MENLO PARK -- All Aboard! It's Caltrain's birthday.

The 150th anniversary of the oldest continuously operating passenger rail line in the West was celebrated in Menlo Park on Saturday with oratory, a brass band and a historical re-enactment.

"It's a great day not just for Caltrain but for the communities" that dot the 50-mile line between San Francisco and San Jose, said California Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), the event's master of ceremonies.

The railroad has changed hands a few times and survived a battle or two for survival but is still going strong.

It all began on October 17, 1863, when the line's inaugural trip brought a party of dignitaries, officials and friends to Menlo Park to kick off train service between San Francisco and Mayfield -- now Palo Alto. They rode in three passenger cars and an open car. The remainder of the line from Mayfield to San Jose was completed the following year.

On Saturday, the re-enactment of that hallowed trip was the highlight of the Caltrain birthday party.

In the early years, the Peninsula was populated by more oak trees and cattle than people, and the depots were often the first buildings in town. They sometimes did double duty as churches and libraries. Today, Hill noted, seven of the stations are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Only 660 votes were cast in sparsely populated San Mateo County -- 420 in favor -- in balloting for a $200,000 bond measure to cover the county's share of the original cost of $2 million. Construction workers were paid $30 a month.

"The men were farmers, dairymen, common laborers and probably quite a few former prospectors," said San Mateo County Supervisor Warren Slocum.

Cosmo population

The train reduced an 8-hour one-way stage coach trip to a 3 1/2 hour round trip, he said, and cost a nickel a mile.

It was a modern diesel-powered train that pulled into the Menlo Park station shortly after noon Saturday to discharge a cargo of historical re-enactors recruited by the San Mateo County Historical Association.

The gents sported black top hats and tails, and the ladies wore bonnets and carried parasols to ward off the sun. Somehow, they managed to fit their large hoop skirts into the passenger car. They all sat down to elaborately decorated picnic tables and dined on croissant sandwiches and champagne. Many historically re-created speeches followed.

Among the original party were California Gov. Leland Stanford, Oregon Gov. Addison C. Gibbs, who had traveled by stage to San Francisco, and the rail line's president, Judge Timothy Dame.

While that trip, commemorated Saturday, marked the opening of the line to passenger traffic, Caltrain plans to celebrate other milestones during the coming year, including its completion in February 1864.

In a story about that picnic 150 years ago, the Daily Alta California newspaper described the 35-mile line to Mayfield. Although "not so crooked as most of the roads in the Eastern States," the paper reported, " it is still far from straight."

The paper noted proudly that the rail line begins in San Francisco, the home of "a cosmopolitan population, skilled in all the arts and educated in all the rules of polite society."

Venturing forth from the this cradle of civilization, the picnickers headed south on the 35-mile long Peninsula past mountains and streams, including one "with enough power to drive a mill." There were "many straight stretches three or four miles long," the Alta California reported.

"The road does not in any place pass over the tule land," the paper reassured.

Name origin

The line that began as the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad was later absorbed by Southern Pacific and then turned over to public ownership in the 1980s. A three-county agency called the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board has operated Caltrain since 1992.

Seven of the line's train stations are on the National Register of Historic Places, four of them built in the 1980s, according to a Caltrain history. Caltrain Board Chairman Ken Yeager called them "our magnificent seven."

Last week, Menlo Park and Galway, Ireland, inked a sister-city pact. In town for that, Galway Mayor Padraig Conneely attended the Caltrain birthday party and presented Menlo Park Mayor Peter Ohtaki with a photograph of Menlough Castle in Galway.

The story goes, that when the railroad wanted to know what to name the new station, they chose the name that was on the entrance to a nearby ranch owned by two transplanted Irishmen, Dennis J. Oliver and Daniel C. McGlynn. In 1854, the two men erected the sign, which bore the name of the village they were born in -- Menlough, Ireland, near the city of Galway. They shortened that to Menlo and added Park for good measure.

Contact Pete Carey at 408-920-5419 Follow him on Twitter.com/petecarey

caltrain milestones

1851 - Rail line between San Francisco and San Jose, the state's first capital, is proposed
1860 - San Francisco & San Jose Railroad incorporate, financing arranged from three counties along the planned line
October 1863 - Regular service begins to Mayfield, now Palo Alto's California Avenue station
January 1864 - Completion of the line to San Jose.
1870 - Southern Pacific absorbs the rail line.
1915 - New San Francisco station built to handle crowds from the Panama Pacific International Exposition
1950s - Diesel locomotives introduced
1977 - After protracted negotiations, Caltrans and the three counties traversed by the railroad reach an agreement with Southern Pacific to keep the line operating with public funding covering most operating costs.
1980s to present - Transition to public ownership, by a three-county Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which has run Caltrain since 1992.
(Source - Caltrain)