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  Demolition Threatens Richmond's Oldest Railroad Building
May 3, 2004

In August 2005, Richmond will celebrate the centennial of its incorporation. Richmond was a relative late comer among Bay Area cities because the complex litigation resolving the tangled ownership of property in the Rancho San Pablo Mexican land grant. No one wanted to invest in development of property with severely clouded titles.

The litigation was finally resolved in 1894, and development came with vengeance. By 1900, the refinery that is now ChevronTexaco as was in place as was the western terminus of the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe railroad (now Burlington Northern Santa Fe). The conflux of these two industries became the City of Richmond, and the city was incorporated shortly thereafter in 1905.

In those days, what is now Point Richmond was the epicenter of commercial activity, much of it rooming houses, salons and bordellos.

With a need to run a railroad on time, Santa Fe wanted to keep its employees out of the local saloons, so a “reading room” was erected in the yards near the depot. Railroad reading rooms were apparently very popular in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Reading rooms were typically built near railroad stations, which were centers of commercial and transportation activity in the past and often the epicenters of cities and towns.

Reading rooms included libraries for employees, but were much more. They were an alternative to the saloon and often included recreational facilities and sometimes hotel rooms for transient train crews.

The Santa Fe Reading Room in Richmond is described in a 1910 souvenir magazine edition of the Richmond Independent, printed in celebration of Richmond’s founding ten years earlier.

Santa Fe Reading Room - Last, but not least, comes the reading room system under Mr. S.E. Busser. The motto of the department is:   “Give a man a bath, a book and an entertainment that appeals to his mind and hopes by music and knowledge and you have enlarged, extended and adorned his life; and as he becomes more faithful to himself, he is more valuable to the company.” All of the citizens of Richmond can vouch for the quality of the entertainments, which are well attended at each season. They are the best that can be obtained and they are free to railroader and non-railroader, alike. There are about five hundred books, all current magazines, pool and billiard tables, and bath rooms at the Richmond reading room of which Mrs. Ida B. Baker is librarian. Mr. Busser says that the high mental and moral tone of Santa Fe employees is due to the reading room system. The people of Richmond have no argument to offer on that score because they realize that the Santa Fe men are uniformly high-minded, clean-lived citizens and if, to the reading room system belongs the credit then long live the system!

The Santa Fe Reading Room was Richmond’s first library, as it was “free to railroader and non-railroader, alike.” It is the only building remaining of the original Santa Fe rail yards in Richmond.

The Santa Fe Reading Room may be shortly torn down if Richmonders do not unite to protect our heritage. Councilman Nat Bates has placed item M-2 on the May 4 agenda to authorize issuance of a permit for demolition.

At least one developer has stepped forward with an offer to relocate and rehabilitate the building at no cost to the City. Other proposals are awaiting issuance of an RFP. Bates, however, seems determined to see the building destroyed as quickly as possible.

If you want to save this building, come to the May 4 City Council meeting at 7:00 PM and be heard. You can also find contact information for City Council members at http://www.ci.richmond.ca.us/Government/terms.html.

If anyone desires more information, email me.