"All Aboard" the Saint Mary's Express

Signs of Moraga’s past, when the railroad ran through the valley.As the clock rounds 3 p.m., the crisp chimes of the chapel bells resonate through the quiet hills of Moraga. And as though on cue, hungry students storm Oliver Hall for a midday snack. It’s a routine that has become a tradition at Saint Mary’s.

However, just a century ago, this time of day would have sounded quite different. The sharp shriek of cast iron and steel battling one another would echo through these hills. And the crowd? Students and faculty would be queueing in a different sort of line—awaiting the arrival of the next train on the Sacramento Northern (SN) rail line.

“You can still see where the line ran today. It was there, alright, just look…” – Brother Raphael Patton

That’s right, the SN railway, which once connected Chico and Sacramento to Oakland, traveled along what is now the Lafayette/Moraga Regional Trail adjacent to St. Mary’s Rd. The line passed through the Oakland Hills before making its final stop at a ferry in the port of Oakland. This route was highly traveled by SMC students and professors, who would take the ferry across the bay and into San Francisco.

It has been 50 years since the line was last used; five years later, the decommissioned rails were stripped from the front of the campus. These lines played a key role in the development of Moraga and the campus as we know it—and if we look hard enough, the remnants of the old line can still be found, especially if you know a little bit about the history of the line. 

The Lafayette/Moraga Trail (right), running adjacent to St. Mary's Rd. to Lafayette, follows the path of the old SN railroad line.In the spring of 1910, the historic Oakland and Antioch Railway set forth a plan to expand its line through Moraga. By 1913, the line passed through the area, near the present-day trail and next to the first turn when you leave or enter the campus. By 1929, the line had switched hands several times and belonged to the Sacramento Northern rail line, where it would remain until its decommissioning and removal.

If you have driven along St. Mary’s Rd., you may have noticed a couple tedious turns and several trail crossings along the way. On foot, you have surely wondered about the peculiar bends that force you to cross the road so frequently. These odd zig-zag patterns are not just to scale the hills or encourage a driver-pedestrian relationship. They’re the remains of “grade crossings,” or an intersection between railroad tracks, roads and even walkways. Intersections such as the one shown below are just examples of these traces of railroad history.

Curious isn't it? Here, trail was once the Sacramento Northern rail line, and the crosswalk the grade crossing.

More tangible reminders of the old line by St. Mary’s remain, and they’re accessible even to the easygoing adventurer. A simple drive down Old Canyon Road yields some great sights, This structure shaded train riders as they waited to the left of the campus’ main entrance. and with a pair of hiking boots handy, a little courage and some skill in off-trail hiking one can catch a glimpse of the grading and carving in the hillsides that once made way for the tracks. The Canyon Post Office houses two artifacts that every Moragan needs to visit. Shown below is the old station ticketing booth, and although it’s rusty, the station overhang that marked the western entrance to campus in 1928 is still standing.

Unfortunately, the SN line in Moraga began to wither away, along with much of the nation’s infrastructure, during the Great Depression. The costs of maintenance and expansion threatened the line, and in July 1941, the last train ran on the line.

Although the line may not be intact, its contribution to Moraga is undeniable. The sounds of locomotives and train cars may not echo through the hills as they once did, but townsfolk still remember with pride the great rail line.

By Omer Malik '14


Photos by Omer Malik