Trains played a vital role in the economic development and growth of Napa County communities. An integral part of that transportation system was its depots. However, only a few of the once numerous local train depots and stops still exist. One survivor is the St. Helena Southern Pacific depot.
The Southern Pacific Railroad Company typically used a pattern book of plans to design their depots for smaller communities. The St. Helena station was no exception. Its final physical dimensions, composition and appearance were all determined by the company’s perceptions of St. Helena’s transportation needs, passenger and freight services.
These needs were repeated throughout rural America during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. In fact, the St. Helena depot has a nearly identical twin in Beaumont, Texas. But the foremost purpose of the local depot is clearly demonstrated by the percentage of space dedicated to shipping. The freight area occupied three-quarters of the building.
Local farmers, ranchers, wine-makers, industrialists and merchants would pull up to the west-facing loading dock to unload their goods and products to be shipped to a desired location. Those items were then weighed on the huge scale recessed into the freight room floor.
While the weight was recorded, many a businessman noted the shipping charges listed on the freight room chalkboard. Once the weighing was completed, the Southern Pacific agent filled out the routing slip and marked the cargo accordingly. Southern Pacific provided local freight service well into the 1970s.
Payment for the shipping was made in the business office located on the first floor of the two-story section of the depot. Also within that office area, other Southern Pacific agents tended to baggage claims and ticket sales for St. Helena residents and visitors. The passengers, as well as those waiting for arrivals, bided their time in the sunny, wood hewn and modestly detailed waiting room. It shared the first floor with the business office.
The passengers’ destinations varied as widely as their personalities and reasons for traveling. Any one of the trains leaving St. Helena could have carried a local youth on his or her first trip to San Francisco or Frank B. Mackinder, the St. Helena Star, owner and publisher, to an important business meeting with other newspaper magnates.
For those who disembarked at the St. Helena depot, many were locals returning home. But another large percentage of valley bound travelers were tourists. From the depot, these visitors were transported by stagecoach or carriage to one of the many local resorts.
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The survival and success of these local retreats — Napa County’s first tourist attractions and hospitality centers — were dependent upon reliable rail transportation. However, in 1929, Southern Pacific discontinued its Napa County passenger service.
While the first floor of the two-story section of the depot was a place for commerce, travel and employment for most individuals, the second floor was the place the St. Helena station master called home. The second floor was a five-room and well-appointed apartment.
Although the station master had to share the kitchen and bathroom during the day with his co-workers, he had the place to himself at night. From the vantage point of his second story home, he could easily monitor the property. But being on-call 24 hours a day, the station master was also required to make rounds at least once a night as well as tend to any customer who needed to conduct business during off-hours.
The St. Helena depot continues to embody and convey its essential role as a transportation hub, a crucial component to St. Helena’s commercial development and success.
Happily, this representative of local rail history was, and is being, preserved by its owners through its rehabilitation and adaptive re-use. Also, to provide additional protection, the owners and I successfully nominated the property to the National Register of History Places. It was official listed on Jan. 7, 1997.
Historic architecture and preservation can be confusing. If you are interested in exploring these fields, please join me for “A Sense of Time and Place: The Architectural History and Heritage of Napa Valley.” This Napa Valley College Community Education program course will meet on Thursdays, Sept. 20—Oct. 11 from 1—2:30 p.m. at the College’s St. Helena campus. The Oct. 4 class will be a walking tour of “Old Town” Napa.
For more information or to register and pay for the four-week course, #74215, call the Upper Valley College office at 707-967-2901 or visit napavalley.edu/commedreg. (Please be aware this class is subject to cancellation if its minimum enrollment is not met by Monday Sept. 17.) I hope to see you there! Thank you!