It had a very large “type K” controller where all the resistance and motor connections were made inside the controller itself at the operator’s position. If cars #1001 and #1002 were operated together, each would have required its own motorman.

The Oakland Antioch & Eastern built and motorized its main line cars between Oakland to Sacramento and used a third type of control, “Westinghouse HL”. This type of control was electro-pneumatic, which was in cars #1003 to #1020, and could operate together in multi-car trains. Also, cars without motors, #1021 to #1026 and #1201 to #1210 had controls to operate the motorcars with the HL control.

Sacramento Northern

The various names of the railroad over the years were: Oakland & Antioch, Oakland Antioch & Eastern, San Francisco-Sacramento, and Sacramento Northern. Oakland & Antioch incorporated January 13, 1909, and was built from Bay Point to Lafayette. Oakland Antioch & Eastern incorporated March 28, 1911, leased the Oakland & Antioch in 1912, and built from Oakland to Lafayette, and Bay Point to Sacramento.

Sacramento Northern

Both the Oakland & Antioch and the Oakland Antioch & Eastern were acquired by foreclosure from the San Francisco-Sacramento Railroad on January 26, 1920 and used the slogan “Sacramento Short Line”. It was then acquired by Sacramento Northern Railway January 1, 1929. Sacramento Northern was a subsidiary of Western Pacific.

From the beginning of the railroads in Concord, students rode the trains to attend Mt. Diablo High School as it was the only high school between Oakland and Antioch. Some grammar school students road the trains as well. Students using the Southern Pacific San Ramon branch walked through the fields between the depot on Market Street to attend Mt Diablo High School on Grant Street. Students using the Oakland & Antioch, Oakland Antioch & Eastern, San Francisco-Sacramento, or Sacramento Northern Railway had it much easier as it stopped at Bacon Street one block away.

By 1922 it became clear to Bertha Romaine, the principal of Mt. Diablo High School that many students in the outlying areas were not attending high school as they could not afford the train fare. In 1922 the school began to issue scholar tickets free to students so that they all could attend. This included students from Canyon, Moraga, Burton, Lafayette, Walnut Creek, way stations such as road crossings, and sign board stations, some without shelters. Another school train ran from Concord to Pittsburg.

Over the years the school trains grew longer as more students attended. By the 1930s the Oakland to Concord school train grew to contain five passenger cars with up to 294 seats. Ernest “Nobby” Knowblock was the school train conductor and Oscar Shindler was the motorman. The east bound school train ran as Train #12 and the west bound was #27. The railroads were paid by the number of scholar tickets lifted by Nobby Knowblock and he was aware of all the tricks the students played on him with the tickets.

Other flag stops the trains made within Concord were at Main Street (Salvio Street), Dorenda (Bonifacio Street), and Adeline (Port Chicago Highway at Olivera Road). The Dorenda stop was named for Dorenda Maltby, and Adeline stop was named for Adeline Williams, both daughters of local landowners who contributed right-of-way for the electric Railroad.

Another interesting fact about the school trains was the way they were segregated. Boys sat in one car, girls in another. Also, the boys fought over who was going to sit in the smoking compartments.

The Sacramento Northern Railway eliminated all passenger service in Fall 1940. The San Francisco-Pittsburg trains ran one more year, due to the opening of Acalanes High School in Lafayette. In 1940, high school seniors voted to continue riding the trains to school in Concord. The last run of the school train and all other San Francisco to Pittsburg passenger trains was made on June 27, 1941. Concord truly lost something when the Sacramento Northern terminated passenger service. The central Contra Costa County area certainly could have used the service during WWII. The last electric freight train from Oakland ran on February 28, 1957, and the last diesel train ran on December 12, 1973, thus ending the great railroad era in and around Concord.

Trains of Concord Clayton and Cowell
Oakland Antioch and Eastern Railway  •  Bay Point and Clayton Railroad  •  Cowell Portland Cement Company Railroad  •  Cowell Loc

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