Those Places Thursday: Southern Pacific Depot, Santa Rosa, California

Southern Pacific Depot in Santa Rosa, California circa 1891? Pacific Novelty Company, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Southern Pacific Depot in Santa Rosa, California. Postcard circa 1910? Pacific Novelty Company, San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. (Click to enlarge.)

When I first saw this postcard in the handful I was going through in an antique shop in Franklin, North Carolina, my heart skipped a beat. Edward B. Payne probably stopped at this station on his way from Berkeley, California, to Santa Rosa where he and his followers planned a Utopian community called Altruria. Colony members and visitors also may have gone through this station when Altruria existed between 1894 and 1896.

Of course I had to buy it before I was able to do detailed research, but I knew a lot of the history of EB Payne, so this purchase turned out well.

So, how does one go about checking to see if a postcard or photo could have been taken during an ancestor’s lifetime?

First, try to ascertain the age of the photograph, or postcard. Lists of photographers and postcard printers may be found online. In this instance, the postcard was printed by the Pacific Novelty Company, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as seen on the reverse. A Google search of this company brought up a number of websites and images, some including this same depot. It was interesting that the best search results were when I misspelled the name, so try a couple of permutations of the name or a phrase if you need more hits. I also knew that the style of the reverse, writing side of a postcard can give clues as to its age if one know what to look for. Researching all that would be much more complex than what I was interested in learning, so I put that off to another day.

Results:  The Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City noted that Pacific Novelty was in business from 1908-the 1960s, so we know that the earliest this particular card could have been published was 1908.

Reverse side of Southern Pacific Depot in Santa Rosa, California circa 1891? Pacific Novelty Company, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Reverse side of Southern Pacific Depot in Santa Rosa, California postcard, circa 1910? Pacific Novelty Company, San Francisco and Los Angeles. (Click to enlarge.)

Second, research the history of the building or the place. Include details about the city and state and/or country in your Google search as necessary. You may find information in Wikipedia (double check the accuracy), on a county historical society’s website, museum website, or, if the building is still in existence, there may be a website devoted to that building. You might need to make a phone call to the local historical association or genealogy group, or could even get information from Rootsweb or various genealogy mailing lists. Additionally, Google maps can be used to search for an address, and see what the area looks like today.

Results: The Sonoma Heritage Collection of the Sonoma County Public Library has a wonderful and charming image of the depot on its website. It states their photo was taken in 1885. The images look very similar, so now we know the station was in existence at least between 1885 and 1908.

Third, determine the timeline of your ancestor and include places. I create a specific timeline for my most researched ancestors (EB Payne certainly qualifies there), and in my documents folders I use file names that start with dates, such as:

1892_0609_PAYNE_EB_California Voter Registers_Alameda CA_ancestry.jpg

 This is my file name for an newspaper article that was published June 9, 1892. My folders are ‘automagically’ sorted into a timeline with this system (make sure to use leading zeroes on month and day, and if either are not known, use ’00.’), so all I sometimes have to do is check my collected documents file to know where someone was at a particular time. Most genealogy programs also provide timelines, but a quick check of my computer folders keeps me from having to open another program. (An extra pain since the best genealogy programs are for Windows but I use a Mac. But I digress…)

Results: Edward B. Payne was living in Berkeley, California in 1892, and that falls between the dates of 1885-1908 that we know the train depot existed at minimum.

Fourth, think about a motive for your ancestor being in that place at that time. Back to my timeline to find this file:

1894_1016_PAYNE_EB_Land for Altrurians_San Francisco Call_v76_n138_p8_c2_cdnc.pdf

Results: I know that Edward Payne was looking for land for the new colony in 1894 in Santa Rosa per this San Francisco Call article, plus I know they did build Altruria and he traveled there frequently from Berkeley. (He did not live at Altruria because he had a pastorate in Berkeley.) He did take the train when he traveled frequently- I have news stories that verify that- so we know he may have been on a train that stopped at this station.

Fifth, evaluate your data and see if there are any other circumstances which should be considered.

This would be a good place to stop and check train routes- was there a route from Berkeley to Santa Rosa? The map found on Wikipedia for the Southern Pacific suggests there was. There also was a ferry system between Oakland and San Francisco, California as early as the 1870s; after taking the ferry, passengers would then take the train to points north or east.

The Southern Pacific Company's Bay City ferry plies the waters of San Francisco Bay sometime between 1870 and 1900. Denver Public Library-public domain.
The Southern Pacific Company’s Bay City ferry plies the waters of San Francisco Bay sometime between 1870 and 1900. Denver Public Library-public domain. (Click to enlarge.)

Conclusion: Edward B. Payne likely visited the Santa Rosa train depot in the image during the 1890s. He could have gone from Berkeley to Oakland, taken a ferry across the bay, then the train from San Francisco to Santa Rosa. A horse and buggy would have carried Payne and his daughter, Lynette Payne, to Altruria.

Of course, it is also likely that we will not know for sure that Edward B. Payne stepped foot in this train depot, but the odds look pretty good with this analysis.

How sad that the depot no longer exists for me to step foot there too.


Notes, Sources, and References: 

1) Postcard in possession of author.

2) Sonoma Heritage Collections, Sonoma County Public Library:

3) Pacific Novelty Company:

Oakland Museum of Califronia:

250+ postcards listed, many images:

Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City (excellent website):

4) Southern Pacific RR:


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2 thoughts on “Those Places Thursday: Southern Pacific Depot, Santa Rosa, California”

  1. From my knowledge of Santa Rosa and the railroads, it actually would be more likely your ancestor stopped at the existing Santa Rosa railroad depot for the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, an SP affiliate which handled the traffic from San Francisco/Oakland over to Marin County into Santa Rosa and to the north. The Southern Pacific depot served traffic from Sonoma Valley and points eastward into Santa Rosa.

    1. Mark-

      Thanks so much for your reply. Having a knowledge of the area and the local railroads does make a difference- your scenario seems much more likely. I would appreciate any other info you think I should know when trying to place Edward B. Payne in Santa Rosa and Altruria.


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