Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Remembering William Byron Rumford Jr., who transformed South Berkeley

A marker in honor of William Byron Rumford Jr. was placed in early 2021, recognizing his work in removing the Santa Fe railroad tracks that once ran through the center of Sacramento Street. Photo credit: Nico Savidge

William Byron Rumford Jr., a former city council member who remodeled West and South Berkeley through his work to remove the Santa Fe railroad tracks that once ran through town, died in September. He was 82.

The son of California civil rights leader William Byron Rumford Sr., who pioneered state laws against racial discrimination in housing and employment, was relatively little known to William Byron Rumford Jr. in the city government and local law enforcement agencies.

Today, however, both men are honored in South Berkeley just steps apart.

A plaque commemorating William Byron Rumford Jr. was placed in front of the William Byron Rumford Medical Clinic at 2960 Sacramento St in early 2021 and ran in the middle of the pavement.

A statue of William Byron Rumford Sr. has stood in the grassy median that replaced the railroad since 2016. William Byron Rumford III said he began efforts to put the marker in his father’s honor after realizing, “Without a father, the statue of Grandpa could not have been placed there.”

William Byron Rumford Jr. was born in South Berkeley in 1933, at a time when the Santa Fe tracks were hauling goods and passenger trains through the neighborhood. When he was elected to the city council in a special election in 1973, the railway line was out of service.

This 1964 photograph shows the Santa Fe railroad tracks running down the middle of Sacramento Street. The train tracks run through a busy corridor of shops supplying Black Berkeleyans – the Rumford Family Pharmacy sign is visible on the right side of the street. Today, outside the former pharmacy site, there is a plaque honoring William Byron Rumford Jr.’s work in removing the tracks, while a statue of his father, William Byron Rumford Sr., stands in the grassy median that replaced the railroad tracks. Photo credit: African American Museum & Library in the Oakland Photograph Collection.

The railroad tracks had long been a problem for the neighborhoods around them, especially where they ran through the busy section of Sacramento Street that was home to the Rumfords’ pharmacy and other popular Black Berkeleyan stores. The plaque recognizing Rumford states that the trail “ran through the heart of the African American community” and was “an obstacle to the unification of the Berkeley community.”

One of Rumford’s fellow councilors, Carole Kennerly, recalls: “For so many years it was viewed as a division of our city – you lived on one side of the track or on the other side of the track. ”

William Byron Rumford III grew up near the family pharmacy and remembered how the tracks created the risk of collisions between cars, pedestrians, and trains. In other cases, the dirt kicked up by a passing locomotive can ruin its job of cleaning the front of the store.

“It seemed like every time I swept out there, the Santa Fe train came right through the block,” said Rumford.

William Byron Rumford Jr. Credit: Rumford Family

On the city council, Kennerly said William Byron Rumford Jr. took a balanced and thoughtful approach and made removing the Santa Fe tracks one of his top priorities.

“He made an early commitment to do something about it,” said Kennerly of the railway line. “He was definitely the one who had the foresight and the energy to stick with it.”

Four years after Rumford was elected to the council, Berkeley voters passed a loan allowing the city to purchase more than three miles of Santa Fe right of way. The following year Rumford began negotiating with Santa Fe to close the sale.

In the decades that followed, Berkeley tore open the tracks and transformed the land once occupied by the railroad corridor into Strawberry Creek and Cedar-Rose Parks, the West Street Pathway, affordable senior housing and other uses. Along Sacramento Street, the tracks became a median, and workers buried the catenary cables underground.

City officials announced earlier this month that they have secured a $ 5 million government grant to turn the last vacant stretch of Santa Fe’s former rights of way into yet another new park.

Outside of his work on the council, Rumford was deputy chief of the BART Police Department from 1970 to 1976, then chief until 1979. Kennerly said Rumford, walking past Bill, took pride in his role as advisor and confidante to his father, who died in 1986.

Rumford later became chief security officer of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District and, upon retirement from the police force in 1996, executive director of the Timothy Murphy School for Boys in Marin County.

In 2004 he and his wife Maggie Rumford moved to Pender Island, British Columbia to run a bed and breakfast. Rumford died on September 2nd.

It is only fitting for Kennerly to see markings honoring William Byron Rumford Jr. and his father in South Berkeley – not just for their contribution to state and local politics, she said, but also for the relationships they have with theirs Friends and neighbors to the community.

“That was her area,” she said.

William Byron Rumford III said the plaque is a way of giving his father the recognition he deserves, while also being a marker of Berkeley’s black history.

“There has to be a reminder of the people who really did things in this area,” said Rumford, who now lives in Oakland. “There’s a lot of history there”

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