A Bridge between Neighborhoods: the Santa Rosa Underpass

A now-lost bit of infrastructure connected two neighborhoods for six decades, an underpass below the Southern Pacific railroad tracks that extended Santa Rosa Avenue to meet Circular Avenue and Congo Street.

1927, Santa Rosa Bridge. Circular Ave at Congo Street. Southern Pacific railroad tracks running at crest of embankment. Houses on left located on Flood Ave. wnp36.03489

In the usual way of things then, Sunnysiders asked for this relatively minor, yet vital link for many years before the city built it. From the neighborhood’s beginning in 1891 and for decades to come, Sunnyside was hemmed in.[1]  Sutro Forest blocked the west, Phelan Ave was not yet built through on the south, there was no road over the railroad tracks on the east, and no passage over Mt Davidson on the north. You came in via Chenery or San Jose Road, and left the same way, usually on the electric streetcar. recently put up four great photos of the Santa Rosa Bridge (including the one above). They were all taken in 1927.

1927, Santa Rosa Bridge. Circular Ave at Congo Street. Southern Pacific railroad tracks running at crest of embankment. wnp36.03487
1927, Santa Rosa Bridge, seen from eastern side, on Santa Rosa Ave. Southern Pacific railroad tracks running over top. wnp36.03486
1927, taken from top of embankment. Circular Ave at Congo Street. Backs of houses that front Flood Ave in view. wnp36.03488

It was an important aspect of fire protection—fire engines from Engine Company no.38, established at the corner of Ocean and San Jose Avenues in 1906, previously had to go more than a mile the long way around to reach Sunnyside houses.

It changed the neighborhood for kids, too. In an oral history recorded about ten years ago, a man who grew up in Sunnyside in the 1910s and 20s recounted:

We used to go over to the Granada Theater over on Mission Street at Santa Rosa Avenue, and there was an underpass there. We’d go down through the underpass and across San Jose Avenue and down to Mission Street.

The story starts much earlier. In 1899 the Sunnyside Improvement Club asked in particular for this passage to be cut under the railroad tracks[2]; Southern Pacific had just granted the City the rights to run a sewer for Sunnyside under the tracks at this point[3], and the residents sensibly enough wanted passage for traffic as well. They asked again six more times by 1912—at least these were requests that made it into the newspapers.[4]

1905. Portion of Sanborn map showing route of the creek then. Sewer pipes were along same route in 1899.
1912 — Plans now in place for viaduct under railroad tracks. SF Call, 13 April 1912, p24.

At this point the bit of street on the other side of the tracks from Congo/Circular was Jarnac Street, which was part of the much older Belle Roche City homestead. It was later lined up with Santa Rosa Ave and in 1912 its name was changed to Santa Rosa, to match.[5]

1915 Chevalier map. Street still says ‘Jarnac’ even though name had been changed in 1912. Click for larger. 

The Bayshore Cut-Off was built in 1907 (the route of CalTrain today), which meant Southern Pacific ran far fewer trains down the “Mission Tracks“ after that. (More about those dangerous tracks through residential streets.)

Finally in 1913 the Board of Supervisors put $10,000 in the budget for the project, and took bids.[6] The lowest bid was from a contractor named Otto Rechnagel, who said he could do it for $8,587.

The underpass was a feature of the open spaces where Sunnyside kids played, before a playground was built in the 1960s. A woman who grew up on Pilgrim Street (now a little stub due to freeway construction) recently wrote to me:

We used to put pennies or cans on the track to flatten them.  The track bridged over Santa Rosa Ave.  One day my older brother and a friend of his (both about 12 years old) managed to get up under the trestle bridge.  They wanted to hear the train cross above them, and my brother slipped and fell to the sidewalk.  A kind lady stopped, checked him out and brought him home. The only injury was a sprained ankle.  Boys will be boys.

Here is a portion of a 1922 aerial photo, which shows the area, before the building boom of the late 1920s filled out the blocks.

1922. Portion of aerial photo, Santa Rosa Bridge visible in center. OpenSFHistory wnp27.0542. Click for larger. 

Here is the 1938 aerial photo, showing the area, now with more houses.

1938 aerial photo, showing Santa Rosa Bridge. From

In the 1960s the I-280 freeway was built on the land where the Southern Pacific tracks had been. Additional land was also needed, which took out many blocks of houses, mostly in Mission Terrace.

2017. On Circular Avenue near Congo. The I-280 freeway is just a few feet away from the street.
2017. Circular Avenue at Congo Street today. The freeway is just beyond trees.

A replacement connection was needed between Sunnyside and Mission Terrace. The Baden Street bridge now goes over the freeway, as well as one at Judson/Paulding, and a cage-like pedestrian bridge crosses from Monterey Blvd to Theresa Street.

2017. Baden Street bridge over freeway I-280. The low parapet makes for slightly vertiginous crossing.
2017. The view southwest from the Baden Street bridge. The Paulding Street bridge in view. Circular/Congo intersection is to right of green freeway sign, behind trees.
2017 View northeast from Baden Street Bridge, the Monterey/Theresa Street pedestrian overpass in view.

All 2017 photos: Amy O’Hair.



[1] The Campaign for an outlet started early and went on for years. “Activity in the Suburbs,” SF Chronicle, 9 Feb 1896, p27,; “What Sunnyside Wants,” SF Chronicle, 20 Feb 1896, p4; “An Outlet Needed,” SF Chronicle , 2 Mar 1896, p7,; “Sunnyside District,” SF Call, 21 Jul 1897, p7; “Campaign to Open Sunnyside Street,” SF Chronicle, 2 Mar 1910, p9.

[2] “Asks for Improvements,” SF Chronicle, 25 Jan 1899, p11.

[3] “Propose a Lighting Plant for the City,” SF Call, 24 Jan 1899, p6.

[4] SF Call, 17 Apr 1900, p5; SF Call, 27 Jun 1905, p16; SF Chronicle, 27 Jun 1905, p15; SF Call, 2 Aug 1908, p48; SF Call, 2 Mar 1909, p4; SF Call, 28 Jan 1911, p9; SF Call, 16 May 1912, p11.

[5] “Proceeding of the Streets Committee of Supervisors,” SF Chronicle, 17 May 1912, p9.

[6] “Extend Santa Rosa Avenue,” SF Chronicle, 14 Aug 1913, p20.

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