All aboard! for history | May 29, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - May 29, 2009

All aboard! for history

Museum of the San Ramon Valley celebrating 10 years in historic train depot

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

If only the old Southern Pacific train depot in Danville could talk. It could tell tales of dramas in the waiting room, the station manager living upstairs, and tons of produce passing through its portals during the heydays of agriculture in the Valley.

Since starting its life as the Museum of the San Ramon Valley in the 1990s it could tell about "Irma's strippers, " who meticulously removed more than half an inch of paint under the guidance of Irma Dotson , and the Robber Baron Balls that were held to finance the renovation.

The depot was originally located a block further south, near Lunardi's in 1891. After the end of passenger service in 1934, the building was owned by Joe Ramos Jr., who painted the building red and used it as a feed and grain store for the farm community. The Southern Pacific continued to pass through town with freight, with the last train in 1978.

Ramos painted the depot red. He made himself a home upstairs where he even installed a hot tub, said Gary DeAtley, who was head of the Restoration and Renovation Committee.

"Joe Ramos took great care of the inside of the building," DeAtley said. "Over the years some walls had been moved. Indoor plumbing was added 1919-1920, but it was basically a kitchen with a small living area and two bedrooms. All the flooring and paneling are original, and it still has the original light fixtures and light sockets."

Meanwhile the idea for a museum was growing with members of the San Ramon Valley Historical Society, which formed a Museum Feasibility Committee. See Presenting the Past, page 16.

When Ramos passed away, the Town of Danville wanted the land for a municipal parking lot - where the farmers market is held - but had no use for the building so helped procure it for the museum.

"The final negotiations were that the town leased the land that the depot is now sitting on to the museum for 75 years for $1 a year," said DeAtley. The Museum of the San Ramon Valley board of trustees paid another dollar for the depot with the stipulation that it was responsible for moving the building, restoring it and turning it into a museum.

"We moved the depot in June of 1996," recalled DeAtley.

They interviewed several movers and hired the Lopez Brothers, who had experience moving old buildings. They jacked up the depot and put it on wheels.

"Then it slowly started moving down the road, pulled by a tractor," remembered DeAtley.

"It was a warm beautiful day - but it was a very frightening day," said DeAtley. "We'd planned a celebration because we wanted people to come down and they did."

The movers were surprised at the weight of the depot. "What we didn't realize when it was moved was that still inside of it was an internal brick chimney," DeAtley said. The depot had two potbelly stoves, one in the waiting room and one in the ticket office, but the latter had been blocked off years before and forgotten.

The depot was put onto wooden beams and concrete blocks. A new foundation was built underneath it.

"Then the restoration project started in earnest," said DeAtley. "We had to do all new electrical, meet earthquake standards, all the internal walls had to be taken out to add new insulation and new wiring, then all the internal walls had to be put back in."

The outside of the building was cut redwood but many layers of paint had to be removed before they could see it.

"Especially the freight room had been painted so many times over the years it was almost half an inch thick, to protect the side of the building from the big shipping crates that banged against it," said DeAtley.

The 10-year celebration next week is the anniversary of the museum opening its doors for business. The intervening three years saw DeAtley at the depot almost daily, removing the paint, sometimes wearing a mask to protect against fumes from the paint thinner.

"Bill Riley and I stripped the entire building on the outside," said DeAtley. "We'd be over there at lunch and dinner and Saturday and Sunday for two-and-a-half years. We couldn't use a power hose or anything; we had to be careful."

The project cost $750,000, recalled DeAtley, raised by volunteers. Sunset Development, Longs Foundation and the Lesher Foundation donated money toward the project, he recalled.

"Our rallying cry became 'Save the depot,'" he said. "We had at least three Robber Baron Balls at Diablo Country Club to raise dollars."

His committee members met at 7 a.m. each Friday from 1993 to 1999 as they planned the restoration.

"No. 1, in the first year, we had to teach ourselves about historical restoration, what's right and what's wrong," he said. "We started working with historic architects and would make decisions on things like what kind of roof needed to be put on, what kind of heating system, whether or not we would take down walls, or put them up."

They removed all of the windows temporarily for the restoration but 40 percent of the glass is original and even more is original to the period. They also researched the original paint colors.

"'Irma's strippers' took all the hardware off and stripped it and returned it to the way it looked originally. It's brass and iron and nickel," DeAtley recalled. "We turned into maintenance guys."

"Finally when we had the bulk of the money, we put the rest of the restoration out to bid," he said. That included water and sewer hookups, electrical wiring, landscaping and the sidewalks.

Then they came up with the idea of engraved bricks, and ended up selling about 3,000 at $50 apiece. They are laid on the front and side of the land around the depot.

"Finally we decided one way or another we were going to open this thing in June 1999," said DeAtley. "We put the pedal to the metal, and still the day before opening we were sanding floors and scraping windows."

"We were well organized but we were running out of time," he added.

The depot had been transformed. The large freight room became the main exhibit. The former ticket office is now the greeting center, where volunteers are available to take entry fees and answer questions, and a gift shop.

The waiting room, where passengers bought tickets and waited for their trains, is now the museum library and the workroom for the docents as they catalogue photos and hold meetings. The station master's residence is more offices and storage.

The 10th Anniversary Celebration of the opening being held June 7 will include a reenactment of the original ribbon cutting ceremony, with original participants. In the last decade the original board members have stayed involved and the list of active volunteers has grown to more than 200.

"The museum is viewed with admiration by other local history museums in the Tri-Valley and Contra Costa County because of its level of volunteers, tours, service to school-age kids, collections (and our ability to find documented archives), the quality of exhibits," said curator Beverly Lane. "It is always interesting for me to see their reactions. They often say, 'You have how many volunteers?!' So many museums are barely open and have perhaps five stalwart volunteers to hold museums open. Those which are supported by their cities get staff hired, then released as budgets get tight. Here the volunteers hold everything together."

Jack Hamel, who created the timeline frieze that runs around the top of the freight room, is also responsible for the Anniversary Celebration display, which will be a compilation of exhibits from the last 10 years.

"There will be 23 discrete exhibits," said Hamel. "We're going to have a train exhibit, too, and a quilt display."

The San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District is also assembling a display called "Ablaze," which will tell its history and include old firefighting equipment.

The recently renovated baggage room will have an exhibit to explain the special programs of the museum, such as the downtown walking tours and the One-Room Schoolhouse that every third-grader in the School District visits to experience living history. The school passport program has students visit historic sights throughout the Valley and get their passports stamped. This program has proven informative for parents, too.

"A little display will have items that are collected from the community," said Hamel. "We're hoping to encourage people to donate things."

And there will be a display with photos of the depot being moved.

"We all take great pride in the museum," said DeAtley, who is still on the board. "It's really become a landmark in the town and is very much appreciated by everybody."

Happy birthday to history

What: 10th Anniversary Celebration of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley with train rides, hayrides, ice cream, music, exhibits from the last 10 years, and a reenactment of the original ribbon cutting ceremony

When: Noon-5 p.m., Sunday, June 7

Where: Museum of the San Ramon Valley, corner of Railroad and Prospect avenues, Danville

Information: Call 847-4750 or visit

Red caboose is a real loo-loo

The Southern Pacific caboose behind the Museum of the San Ramon Valley completes the railroad backage. And it's functional. It houses two restrooms and yet another display - of people traveling on the train in the early 1900s.

The idea for putting restrooms inside a caboose is credited to Steve Lake, Development Services Director for the Town of Danville. Since the facility serves patrons of the Iron Horse Trail, it qualified for a $50,000 grant from the East Bay Regional Park District, which runs the trail. Some thought was given to building restrooms that looked like a caboose but then the committee decided it wanted to have the real deal.

Barbara Hubinger was assigned the mission of finding the perfect old caboose for the job. She learned from railroad buffs about a train yard owned by Jim Dobbas Inc. in Antelope, a little north of Sacramento, which purchases and resells railroad cars.

Cabooses provided a home on the tracks for the train engineers, Hubinger explained, and they come in two styles - some have a cupola that allows the engineer to see over the track and others have bay windows for viewing. The yard had nine cabooses for sale.

"We preferred a cupola, but when we looked at this one with a bay window we thought we'd found what's exactly right for Danville," she recalled. "We wanted a Southern Pacific because that was the line." The one they chose was built in June 1951, a Southern Pacific Class C 30-6.

"We made an agreement with them that we would make a down payment and they would keep it for us until we were ready to have it shipped," Hubinger said.

When the track was in place, the caboose was put onto the back of a truck to travel down I-5, over I-80 and down I-680 to arrive at its new home in Danville.

The initial price was about $9,000 for the caboose, two sets of track and the transportation costs to Danville, reported Hubinger. There was also the cost of renting the crane, laying the tracks, lifting the caboose onto the tracks, and constructing the two restrooms plus the exhibit.

Hubinger said they have preserved graffiti on the caboose that was probably put there by a conductor who lived in it or a hobo who regularly rode the rails.

She reports that the caboose is fondly called "Loo" by the volunteers at the depot museum.


Like this comment
Posted by Hal Bailey
a resident of another community
on May 29, 2009 at 7:16 am

Dear Dolores,

A very enjoyable article.

A small correction about SPRR Depot staffing based on Harald Ostergaard Balle, as Buck Bailey, and my father's fifty years of "railroading with the SP." The Danville museum was formerly a DEPOT, and not a station, and it was managed by an AGENT and not a station manager. The remainder of the staff were a Chief Clerk and a staff of ticket, rates, and tariff Clerks. Clerks had unique slang names among their fellow "railroaders" such as "Mudhop" as identification of a rates clerk that did customer site rail car delivery and movement.

Every SP Depot was constructed in the same manner with AGENT's living quarters upstairs and an office/waiting room down stairs. As you visit the museum you will see one of the typical scales used to weigh and rate LCL (less than carload) freight being shipped in a Depot freight car to a region center such as Oakland or Roseville for further load and routing.

Most of the DEPOTs of my youth in the Napa Valley are gone and the steam engines I road with my father are mostly on display. Such railroading belongs in history because the technologies of rail logistics have appropriately moved forward. But still a visit to a typical steam locomotive in Martinez or to the museum and caboose in Danville tells a story of railroaders of the last century.

Harald A. Bailey