Los Altos Rail History

  The following is adapted from Don McDonald's book, Early Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, available from the Los Altos History Museum.

In 1904 the Southern Pacific Railroad had the vision of connecting a San Jose-Los Gatos line to Palo Alto and San Francisco by electric trolley. The company bought the San Jose-Los Gatos Interurban Railway and formulated a plan to create the Mayfield-Los Gatos Cut-off, connecting Palo Alto to San Jose. The creation of this extension was impossible without the cooperation of Sarah Winchester. In 1888 Sarah Winchester bought 165 acres of ranch land in present-day Los Altos and named it El Sueño ("The Daydream"). Southern Pacific President, Oliver A. Hale, convinced Sarah Winchester to sell her entire ranch in order to procure a right-of-way for the Mayfield line. Fortunately the new route followed existing county roads and no other right-of-way was needed.

Laying the foundation for a railroad in the Los Altos countryside was no easy task. It involved horses, mules, steam shovels, and manpower. Actual construction on the Mayfield-Los Gatos Cut-off began in 1907. Paul Shoup, who worked at the Southern Pacific Company and was President in 1929, had a vision for the prime land located along the rail line. In 1907 with the help of Walter A. Clark and other friends, Paul Shoup established the town of Los Altos.

Steam train service in Los Altos began in 1908 and electric trolley service followed on February 26, 1910. This created parallel railroad tracks along present-day Foothill Expressway. Train number 2476 (featured in the first image above) was one of several steam trains purchased in the 1920s by the Southern Pacific. It provided rail service for both passengers and freight until the late 1950s. Trolley service reached its peak in 1915 and steadily declined during the Great Depression. Bus services along the same route eventually substituted the trolley. The Peninsular Railway Trolley stopped its services in March 1933.

After World War II  Los Altos, along with other peninsula towns, experienced a population boom. Los Altos was no longer home to only orchards and sleepy farm houses. Developers built houses and new schools, and automobiles flooded into Los Altos. The Southern Pacific, the catalyst for Los Altos' establishment, was no longer the favored mode of transportation. Eventually Los Altos had only once-a-day rail service to and from San Francisco and in 1958 the Southern Pacific stopped for good. Only four years later, Foothill Expressway was constructed along the same route.



McDonald, Don and The Los Altos History Museum. Early Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2010.

Nyberg, Paul D. Los Altos: Portrait of A Community. Los Altos: Select Books, 2000.


Photos reproduced with permission from the Los Altos History Museum.