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History of the
Iron Horse Regional Trail

When the Southern Pacific Railroad made its first public excursion through from Avon to San Ramon on June 7, 1891, it traveled over a route of productive farmland and beauty which was new to all aboard. None would have guessed that a century later the rail corridor would be transformed into a trail, appreciated by thousands of visitors each year and named for the train – the Iron Horse Regional Trail.

A Railroad Called the San Ramon Branch Line

After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Contra Costa County farmers and ranchers discussed how to get a north-south railroad put in place. Their dirt roads were impassable during rainy weather which isolated the residents and restricted the transport of agricultural products for months at a time.

In May of 1890 the Southern Pacific Railroad Company decided that a route through the county would be profitable for them if the right-of-way was donated to them. Negotiations with landowners began in earnest. August Hemme of Alamo and Grange members from throughout the County took the lead. They had innumerable meetings with groups and individuals and finally raised funds to help pay landowners who wanted compensation for the right-of-way through their ranch land.

Grading of the route began late in 1890. By early 1891, tracks were laid and the new San Ramon Branch Line was completed. The line extended from San Ramon to Avon (3 miles east of Martinez) for almost 20 miles when it opened in June, 1891. In 1909 SP extended the line to Radum (near Pleasanton’s Stanley Blvd.) to connect with the Oakland/Tracy line.

In the San Ramon Valley the train was a real success, especially in Danville which was directly connected to the station. Warehouses sprang up next to the rails in Concord, Alamo, Danville and San Ramon and farmers sent their hay, grain, nuts and fruit to the ports at Martinez. Cattle and horses were also transported. For years the first railroad trip for valley children was a memorable event in their lives.  In 1906 Ramona Park opened next to the tracks on the Meese Ranch (today’s Greenbrook Homes) and hosted community picnics, high school parties and fraternal groups.

The tracks were used for gravel transport from Pleasanton for years, including providing gravel for a road to the Mt. Diablo summit from Danville in 1915. With the advent of cars and trucks, use of the railroad gradually decreased. Regular passenger service ended in 1934. During World War II troops were moved to and from Camp Parks in Dublin. In 1973, only 413 cars ran the line; by 1975 there were a mere 123 cars.

Southern Pacific petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the line and, after two years of intense local opposition, the request was granted. Operations ended in 1978 and, by 1979, the rails were entirely removed. The huge trestle over San Ramon Creek near Greenbrook School was taken to the Sacramento Railroad Museum, shortened and put on display. The trestles in Walnut Creek and Concord were saved.

Debates over the Railroad’s Right-of-Way

The next several years saw considerable debate and many meetings focusing on the future of the right–of-way; both light rail and trail proposals were made. Between 1983 and 1989 Contra Costa County acquired the right-of-way for 18.5 miles between Mayette Ave. in Concord and the County line with Alameda, primarily using state funds earmarked for mass transit. Funds also came from the adjacent cities and the purchase of easements for utility pipes (including EBMUD and Central Contra Costa Sanitary District). The right-of-way varies in width from 30-100 feet.

Contra Costa County and cities along the right of way agreed that the right of way should be kept in public hands with no private development intruding, a major step in saving the corridor.

There were a myriad of meetings on this issue. Citizen groups, ad hoc government-citizen group, committees appointed by the County to advice consultants, quiet meetings of the County Supervisors and staff debating strategy on the issue, large meetings where people yelled at each other. Six separate studies were produced by private and public agencies in the 1980s.

Several groups organized in the valley to look at future uses of the right-of-way. Most of these groups were actively opposed to any proposals for bringing light or heavy rail lines back to the corridor. Alamo’s Roy Bloss initiated a homeowner coalition in 1983 (SPROW) to study right of way uses; a meeting that December drew 100 people, most of whom opposed light rail on the right of way. The SPROW study came out in 1984.

Another group, the Organization to Save Our Community, led by Tim Tinnes, included many residents who lived near the right of way; OSOC opposed any light right and promoted the trail instead. Several County-sponsored studies in 1984, 1987 and 1991 addressed right of way uses, always examining light rail options.

In the meantime, people were informally using the right-of-way to walk to school, do errands, run, hike and horseback ride. Mountain bikes were still in their infancy so few bikers used the dirt corridor.

Movement to Create a Trail

A citizen movement to create a multi-purpose trail began in early 1984 when Bick Hooper and Beverly Lane agreed the corridor would make an excellent paved trail, similar to the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail. Both had been active in the community and Lane was Danville’s Mayor that year. The Town offices were in a rented building next to the right-of-way.

Little did they know how many other people agreed with the idea. The Right of Way Trail Advocates (ROWTA) was born as potential trail users and local elected officials organized to discuss the possibility. Mary Lou Oliver and John Meakin from the San Ramon City Council were early supporters as were biker Phil Coleman, horsemen Al Kaplan and George Cardinet, Alamo park enthusiasts Wanda Longnecker and Syliva Lin, senior activist Dan Goldstein, Boy Scout leader Dan Sundeen and many others.

One articulate ROWTA member, Patrick Whittle, supported rail on the right-of-way; other were adamantly opposed. ROWTA chose to promote the trail and take no position on any potential rail proposals.

Bob Doyle, Trail Coordinator for the East Bay Regional Park District, was invited to an early meeting and talked about the District’s 1976 Master Plan which included a visionary regional trail on the right of way. He asked the group if they were "in it for the long haul” and the group said of course! Again, little did they know.

By-laws were written, Hooper was elected President of the group, a newsletter began and advocacy on many levels was initiated. The group helped work on a new EBRPD Master Plan which included the San Ramon Valley trail. Public support was overwhelming.

In 1986, after a naming contest, the trail became the San Ramon Valley Iron Horse Trail with names submitted by Irma Dotson (SRV) and Rick Hicks (Iron Horse). Later, as trail improvements were made beyond the San Ramon Valley to the north, the Park District Board removed “San Ramon Valley” from the name and called it the Iron Horse Regional Trail.

In 1988, after much public discussion, the county and both Valley cities (Danville and San Ramon) signed a mutual policy agreement asserting that the appropriate use of the right of way was a trail for pedestrians, non-motorized bikes and horses. It also stated that rail should be placed adjacent to Interstate 680 in the San Ramon Valley.

Trail Development Begins 

The right-of-way gradually became an all-purpose utility corridor as well.  A SP petroleum pipe line had been in place for years. Beginning in 1984, East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMUD) installed new pipe and graveled the corridor, providing the first “finished” trail of any type. Next the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District placed a huge pipe in the corridor and, as a mitigation, built the first section of paved trail in 1988. In 1996 fiber optic cables were installed.

Permission from the county was obtained at each step both for pipelines and the paved trail. Purchase and development funds for the trail (built to EBRPD standards) came from city general funds, Transportation Development Act funds (advocated by County, Town and City staffs in an annual process), TDA mass transit funds, grants, developers such as Sunset Development Company (Bishop Ranch Business Park in San Ramon) and Chevron.

Gradually signalized intersections were installed at major roads and steel bridges went up along the creeks. A license agreement was signed between Contra Costa County and EBRPD for each finished segment; the Park District took responsibility for the maintenance and public safety of the completed trail and several feet to each side. The county repaired the streets so that cars moved smoothly over the removed tracks. Later, when the trail extended to Alameda County, Dublin and Pleasanton agreed to provide trail maintenance.

In 1997 the county appointed an Iron Horse Corridor Advisory Committee to advise them on a management plan for the corridor, extending from San Ramon to Concord. The plan identified various pipes locations and easements in the right-of-way. Many users want to see more landscaping, water and other amenities, sometimes characterizing it as a “linear park.” The county’s Public Works, Redevelopment and Community Development Departments supervised a consultant who developed the Contra Costa County Iron Horse Corridor Management Program Landscape Element.

The Trail Comes Into Its Own in the Twenty-First Century

Today the paved, multi-use Iron Horse Trail is completed far beyond the San Ramon Valley. It extends over 30 miles from Concord on the north to beyond the Dublin BART station on the south, with parts of the trail completed in Pleasanton. Titled a “millennium trail” in 2000, some call it the “poster child” for the rails-to-trails movement in California.

During the past 40 years the importance of trails to communities and been increasingly acknowledged. The EBRPD itself began to recognize and support regional trails in the 1970s, promoted by Park District acquisitions manager Hulet Hornbeck and equestrian trail advocate George Cardinet. Where once transportation funds were earmarked solely for pavement and rails, now multi-use trails are recognized as integral to transportation corridors. The health benefits of using trails are broadly acknowledged. Both Alameda and Contra Costa County voters passed transportation measures which included hefty amounts for multi-use trails.

For the many regular users, trails are both a recreation amenity and transportation route. Studies now show that the highest trail use occurs during rush hour. All major street intersections have signals on this regional trail, several high schools and many elementary schools have direct access to it. Several housing developments and an intermediate school have been named for the Iron Horse Trail. Trail bridges over high-traffic roads are either in place or planned soon in Walnut Creek, Concord, San Ramon and Dublin.

Visitors use the trail to go to school or work; they shop at the farmers market, “do” lunch and use a bike for errands. And sometimes they just take a meandering walk, free from the omni-present automobile, and relish the beauty of the East Bay’s inland valleys. The Iron Horse Regional Trail is indeed a success story.

Beverly Lane    2023 


Irma Dotson, San Ramon Branch of the Southern Pacific
EBRPD master plans for 1976, 1988, 1997, 2013
Newspaper articles 1976-2006
SRBL right of way reports 

Attached in large version:

Chronology of the right of way 1978-2006
List of public reports on the right of way