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Menlo Park and the railroad
March 28, 2011, 03:30 AM By Darold Fredricks

The San Francisco and San Jose Railroad took a long time getting started. In the 1850s, the money flowing into San Francisco was not steady and there were two or three "starts” to form a company and raise money to lay tracks from San Francisco to San Jose.

In 1854, as an inducement to get the project started, San Jose gave an 8-acre square for a terminal station. This didn’t work. The state refused to give money for the project so the burden of raising the capital fell on San Francisco, San Mateo County and San Jose. In a May 21, 1861 election, San Francisco voted for $300,000, Santa Clara County voted $200,000 and San Mateo County voted for $100,000. The work began and rights-of-way were acquired as well as rolling stock and rails. Chinese labor was hired. They were paid a dollar a day plus board. It turned out to be the wettest winter on record and progress was slow. This was not the worst thing to happen, however, because it gave the engineers who had no experience with water problems to work them out before the job was done. By June, 300 labors were working out of five camps along 35 miles of road bed.

In 1862, a wooden, one-track bridge was erected over the San Francisquito Creek. This bridge lasted until June 1896 when a second bridge of iron was built. In 1863, the railroad company designated the stop on the northern side of the creek Menlo Park after they spotted an arch with large letters that had been erected across El Camino Real. Two Irishmen, Dennis J. Oliver and D.C. McGlynn had bought 1,700 acres of land in 1854 and erected the arch to identify their property. The owners lost the ranch in the 1955 depression but the arch persisted and became a landmark.

The halfway mark of the railroad was the San Francisquito Creek where the nearest settlement was Mayfield (later Palo Alto). Menlo Park became an important working site for the bridge built in 1862. A "way station” was built on Louis Golder’s tavern property in 1863. It was little more than a shed but it lasted at this site until August 1867 when it was loaded on a flat car and moved to Belmont where it became its first depot. Louis Golder, an 1852 pioneer from Germany also bought up four lots that the SF & SJ RR needed for their right-of-way. Golder and Benjamin G. Lathrop, head of the Menlo Park Villa Association, owned substantial land in the area and pushed for a more substantial railroad station in hopes of presenting a more favorable atmosphere for their development. By June 1867, a new station was built. A new twist in railroad ownership happened seven months later when members of the "Big four” purchased the bonds of the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad and Lathrop was chosen to become a director of the SF & SJ RR Co. Purchases by these railroad men were many times hidden by them so the public did not get wind of this fact for many months. Eventually the SF & SJ RR was absorbed into the Southern Pacific Railroad Company.

In 1867, the railroad sold property back to Golder and he built a large two-story hotel, which featured a saloon, on the site. The road to his hotel, Golder’s Lane, became an extension of Santa Cruz Avenue. In the same year, seeing the possibilities of more hotels near the railroad station, Martin and Deidrick Kuck built the Menlo Park Hotel (Kuck’s Hotel) on Golder’s previous tavern site. This became the nucleus of the area that was eventually named Menlo Park.

The natural beauty of the area was enhanced with oak trees and beautiful. It reminded many of formal English parks. Soon railroad officials and wealthy, influential people began stopping in Menlo Park to enjoy weekends in the country. Fashionable country homes began cropping up for many of the rich who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. The train provided easy comfortable transportation for those who wanted to provide entertainment for their guests or business acquaintances. George Gordon, wealthy real estate man from San Francisco, bought property south of the creek in Santa Clara County and developed a horse breeding farm that attracted the top horsemen on the Peninsula. Later, the estate called Mayfield Grange was sold to Leland Stanford, which he dubbed the Palo Alto Stock Farm. Others chose to buy large tracts of land north of San Francisquito Creek and build mansions that allowed them to indulge their lifestyle away from the lights of the city. The Athertons, Hopkinses, Floods, Millses, Donohoes and Feltons presented enough company to keep their San Francisco lifestyle going.

The train stop at Menlo Park became a recognized destination for the rich and near rich and developed into a laid-back community where the rich could forget their business life.

For a complete story on Menlo Park, read M. Svanevik and S. Burgett’s book: Menlo Park: Beyond the Gate.

Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.

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