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San Carlos (1984)

San Carlos depot The San Carlos railroad depot was constructed in 1888 for the Southern Pacific on grazing land that had been a part of the Arguello Ranch. Until 1887, San Carlos did not have a permanent stop. The depot is a classic example of “If you build, they will come,” as it was constructed before there were people to use it.

Captain Nicholas T. Smith, fellow SP officials and some businessmen formed the San Carlos Land Company to create a little town that would offer residents spacious living within an hour of San Francisco. To attract new residents they sought the help of Leland Stanford friend Nathaniel Brittan to grant the land for the stop.

When Stanford University was being built in Palo Alto in the late 1880s, Leland Stanford provided excess sandstone from its construction for the San Carlos depot. Built in the Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style that was prevalent at Stanford, the depot consists of two masonry buildings that shared a common, multi-hipped slate roof. On the east side, the depot has a round two-story tower with a conical roof. A covered breezeway connects the main part of the depot to the baggage rooms (now used for storage.) The most elaborate part of the depot is the east side, which faced passengers as they got off the train and looks onto Old County Road. The central part of the interior of the depot was a waiting room, with the ticket office on the ground level of the tower.

Despite the real estate promoters’ efforts, San Carlos grew slowly. When the San Francisco earthquake struck in 1906, the depot was still the only public building and the center of social activity. In 1895, the first town post office was housed in the depot and in 1911 library service was offered to railroad customers during their train wait. On Sundays, church services were held in the depot.

In 1960, the SP withdrew its agent, and San Carlos riders had to buy their tickets on the train from the conductor. Subsequent tenants included the Chamber of Commerce, a real estate service, and since 1983, the Depot Café. Owner Mary Abolmoluki dispenses train information along with omelets and hamburgers.

On May 12, 1976, the San Carlos Depot was dedicated as a California Historical Monument, through the efforts of the San Carlos Villagers, docents at the Museum of San Carlos History.

After Caltrans took on responsibility for the railroad, San Carlos was the first depot purchased for restoration (in 1982) and a city-wide centennial in 1988 heralded the refurbishment of the iconic landmark. When the railroad tracks were grade-separated at Holly Street in 1999, great care was taken to make sure that the depot was preserved.

Fun Fact: During pre-dawn hours, Chysanthemum merchants taking their flowers to market would build a fire on the tracks to stop the train at the lightly-used San Carlos station.