The life of a station agent at a small station like Centerville was interesting and sometimes exciting, but never boring.  Life in Centerville around 1910 revolved around the activities of the railroad along with those of the post office.  Almost everyone in the community sooner or later did some type of business with the depot agent.  Often it involved rail tickets, Western Union telegrams, small packages by LCL (less than carload), express shipments via Wells Fargo & Co. Express (later, Railway Express Agency), or carloads being shipped or received. 


Unlike depots in larger towns and cities, the Centerville depot had only one person employed who was the agent.  Typical qualifications for employment were a high school diploma, be 18 years of age, be able to telegraph at least 15 words per minute, and be proficient in the Uniform Code of Operating Rules. 


The typical small town station agent opened the depot at 7:00am or 8:00am, daily except Sunday.  After letting the dispatcher know he was in, the agent then cleaned the depot and greeted any passengers waiting for trains.  If the weather was cold, the agent would build a fire in one or more pot-bellied stoves to heat the depot.  Next, the agent checked the rail cars on various tracks in the town, after asking permission from the dispatcher to be out of the depot office.  Every time the agent left the depot, the agent had to obtain permission from the dispatcher -- if his station was a train order station and most of them were in the early part of the 1900s.  After checking the yard for rail cars, the agent then made out a car report showing the location, time of arrival, and other information on each rail car.  During the day, trains would pass the station and the agent would go outside and watch them go by, looking for things that would be a safety hazard to the train such as hot boxes (overheated journals), equipment dragging, brakes sticking, etc.  If anything on the train appeared unsafe, the agent would flag the train as the caboose passed the depot, otherwise the agent would give an OK sign ("highball") and then tell the train dispatcher what time the train passed his station and if anything was wrong. 


Many times the train dispatcher would issue train orders for the passing train and the depot agent would copy them and hand them up to the train with a device called a train order hoop, later a modified form of a hoop (shaped like a "Y") with a string holding the orders.  When train orders were copied and held for a train, the train order semaphore would be displayed in a stop (horizontal) position indicating to the train that train orders were to be delivered and that the train could not pass without them.  If there were no orders, the blade would be positioned in the clear (60 degrees downward angle) position.  At night, the train order signal would display a green light and downward blades to show that there were no orders or that the train order office was closed.  If there were train orders at night, the signal would display a red light and a horizontal blade.  The station agent operated the signal from two control levers in the bay window of the depot that connected to the mechanical rods on the signal. 


The station agent had other duties, such as making out freight reports, waybills, bills of lading, selling tickets, making reports, copying Western Union telegrams in Morse code, and processing package express shipments for Wells Fargo & Co. Express.  People in those days shipped and received almost everything by rail; farm animals, tools, milk and cream, produce, dried fruit, gravel, automobiles, fertilizer, and dry goods.  Customers were constantly in an out of the depots.  Travel was by rail except for the shortest of trips that were made by personal transportation. 

Although a number of passenger trains served Centerville until the late-1920s, the automobile seriously eroded traffic on Southern Pacific's local passenger trains.  By the early 1930s, the number of passenger trains serving Centerville was down to one or two trains per day.  The last passenger train departed Centerville on March 29, 1940.  Nearby Niles also lost daily passenger train service on the Southern Pacific on January 22, 1941, with the discontinuance of the Oakland to Tracy Owl connection.  Even though the Centerville Station was no longer served directly by passenger trains after March of 1940, Centerville residents could still purchase coach and Pullman tickets from the station agent at Centerville and board passenger trains destined to Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles from nearby Newark.  Through the 1950s, Centerville residents could drive to Newark and board a coach or Pullman car on the Los Angeles bound Oakland Lark or board a connecting train for the southbound Coast Daylight at San Jose. 


Between 1942 and 1950, the Centerville station handled an average of 1,500 rail cars each year.  Freight traffic at Centerville included perishables and canned goods. On July 18, 1957, Southern Pacific announced that it would seek permission from the California Public Utilities Commission to close the Centerville station as an economy move.  Local railroad customers would have to conduct their business with the railroad's station agents at Niles or Newark.  That same July, the Order of Railroad Telegraphers objected to the proposed closure and urged local customers of the railroad to write to the Commission to oppose the closure.  The objections to the closure failed.  On January 21, 1958, the Public Utilities Commission approved the closing of the Southern Pacific Company and Railway Express Agency, Inc., agencies at the Centerville station.   On February 15, 1958, Stuart F. Kiernan, the station agent at Centerville, locked the depot's doors for the last time and permanently closed the depot as an agency on the Southern Pacific. 


The following individuals were station agents at Centerville: 


* Mr. Mead: May 1909 to March 1910 (before the depot was built) 
* Mr. J. A. Norris: March 1910  -- 
* Mr. C. N. Miller 
* Mr. C. R. Ingram 
* Mr. Edward D. Dargitz 
* Mr. Mark A. Miller 
* Mr. Stuart F. Kiernan: April 1943 to February 15, 1958 
 

William G. Wullenjohn Sr.
March 11, 2002

 

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