In 1880, Centerville watched the growth of its new neighbor, the town of Newark, with suspicion and envy.  A farming and fruit-drying community of about 300 people, Centerville had been the historic hub of transportation in southern Alameda County.  It acted much like a modern airport hub today, with stage lines branching off to Oakland, San Jose, Mission San Jose, and Mayhews Landing on the bay.  But in 1876, Newark became a hub of its own when the narrow gauge South Pacific Coast Railroad began construction of a railroad that would serve much of the same region.  Just three miles away, without a railroad of any kind, Centerville felt the sting of competition.

A local newspaper, called the Washington Independent, came up with a simple solution to the town's problem: "…connect with Newark".  Ironically, in February of 1881, a South Pacific Coast branch line made the connection.  The three-mile-long railroad was constructed along a nearly straight line in one lane of Baine Avenue. Sections of Baine Avenue remain today between Newark and Centerville.

But instead of steam trains like the ones that served Newark, the branch line used motive power that looked like it should have been pulling the old stages.  Full train service was provided by horses.  A single horse pulled a small four-wheel horsecar for passengers, at 10 cents per trip.  Two or even three horses - hitched in tandem - pulled full-sized narrow gauge freight cars.  A ride on the branch line took thirty minutes, one way, and the horsecar made regular connections three-times-a-day with the steam-powered passenger trains that arrived daily at Newark.

Henry Burdick became the line's most celebrated driver.  For twenty years, Henry's horses made the daily schedule in all weather, summer and winter. The horses grew so accustomed to their task that they automatically stopped when they spotted passengers at waystations like the Mattos Ranch, about halfway between Newark and Centerville.  When Henry unhitched the horses at the end of the line, they would circle to the other end of the car without command or guidance, patiently waiting for Henry to hitch up for the return trip.

A few years after the line opened, a petition circulated in Centerville demanding that steam locomotives be placed on the branch line, but the railroad ignored the initiative.  Inexpensive to operate, perfectly suited to the line's short, level route, the horses had secured a unique niche in both the community and the California railroad industry.  Business on the branch actually grew over time.  Henry's teams hauled an estimated 300 tons of freight in 1885.  By 1898, they hauled 5,000 tons of freight, mostly dried fruit.  The parent narrow gauge earned the nickname of "the one-horse railroad with the two-horse branch."

The Centerville horsecar lasted until the opening of the standard gauge Southern Pacific Dumbarton Cutoff, when steam trains at last took over.  Henry Burdick made the last horsecar run on Friday evening, May 28, 1909.  


For more information on the South Pacific Coast Railroad and efforts to preserve its artifacts, visit the web page for the non-profit Society for the Preservation of Carter Railroad Resources. The Society is located at Ardenwood Farm in Fremont.

Dr. Robert B. Fisher Collection - Museum of Local History - Fremont, California

Southern Pacific Lines - Bruce A. MacGregor Collection

The Centerville Horsecar

Copyright © Niles Depot Historical Foundation &
Tri-City Society of Model Engineers.
All Rights Reserved.

Trains at the Depot


Centerville Depot Homehome.html