San Jose Sentinels III
By Ken Rattenne

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"Big Tower"

College Park Tower was constructed in 1927, taking its name from the district built up by the College of the Pacific before that learning institution moved to Stockton. The tower was built to control the entrance of the newly constructed Newhall Street Yard; it also controlled access to San Jose's original classification yard, which shared College Park's name. In 1935 the structure was enlarged to take on additional duties along the double track passenger main and single track freight main between San Jose Yard and the west end of the Cahill Street coach yard. This was part of a line relocation project constructed by SP to remove their trackage from San Jose's downtown district. The tower also controlled the east leg of a wye 
 College Park Tower, January 14, 1975.  (Ken Rattenne)
formed by the convergence of the Milpitas line (from Oakland) and the Coast Line. All of this responsibility required a larger-than-average structure.

When first constructed in 1927, College Park was only half its size since it only controlled access to College Park and Newhall Street yards and the leads to the roundhouse. In 1935, with the mainline rerouted away from San Jose's downtown area, the tower was doubled in size to include the interlocking plant necessary to control the new trackage. The new route contained five signal bridges straddling two passenger and single freight mains wired for operation in either direction.

For local railfans, College Park Tower was located in just the right place: In the middle of the busiest piece of track in San Jose. The 2.6 miles of double-track mainline between Santa Clara Tower and the Cahill Street Depot was used by both SP's San Jose-San Francisco commute operation (now CalTrain) and Oakland-bound freights that were routed over the Mulford Line. In addition, Amtrak's Coast Starlight also shared track time. Up until the mid-1980s, freight traffic was still of significance out of San Jose, and trains from Oakland and Bayshore Yard (in Brisbane - just south of San Francisco) usually paused in town or were yarded for the addition or subtraction of cars.


Freight Traffic Dries Up

San Jose Yard is really two yards in one. Refered to as Newhall Street Yard on the east end and Santa Clara Yard on the west end, it also originated a fair number of trains. College Park operators were required to coordinate arriving and departing freights, hostling-movements for commute engines between Cahill Street Depot and San Jose Roundhouse, and three shifts of yard jobs working both Newhall Street and College Park yards. Additionally, Amtrak and through freights from the Milpitas Line were also in the charge of tower operators. The convergence of the Milpitas line with the Coast Line formed a wye at that junction, and College Park Tower controlled the east leg.

As the 1980s progressed, tower functions became less freight oriented as traffic dried up. Ironically, it was the resurgence of passenger trains in the South Bay that breathed new life into the towers. Under the reigns of CalTrans (California Department Of Transportation) since 1981, local varnish eventually expanded to include six additional short-haul Amtrak trains and a total of 60 weekday commuter movements. It was all this new passenger traffic that kept College Park operators (and their brothers in Santa Clara Tower) from having too much idle time on their hands.

Big Tower
August 25, 1995 saw a Cotton Belt GP60 switching cuts of cars for Newhall Street yard, its days as mainline power mostly over. This area is known as the College Park district of San Jose, so named for the University Of The Pacific which once called San Jose home. Today Bellarmine Prepartory School occupies the old UOP campus. ( Ken Rattenne)

In spite of all this commotion, College Park Tower continued to stand silently, performing its role as interlocking sentinel. Inside, operators assured that switches and signals in their territory were aligned properly - no matter who ran the trains or owned the track.

Only the ominous flurry of signal department employees around the tower and its connecting hardware offered a hint of the future.

The Tower Consolidation project would soon take over College Park's function in a new dispatching center housed a block away from the Cahill Street depot. The new center, known as the Supervisor Commute Operations (SCO) would control the entire commute line as far south as Lick Siding, and would be under the direct control of SCO's dispatchers.

A Frantic Startup

When Amtrak finally assumed the reigns over CalTrain operations, things changed fast, but not without a few problems. College Park operator Gary Lower explains:

"On the first day of Amtrak operations it was a madhouse up here. We were in the midst of a project to remove the signal bridge over by the roundhouse and to realign all three main lines. I had no power whatsoever to the interlocking plant. So I had to station a (signal) maintainer at each switch to supply me with power when I needed to make an alignment for an approaching train". 
Gary Lower (right) explains the operation of the College Park interlocking machine to Amtrak engineer Phil Gosney on November of 1992. (Ken Rattenne)

On the Saturday before the takeover Gary had a special problem.

The JPB and Amtrak ran a press train between San Francisco and Gilroy to celebrate the changeover of ownership but no one had bothered to take into account the state of College Park that day.

"There were so many big wigs, supervisors and signal maintainers with their huge charts up here that you couldn't even move. In fact, so many trucks were parked downstairs (around the tower), no one could even drive in here.

"The Amtrak special was 32 minutes late out of the (San Francisco) station because the track department took out all three mainline tracks here in San Jose. Then they had to put them back in for each commute that ran through. Plus we had two freights come through College Park that morning. The roadmaster was pulling his hair out. He said he couldn't remember when two freights had come through College Park on a Saturday morning."

Gary kept his cool, though, and no one was any the wiser.

San Jose's Own

College Park was San Jose's largest tower. It featured the typical two stories with clapboard siding, and sported the standard peaked roof that is the signature of towers everywhere. The outside of the structure was painted standard SP yellow-with- brown trim, and the roof was shingled in green. No one could remember the last time the tower's aging wood had felt the bristles of a paint brush, either inside or out.

While College Park's second story held the General Railway Signal Company interlocking plant, the first story housed the guts of the system: The electrical equipment needed to operate the turnouts, equipment and signals. The plant was powered by 120 volt DC power, which allowed it to use a backup battery system that would be good for almost 24 hours in the case of a commercial power outage. In the second story, the operator had an excellent view of his domain, with the San Jose Roundhouse and College Park Yard visible on the left, and the Newhall Street yard and the College Park commuter shelter on the right. It was, as one former employee claimed, "a cool view."

Next Chapter: "Little Tower"

This document is Copyright ©1996-2012 by Ken Rattenne and KPR Media Services and was last updated in October 2011.