Sunday, October 13, 2019

Land Law Ain't Easy

When you come right down to it, railroads are a real estate business with a transportation sideline. They own huge amounts of property, deal with lots of legal and illegal ways to get access to property, then need to track it and the dependencies on arcane law. Remember Tom Campbell’s California Railroad Commission case about whether a grocery wholesaler’s siding was a team track? Property law. Southern Pacific losing the franchise to run down Fourth Street in San Jose, but continuing to do it for fifteen years? Property law. George Patterson stopping the South Pacific Coast Railroad at gunpoint when they attempted to cross his Newark land by eminent domain? Well, that's kinda property law.

When railroads get right-of-way in the normal way (aka not laying tracks across a farmer's land in the middle of the night when no one’s looking), the records of land ownership eventually end up in the County Recorder’s office. I’ve been able to wander into the Alameda County clerk-recorder’s office and found the handwritten deed for great-grandpa’s eleven acres of ridge-top land, or down to San Jose to find who owned a cannery in the 1930’s - those records are present and accessible back to the formation of the state.

Well, in most places.

Elizabeth Creely documents the story of one of the sidings along the old main line that no longer has an owner.

Southern Pacific (and its predecessor the San Francisco and San Jose) originally got to San Francisco by the same route Caltrain currently takes - at least to San Bruno. At San Bruno, the railroad followed what eventually became the San Bruno branch, paralleling El Camino up through South San Francisco and Daly City, and eventually cutting through the Mission District. That line was superceded by the current line through Brisbane and Visitation Valley around 1910, but the track continued to be used for trains at places up into the 1970s. The line that cut across the Mission district can still be seen in the diagonally shaped infill buildings along the path. When the SP attempted to sell the old right-of-way in 1991, the adjacent buildings fought back, claiming they actually owned the land. The only problem? The original transfer of land to the Southern Pacific was in San Francisco’s Hall of Records… which burned in the 1906 earthquake. Did the SP buy the land or get an easement? Read Elizabeth’s article to find out.