Modesto, CA (MOD)
The station features large expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass that allow natural light to flood the interior while also providing views out to colorful landscaped beds.
1700 Held Drive
Modesto, CA 95355
Annual Station Ridership (2016): 117,422
- Facility Ownership: City of Modesto
- Parking Lot Ownership: City of Modesto
- Platform Ownership: BNSF Railway
- Track Ownership: BNSF Railway
For information about Amtrak fares and schedules, please call 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).
The Amtrak stop in Modesto is located about six miles east of downtown, but is connected to the city center by regular bus service. Opened to passengers in November 1999, the current station replaced the former depot at Riverbank, a small town a few miles to the north. A few decades ago, eastern Modesto was primarily farm and grazing land, and the BNSF Railway (BNSF) tracks used by the San Joaquin service passed through an active agricultural zone. Phenomenal urban growth in the 1990s expanded the footprint of the city eastward. Coupled with a renewed statewide investment in passenger rail, Modesto leaders were inspired to approve the construction of a large, modern station for travelers to replace the older and smaller Riverbank facility.
Designed by Pacific Design Associates of Modesto and VBN Architects of Oakland, the $2.4 million station was built on four acres of former dairy pastureland. Rising from a base of gray concrete masonry units, walls coated in white stucco gleam in the bright California sun. The building is a typical rectangular depot, but it appears quite large due to the addition of deep porches on the street and trackside facades. Their graceful, bowed fronts beckon travelers to enter and take shelter from the penetrating summer sun or cool winter rains.
Crowning the station is a solid square tower sporting a hipped, seamed metal roof in a shade of light green. Large windows in the tower and on the ground floor allow natural light to flood the passenger waiting room and ticketing area. The expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass also give travelers a view out to the landscaped beds of colorful flowering trees and shrubs that surround the station. Swaying in the breeze, the verdant plantings provide a bit of softness in contrast to the building’s hard exterior surfaces.
Modesto is located at the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the region was explored by Spaniards from the coast such as Gabriel Moraga. Travelers encountered bands of the Yokut American Indians, and the valley was not settled by European-Americans until the 1820s. After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, much of the land in southern and central California was broken up into large estates that were often doled out to the friends of those in power. Although isolated from populated coastal areas due to the mountain ranges, the valley was used for grazing. The Gold Rush of 1849 attracted adventurers to California from the eastern and Midwestern United States. Many dreams of gold came to naught but settlers remained in the west and built lives. Subsequently, many of the Yokut were driven off their land and onto designated reservations.
Similar to many of the major towns in the valley, Modesto was born of the railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad (CP) had helped complete the first North American transcontinental rail route in 1869. Soon thereafter, the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP)—and the CP, which it effectively controlled—began construction on a line that would run down the San Joaquin Valley to ultimately connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. Those cities were California’s two most important ports and political and economic centers for the northern and southern regions of the state, respectively.
Building through the area in 1870, the CP approached a local landowner to gain permission to run tracks through his recently established port town located on the Tuolumne River. Rebuffed, the railroad changed course and purchased 160 acres from John Atherton. Modesto was laid out in the fall, and as was typical, the principle streets ran parallel to the tracks to maximize frontage on the valuable transportation corridor. The town site quickly attracted residents from surrounding settlements who understood the transformative power that the railroad could exert on local economies. Entire wooden and brick buildings were dismantled and moved to Modesto since building supplies were scarce.
Stories concerning the origins of the town’s name vary in the details, but the central plotline is essentially the same. Apparently, CP officials, including William Ralston, had traveled to the area to inspect the progress of the track work. It was suggested that the new community be named in Ralston’s honor, but he gently declined which lead a bystander to remark on his “modesty.” In the flow of events, the Spanish version of the word—“modesto”—was mentioned and then chosen as the official name.
The CP built a one-storey combination depot for passengers and freight near the tracks at I Street. With a simple rectangular floor plan, the standardized wooden structure could easily be shipped to a site in pieces and erected for the start of train service. At one end was a passenger room which was separated from the freight area by the station master’s office. From the exterior, the office was marked by a projecting, three-sided bay; containing windows on all sides, it allowed the station master to monitor traffic on the rails. The freight end was easily identified by the wide wooden doors that allowed for the movement of large crates and parcels between the boxcars and the depot.
Due to its location on the rail line, within a year the new town became the county seat. A courthouse was erected and a community of lawyers and government officials settled in Modesto. Wheat provided an economic base for the region, but the fickle nature of the winter rains caused years of prosperity to be punctuated by ones of drought and poor production. Just as fast as the town had grown, within a generation it seemed like the boom was over. The option of irrigation offered new opportunities for a greater diversity of crops such as almonds, peaches, and alfalfa. Although irrigation is now common on the farms of the San Joaquin Valley, early residents were not sure that the water infrastructure was worth the monetary investment—obtained through taxes—or whether irrigation would even be successful.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, the SP’s monopoly on rapid transportation led to complaints from farmers and travelers about high freight and passenger rates. The primary rival to the SP in California was the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF), which had entered the far southern area of the state in the 1880s. In the mid-1890s, the new San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railroad (SF&SJV) proposed an alternate route through the San Joaquin Valley; by purchasing the SF&SJV in 1899 and securing trackage rights over the SP’s Tehachapi line, the ATSF gained a route between Los Angeles and the San Francisco bay area. Although the line was used by local farmers to ship their products, it was too far outside of Modesto to effectively compete with the SP for passenger business.
After a decade of debate, the Modesto Irrigation District broke ground on a series of canals and ditches that began delivering water in 1904. A renewed colonization effort attracted newcomers from other parts of the country as well as immigrants from abroad. To promote commercial growth, a local business association erected the well-known Modesto Arch in 1912 near the SP depot at 9th and I Streets. Its 668 lights have emblazoned the night sky ever since with the city’s motto: “Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health.”
The expansion of the city merited a larger depot which the SP constructed in 1915. Asserting its power, the railroad convinced the city to block off J Street so that it could erect the building on axis with the centerline of the street and therefore gain a gracious vista up the roadway. Unlike its utilitarian wooden predecessor, the new station’s heavy stucco-covered facades gave the appearance of stability and permanence.
Designed in the then-popular Mission Revival style, the building featured a shady arcade along the platform. The principle street and trackside entrances were marked with oversized curvilinear gables—or remates—whose parapets were decorated with scrollwork designs. From the center of the building, two towers reminiscent of those found on early California missions rose above the red tile roof. The choice of the Mission Revival language harkened back to a romanticized Spanish past that effectively worked as a branding tool for the railroad and was an omnipresent advertisement for the state’s picturesque landscapes. The SP depot still stands downtown, but has not been used by rail passengers since 1971. The depot was later renovated to serve as a hub for local and regional bus services, including the line that connects with the Amtrak station.
Agriculture has remained the backbone of the Modesto economy for more than a century. The bounty of local fields is processed at canneries, packing plants, and warehouses before it is shipped across the nation and even the world. The Modesto Farmers’ Market—where all produce and meats sold must be locally raised—is popular with residents and visitors. One of the most prominent success stories is surely that of the Gallo brothers. The duo tried their hands at wine making in the 1930s just as Prohibition was coming to an end. Using instructional pamphlets from the library, they went on to build a wine business that currently accounts for about half of the state’s grape harvest. The Gallo family tended to all aspects of the winemaking process, even building a factory to manufacture wine bottles and investing in research and development to improve harvests.
For those interested in learning more about the history of Modesto, a visit to the McHenry Museum is essential. Exhibits include a complete dentist’s office, general store, and recreated blacksmith’s shop. The Gold Rush is recounted by a collection of mining tools while the cattle ranching period is represented by a variety of brands used in the county. Next door, the McHenry Mansion is also open for tours. Built by one of Modesto’s first families, it was donated to the city by the Gallo Foundation in 1976 and is a prime spot for special events such as weddings.
George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, grew up in Modesto. In 1973, he released the film American Graffiti which was based on his childhood and teenage years in the city. The film was immensely popular and has inspired a month long festival in Modesto that includes classic car shows, a dance party, live music performances, and, of course, viewings of the movie. In 1997, a plaza was dedicated to the writer and director; at its center is a statue inspired by American Graffiti that depicts a young teenage couple relaxing on the hood of their 1957 Chevy.
Amtrak provides ticketing and baggage services at this station. The San Joaquinservice is primarily financed through funds made available by the State of California, Department of Transportation, and is managed by the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority.
- 72 Short Term Parking Spaces
- 50 Long Term Parking Spaces
- Accessible Payphones
- Accessible Platform
- Accessible Restrooms
- Accessible Ticket Office
- Accessible Waiting Room
- Accessible Water Fountain
- Baggage Storage
- Bike Boxes
- Checked Baggage
- Dedicated Parking
- Enclosed Waiting Area
- Help With Luggage
- Pay Phones
- Quik Trak Kiosk
- Shipping Boxes
- Ticket Office
- Wheelchair Lift