It takes some looking around, but Menlo Park has quite a few buildings dating back before the 1900s. While the oldest building in Menlo Park is the Barron-Latham-Hopkins Gate Lodge, Menlo Park’s train station is the oldest railroad passenger station continuously in use in California. This accomplishment has helped put it into the National Register of Historic Places and has deemed it a State Historic Landmark.
The station’s 150-year-old history is tightly interwoven with Menlo Park’s. The station was completed in 1867, though the tracks reached the San Francisquito Creek four years prior. Back then, Menlo Park had yet to be incorporated permanently. “In 1874, the area was incorporated as Menlo Park so that landowners could be taxed for dirt road improvements, and once they were, the incorporation was allowed to expire,” said Bo Crane, a Menlo Park Historical Association (MPHA) historian.
“A group of landowners plotted out a Menlo Park Villa subdivision in 1863, the same year the railroad reached San Francisquito Creek,” said Crane. “The tracks opposite the Menlo Park Ranch sign wasn’t a stop at the time, just a staging point while the bridge was built over San Francisquito Creek.”
In 1854, Menlo Park received its official name. “Two Irishmen, Dennis J. Oliver and D. C. McGlynn, purchased 1,700 acres (some sources say it was 640 acres) bordering County Road, now El Camino Real, and built two houses with a common entrance,” reads the page on Menlo Park history. Across the driveway of the houses, they built a massive wooden gate that read “MENLO PARK” and had the date, August 1854.
“Being from Galway, Oliver came up with the name Menlo,” said Crane. An excerpt from Oliver’s diary from February 6th, 1855 reads, “On last Friday [February] 2nd, Dan stopped at the store for me, with his buggy to accompany him to our Ranch (Menlo Park) so called by me after Menlo, a lovely place on the banks of the Lough Corrib two miles from the Town of Galway, the ancient Town of my nativity and of my ancestors.” Oliver and McGlynn worked together for years, before falling out after they had to surrender the property in 1855.
Nine years after the Menlo Park gate had been built, the town had a station. It wasn’t used very much in its early days, but traffic to it increased after the 1891 opening of Stanford University. The population of about 250 people in 1884 jumped up to 400 people by 1890. Because of the increased traffic, in the 1890s, Victorian ornamentation was added during a remodel of the station. The station held the first telephone exchange in the area, installed in 1884 and called the Sunset Telephone and Telegraph Company. By 1888, there were ten subscribers to the service.About twenty years later, an extension was added to the building to accommodate increased traffic from the U.S. Army’s Camp Fremont during World War I. “Menlo Park only had a population of 2,000 at the time Camp Fremont was built in 1917. It didn’t have a big draw and wasn’t known as a business town,” said Crane. “The County Road, now El Camino Real, had mostly stores servicing highway travelers and the local population. Palo Alto and Redwood City, the county seat [the city or town that houses county government], on the other hand, had all kinds of businesses.”
“Easy railroad access and pleasant climate attracted wealthy San Franciscans to build their summer homes, estates, and universities in Menlo Park,” read the pamphlet for the Walking Tour of Victorian Architecture in Downtown Menlo Park. The southbound railroad from San Francisco also meant that the wealthy families from there could get to their second homes quickly. The $2.50 one-way ride took 80 minutes instead of the 4 hours a stagecoach took, helping to build the population and put Menlo Park on the map.
The Menlo Park station is now one of 31 stations along the modern-day Caltrain route from San Francisco to Gilroy. It’s one of seven depots on the Caltrain railroad listed on the National Register of Historic Places, however, it holds the distinction of being the first of the seven to be added, in 1974. It was also put into the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and made a State Historic Landmark in 1983. But maybe most impressively, it holds the title of the oldest railroad passenger station continuously in use in California, having been operational for a history-rich 156 years.