Southern Pacific depot

August 20, 2011

Fresno Bee library

Then: Fresno Bee library

Built on the birthplace of Fresno, the Southern Pacific Railroad depot represents the city’s transition from a dusty plains outpost to the West’s leading agribusiness center. The 1889 depot is the city’s oldest commercial building.

Railroad officials were so impressed by the success of pioneer rancher A.Y. Easterby, who grew 2,000 acres of grain on the arid landscape with a system of canals, that they picked a nearby spot as a stop on their Central Pacific line from San Francisco to San Diego.

On a horseback tour of the region, railroad director Leland Stanford, former governor of the state, is said to have exclaimed “Wonderful! Here we must build the town!”

The railroad wasted no time buying up 4,480 acres, mainly west of Easterby’s ranch. The line reached the townsite in late April 1872. Workers built switching rails and a small wooden depot. The place was called “Fresno Station,” and service was inaugurated a month later.

After a survey of the townsite which laid it out in blocks, the railroad sold lots starting in June 1872 at prices ranging from $60 to $250.

The rush was on. In August of 1931, historian Ernestine Winchell writes, “That summer and fall of 1872 were filled with color and activity, fired with ambition and hope. Hammers clattered, saws whined, overnight new board cabins sprang up, family washings were hung to the breeze and Fresno was a town.”

During the city’s building boom in the late 1880s, Southern Pacific (which took over Central Pacific in 1885) built a new depot on the site—one that made the city proud.

Built of brick in the Queen Anne style, it was spacious, featuring ladies and gents waiting rooms and baggage and ticket offices. Approximately 60-feet by 150-feet, it was crowned with a large turret, which was the station master’s office. A smaller turret and dormers with arched, small-paned windows extended from the slate roof.

Subsequent decades brought additions, remodeling, plastering of the exterior and construction of a Pullman Car shed. The shed, which housed the luxury passenger cars, may be the last one remaining in the U.S.

The depot closed for rail business in 1971 due to declining passenger business and an increase in truck transportation.

Today the building at 1713 Tulare Street houses offices and ACEL charter school (Academy for Civic and Entrepreneurial Leadership). It retains its original name “Fresno Station.

It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and on the Local Register of Historic Resources, and is one of two Queen Anne-styled rail stations in California.