If you’re in Oakland, take 16th Street west from downtown like you’re heading to the freeway. As you travel, single-family homes will give way to vacant lots, industrial warehouses and shiny new condominiums. Pretty soon you’ll see the 880 freeway roaring above you. You’ve hit a dead end, and you’ll be staring up at Oakland’s 16th Street Station.
It’s a massive, 40-foot-high stone structure covered in terra-cotta tiles. Designed in the Beaux Arts style, it’s elegant, with three large arched windows over the main door. There’s a wide parking lot, an old control tower and what looks like the skeleton of an elevated train line.
For all its grandeur, it clearly has been left to the slow decay of time. Local graffiti artists have covered its once bright walls, the perimeter is encircled by cyclone fencing and weeds grow everywhere.
“It definitely could have been cared for better,” says Tadd Williams, our question asker. He drives by the station on 880 every day and often wonders about the lives it has lived. “What’s the deal with the 16th Street station?” he wanted to know.
As it happens, the 16th Street station played a crucial role in the Bay Area’s transportation infrastructure during the golden age of rail travel, helped establish a working-class Black community in West Oakland and was a major organizing force behind America’s first Black union.
The golden age of rail travel
The 16th Street station opened in 1912. Trains were the way to get around, and Oakland soon became a major hub for the Southern Pacific Railroad, which operated a rail yard there. In the decades following its opening, the station boomed.
“It was like an airport is today,” said Mitchell Schwarzer, a professor at California College of the Arts and author of the book “Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption.” “Back in the day, there would have been 50 or more trains coming into the station from long distances every day.”
Hundreds of interurban trains would pass through from all over the East Bay, as would hundreds more street cars. Some trains ran on the first elevated train tracks to be constructed west of the Mississippi.
The Bay Bridge wasn’t constructed until 1936, so for many years the 16th Street station was a passthrough for travelers headed to San Francisco. Trains took passengers out onto “moles” — essentially, wooden piers built far out into the bay. Riders then would transfer to a ferry for the final leg of their journey.
Perhaps even more surprising, two lanes of traffic on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge were once devoted to rail travel. From 1936, the year the Bay Bridge opened, until 1941, riders could board a train at 16th Street station and take it across the bridge into San Francisco.
The Southern Pacific Railroad was a major employer in Oakland, and workers migrated from all over the country to live and work in West Oakland near the station.
Levy Laird arrived in Oakland in the 1920s, and found a job working as a cook on trains. Like many Black people at the time, he was looking for a better life away from the Jim Crow South. The first steps of this new life were into Oakland’s 16th Street Station.
“Oakland was a golden doorway to a new life,” said Alan Laird, Levy’s son. “When the doors opened up, and the passengers were departing the train, the engine would let off this last blast of steam. It was like a sigh of relief, like hope is here, we made it, and now we are in a new home.”
Pullman car porters make their mark on West Oakland
Cross-country rail travel could be long, harsh and uncomfortable. So, it was only a matter of time until companies started catering to the wealthy who wanted to travel in style. The Pullman Palace Car Company was known for its luxury sleeping cars, like hotels on wheels.
Imagine travelers sitting on plush seats, chandeliers hanging from ceilings, windows with silk curtains and dark walnut woodwork. Travelers could get almost anything on a Pullman car, and it took an army of employees to deliver that experience.
Pullman employed maids, waiters and cooks to provide top-quality service. But the porters were the most renowned part of the operation. They would carry luggage, shine shoes and wait on passengers’ every need. The Pullman Palace Car Company hired almost exclusively Black men for these jobs.
“There was this racist idea of Blacks serving whites in a subsidiary role,” Schwarzer said.
Pullman managers expected porters to work 20-hour shifts. They were at the beck and call of passengers at any time, day or night. Many customers wouldn’t even call the porters by their given names, instead referring to them all as “George,” after the company’s founder, George Pullman.
Conditions didn’t improve over time. One report from 1935 found that the porters made just $0.278 per hour, whereas workers in manufacturing or federally funded New Deal projects made twice that. Yet despite the terrible working conditions, being a porter was considered a good job. It was one of the few opportunities Black people had to travel and earn a steady income.
“It was a huge source of employment for Blacks around the country,” Schwarzer said. “The porters had a kind of role as ambassadors of information throughout the United States to Black communities.”
Porters often distributed the Chicago Defender — the largest Black newspaper at the time — across the country, including to the American South, where the paper was banned in some places. The Defender helped fuel the Great Migration out of the South by informing people of opportunities elsewhere.
The porters also were talking to each other on their long trips, and organizing to take on the systemic racism in the railroad business. In 1925, the porters announced they wanted to form a union. It would come to be known as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — the first Black union in the country. It was based in Chicago.
“But the vice president, C.L. Dellums, was based in Oakland,” Schwarzer said. “So Oakland takes on a very large role within the brotherhood. It’s kind of the secondary headquarters of the brotherhood.”
The struggle to unionize was a long one, taking 12 years. The Pullman company fired workers who tried to organize, and did everything they could to discourage the union. But in the end, the porters were successful, and Oakland played no small part.
“It’s widely reported that the branch that was the most steadfast, that had the largest membership, who supported ongoing union efforts, was the Oakland branch under C.L. Dellums,” Schwarzer said.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters is credited with helping to establish the Black middle class in America, as well as the modern civil rights movement. In 1941, the porters threatened to march on Washington to protest employment discrimination. This was more than 20 years before the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech.
The porter’s offspring also made their mark on history. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall both are descendants of Pullman porters. C.L. Dellums’s nephew, Ron Dellums, served both as the mayor of Oakland and a U.S. Representative of California in Congress.
“If you look at Oakland’s history of civil rights activism, this is really the start,” Schwarzer said. “If you think about the Occupy movement in the 2010s, the Black Panthers in the ’60s and ’70s, or Moms 4 Housing now, it all goes back to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.”
The good railroad jobs offered at Oakland’s 16th Street Station, along with the nearby Army base, helped the community to thrive. West Oakland had a vibrant business district, swinging nightclubs and plenty of people who owned homes. Alan Laird remembers going to the porters’ union hall with his father. He looked up to the men there.
“It was a vibration there,” Laird said. “It felt like I was getting vitamins from them. It was like I was a sponge receiving it all.”
Redevelopment guts West Oakland
In the 1950s, Oakland leaders approved two major infrastructure projects that leveled hundreds of homes and businesses, displacing thousands of mostly Black West Oakland residents. In little more than a decade, the neighborhood suffered the construction of the Cypress viaduct (part of the 880 freeway), a huge regional post office, a BART line and several other “urban renewal” projects.
“There’s no place in the Bay Area that received more abuse than West Oakland,” Schwarzer said.
Without a business district, the economy of West Oakland began to decline. At the same time, the rising popularity of the automobile made the 16th Street station less relevant. By the late 1980s, just a few trains a day stopped there. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake badly damaged the structure, forcing it to close. The last train rolled past it in 1994.
Without regular visitors, people squatted inside the building and stripped its once immaculate interior of anything useful. The tracks themselves disappeared, dug up and sold for scrap, leaving the station disconnected from the world.
Instead of fixing the station’s aging structure, Amtrak opened two new stations serving the Oakland area: the Jack London Square station in 1994, and the Emeryville station in 1993. The 16th Street station and West Oakland’s prosperous past became a distant memory.
What’s next for the station?
Nowadays, the station stands in a strange limbo. BRIDGE Housing, a large affordable housing nonprofit, bought the station in 2005. But after nearly two decades in their care, the station still stands vacant and in disrepair.
“We’re not just a housing developer, we try to develop community,” said Jim Mather, chief investment officer for BRIDGE. “I think this was seen as something that could benefit the community and something that could help bring West Oakland back.”
But it hasn’t gone according to plan. The building needs over $50 million dollars worth of seismic retrofitting and historic restoration. BRIDGE hoped to get help footing that massive bill from local redevelopment agencies, but the 2008 recession dashed those dreams.
“We’re on hold, trying to find the financing,” Mather said. “So if there are any billionaires listening who want a project, here it is.”
BRIDGE used to rent the station out for events. A few music videos were shot there. But even those uses are a thing of the past. Pieces of the ceiling can fall without warning, Mather said, and the city of Oakland won’t grant BRIDGE permits anymore.
“The liability is too high,” Mather said.
Some people want the station turned into a museum for the railroad and the porters; others want it to be an event space. Community advocates, historians and West Oaklanders who remember the building’s former glory don’t want any part of it torn down.
“Whatever happens here, BRIDGE is going to recognize and honor the history behind the station and its significance to the African American community of Oakland,” Mather said.
You may never hear a train pull into 16th Street Station again, but it’s possible the site could have a new beginning, just like the people who passed through it all those years ago.