History of the Depot

Tales and tangents

Doug Offenbacher

I’m learning what any historian will confirm – there are two things you can expect to find when you begin delving into the past: (1) that which you were more or less looking for, and (2) a treasure-trove of unexpected, tangential discoveries that will keep you engrossed and on the computer well into the morning hours.

Not a history buff or railroad enthusiast by nature, researching the depot has been a new experience for me. I’ve learned there’s a greater fascination with trains than I ever imagined. I’ve also found an even greater intrigue lies, not with the railroads per se, but with the complex network of people surrounding the early railroad phenomenon.

I learned early on about our twin depot in San Carlos, but knew little about it. Getting started was not difficult, which is why I hope many of you will also take up this search. All the excitement of discovery that I’ve experienced can be yours as well. Searching filled my files quickly with all the usual suspects recorded by thousands of searchers before me. Some time on Google, some books, some calls and a visit to the San Carlos History Museum filled my files with more names, all players in the railroad, in real estate deals, in race horse breeding, politics and more.

Similar research here in Sonoma County found similar results, men of wealth with the same interest profiles. A connection between the two groups came with a tip from Gaye LeBaron, “Try Mark McDonald.”

And there it was: a San Francisco resident and close friend of Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker – MacDonald was nearly a member of the “Big Four” (Stanford, Crocker, Huntington, Hopkins) but for other pursuits. An investor and developer in Santa Rosa, McDonald’s Mansion still stands today in all its rejuvenated glory.

McDonald owned quarries and large orchards in Santa Rosa and was in need of a local railroad that went east, not south. With encouragement from friend Stanford, he took the initiative and pushed through the Carquinez to Santa Rosa Railroad, spawning the planned village of Los Guilicos (later Kenwood) and our unprecedented stone depot. Near its completion, the new railroad was acquired by Southern Pacific as the Sonoma Valley Line. Out of respect, Stanford and Crocker granted McDonald the honor of driving the final spike.

The year was 1888 and in San Carlos, our sister station was also nearing completion. Managing construction was Arthur Brown, a remarkably capable civil engineer and Superintendent of Buildings and Bridges for the entire Southern Pacific Railroad network.

Managing construction of our Los Guilicos Depot was Santa Rosa contractor T.J. Ludwig, a friend of Mark McDonald and builder of his Santa Rosa mansion. Ludwig was a prolific Sonoma County builder and had been awarded the depot contract by Arthur Brown, no doubt with the approval of Stanford as a favor to McDonald.

Responsible for the design and construction of all new railroad buildings, Arthur Brown would have worked closely with Charles Coolidge, credited with being the designer of the San Carlos and Los Guilicos depots. Coolidge, who was here at that time designing Stanford University, was also experienced in depot design, his firm having done many in the Boston area.

Brown’s son, Arthur Brown Junior, then a teenager, saw architecture as his future and would surely have met and been inspired by the young Coolidge, a mere 28 when he designed Stanford. Later, a degree from Berkeley and studies in France led Arthur Junior to his own impressive career in architecture in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Notable among his portfolio are San Francisco City Hall, the War Memorial Opera House and Coit Tower. In future columns, we’ll look closely at many of the individuals comprising our depot’s expanding and ever more fascinating family tree.