In fact, the train depot at Dinkelspiel Station Lane was central to life in Atherton since before the town was incorporated, during the days when it was just a sleepy community of summer homes.
Part-time residents rode in on horse-drawn carriages to catch the train back to their homes and everyday lives farther up the Peninsula — San Francisco in particular.
Later, as more people took up permanent residence in the town, Athertonians hopped on the train to commute to San Francisco for work. At a recent City Council meeting, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis fondly recounted riding the train north with her father to accompany him to work.
Her memories of those rides in the early 1980s include children selling coffee and doughnuts to passengers for 25 cents apiece as they waited for their trains or arrived at the station. She also recalled community members gathering for musical performances outside the train depot.
But times have changed. The train no longer stops in Atherton on weekdays, so the blaring horn during council meetings was the sound of the train passing quickly through town.
Now, the town is working with Caltrain to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with specifics for closing the station in the next few months. Town staff spoke with Caltrain in early February and rail service officials said they are working through "some internal timeline and processing issues," said City Manager George Rodericks in a Feb. 25 email.
"They were anxious to keep things moving and get underway with the internal studies that needed to be done in advance of any closure," Rodericks said.
Caltrain has not announced a date for when the station will close, but Caltrain spokeperson Dan Lieberman said in a Feb. 28 email that train service is likely to cease "around the same time as the MOU is finalized."
In the meantime, The Almanac took a look back at the history of the station.
Train station is established
Atherton, and its train station, were known as Fair Oaks until the town was incorporated in 1923, according to the Atherton Heritage Association. The name Fair Oaks had already been assigned to a town near Sacramento. Atherton's namesake was the prominent San Mateo County early settler Faxon Dean Atherton, according to The Almanac's archives.
In the 1860s, the Pacific and Atlantic Railroad opened the Fair Oaks flag stop, a designation meaning that the train stopped in town only when passengers waved a cloth at the station to indicate they wanted to be picked up, Heritage Association documents explain.
The name Fair Oaks derived from the "varied and beautiful oak trees of the area," according to the Heritage Association. The town's resident handbook notes that the station served the families of the large estates that were established in the latter half of the 19th century
Changes to the station
Over time, the Atherton station was updated and refurbished.
In 1913, the railroad company erected a shelter depot to replace the existing structure, the Redwood City Democrat reported at the time. The former structure was simpler and smaller, without columns, photos of the original depot show.
"The new building is not any more pretentious than the old one but more artistic," the publication noted.
Because of major changes to the station in the 1950s — the addition of new building features and changes in window placement — the station could not qualify for the National Register of Historic Places, according to a Heritage Association document from the 1990s that quotes John Snyder, a California State Department of Transportation historian.
During the 1950s, the depot was painted green. It was painted yellow and beige after a fire at the station during the 1990s, according to The Almanac's archives.
In the late 1980s, officials installed metal bike lockers. Several years later, in the early 1990s, the station underwent a roughly $200,000 refurbishment, according to a 1991 Almanac article. Work crews repaved the station's parking lot, relocated bike racks to the center of the parking lot, repaved the depot area and completed landscaping work around the station..
More repairs to the station were needed after an April 2007 fire in an adjacent recycling bin spread to the station and a nearby mailbox, according to an Almanac news story.
In 2015, workers began "extensive remodeling work" to remove rotted wood from the depot, the Daily News reported.
Service cuts and future of the station
Caltrain's announcement early this year that it wanted to permanently close the station was a reversal of its previous position that it would restore weekday service in town once electrification was complete.
The agency suspended weekday stops in the town in 2005 after finding that ridership was lower than 150 passengers daily. The train now stops at the Atherton station on the weekends.
Council members have expressed sadness about the historic train station's closure, but said that sadness often accompanies progress.
"At the end of the day, we will benefit from the closure," Mayor Rick DeGolia said during a January council meeting in which council members voted to give Caltrain the go-ahead to close the station. "The station was heavily used in the past, but not today. ... There's a significant capital cost to keep the station."
The station is designated a "hold out station" because it has a center boarding platform only, meaning passengers can cross the tracks in multiple places to reach the platform, and the station can accommodate only one train at a time. To change this, Caltrain would have to build separate platforms for northbound and southbound passengers and a fence separating the tracks.
Town staff recently noted it would cost about $30 million to upgrade the station to bring back full weekday service. Some Atherton residents explained during a January City Council meeting that they would be happy to travel to the train stations in Menlo Park or Redwood City so that a stop in Atherton doesn't add to overall train travel times once electrification is finalized.
DeGolia said the town plans to preserve the train station depot building, much to the pleasure of Marion Oster, president of the Heritage Association.
"The Atherton Heritage Association is pleased with the plan to save the Train Station building," Oster said in an email. "We had a train station before there was a Town and even though the building has been modified, it is historic. How wonderful that people could enjoy the new Civic Center sitting in the historic train station."
To close the station, Caltrain said in its letter to the town, the agency will seek funding, between $7 million and $9 million, to construct a right-of-way fence separating the current station from the town's civic center, remove the existing station platform and track crossings, remove ticket vending machines and bike lockers, and put in place grade crossing safety improvements at Watkins Avenue.
Part of those funds would pay for a wrought iron fence along the tracks, landscaping, and moving the wall of the train station from the side of the building facing the civic center to the side of the building facing the railroad tracks, so the train station depot would remain intact, DeGolia explained.
"It would be able to become a part of the Atherton Town Center," he said in a Feb. 26 email, referring to the town's civic center, which is undergoing a $31.6 million revamp slated to be completed in 2021. "My guess is that the 'Atherton' sign on top of the building would also be turned so that you would see it from the Town Center side. The station crossing (concrete, etc.) would be fully removed and people would not be able to access the tracks."
But not everyone thinks the closure is the right move, including Malcolm Dudley, a former mayor and town Rail Committee member. He would like to see the town conduct a community survey to determine if the closure is what residents want.
"It's one of the oldest (rail) stations throughout all of California; it has great history to it," he said. "Something this important really deserves to be passed onto the community."
With increasing traffic congestion on the Peninsula, more people will be forced to drive without a station in town, Dudley said. It doesn't make sense to cut back on public transit that would help alleviate this problem, he noted.
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