Remembering William Byron Rumford Jr., whose work to remove Santa Fe tracks reshaped South Berkeley

The son of a California civil rights leader, Rumford was honored with a plaque on Sacramento Street earlier this year.

A marker honoring William Byron Rumford Jr. was installed in early 2021, recognizing his work to remove the Santa Fe railroad tracks that once ran down the center of Sacramento Street. Credit: Nico Savidge

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

The son of California civil rights leader William Byron Rumford Sr., who authored landmark state legislation targeting racial discrimination in housing and employment, William Byron Rumford Jr.’s career in city government and local law enforcement was relatively lower in profile.

Today, though, both men are honored within steps of one another in South Berkeley.

A plaque commemorating William Byron Rumford Jr. was installed in early 2021 just outside the William Byron Rumford Medical Clinic at 2960 Sacramento St. The clinic occupies the former site of the Rumford family’s pharmacy, on a stretch of Sacramento Street where the Santa Fe tracks once ran down the middle of the roadway.

A statue of William Byron Rumford Sr. has stood since 2016 in the grassy median that replaced the railroad. William Byron Rumford III said he began the effort to install the marker honoring his father after he realized, “If it wasn’t for dad, grandpa’s statue couldn’t have been put there.”

William Byron Rumford Jr. was born in South Berkeley in 1933, at a time when the Santa Fe tracks carried freight and passenger trains through the neighborhood. By the time he was voted onto the City Council during a special recall election in 1973, though, the rail line had fallen out of use.

This 1964 photo shows the Santa Fe railroad tracks that ran down the middle of Sacramento Street. The tracks cut through a bustling corridor of businesses catering to Black Berkeleyans — the sign for the Rumford family pharmacy is visible on the right side of the street. Today, a plaque honoring William Byron Rumford Jr.’s work to remove the tracks sits outside the former site of the pharmacy, while a statue of his father, William Byron Rumford Sr., is in the grassy median that replaced the railroad tracks. Credit: African American Museum & Library at Oakland Photograph Collection.

The tracks had long been a problem for the neighborhoods surrounding them, especially where they passed through the bustling stretch of Sacramento Street that included the Rumfords’ pharmacy and other popular businesses catering to Black Berkeleyans. The plaque recognizing Rumford states that the tracks ran “through the heart of the African-American community” and represented “a barrier to unifying the Berkeley community.”

One of Rumford’s colleagues on the City Council, Carole Kennerly, recalled, “For so many years, it was seen as a division for our city — you lived on one side of the tracks, or you lived on the other side of the tracks.”

Growing up around the family pharmacy, William Byron Rumford III remembered how the tracks created the danger of crashes between cars, pedestrians and trains. Other times, the grime kicked up by a passing locomotive might ruin his work cleaning the front of the store.

“It seemed like every time I was out there sweeping, the Santa Fe train was coming down the middle of the block,” Rumford said.

William Byron Rumford Jr. Credit: Rumford family

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

“He made a commitment early on to do something about that,” Kennerly said of the rail line. “He was definitely the one who had the foresight and the energy to stay on it.”

Four years after Rumford was elected to the council, Berkeley voters passed a bond that allowed the city to purchase more than 3 miles of the Santa Fe right of way. The following year, Rumford began negotiating with Santa Fe to complete the sale.

In the decades that followed, Berkeley ripped up the tracks and transformed the land once occupied by the rail corridor into Strawberry Creek and Cedar-Rose parks, the West Street Pathway, affordable housing for seniors and other uses. Along Sacramento Street, the tracks became a median and workers moved overhead utility wires underground.

City officials earlier this month announced they have secured a $5 million state grant to turn the last undeveloped stretch of the former Santa Fe right of way into another new park.

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

Rumford later became head of security for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District and, following his retirement from law enforcement 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 operate a bed and breakfast. Rumford died on Sept. 2.

To Kennerly, it’s only fitting to see markers honoring William Byron Rumford Jr. and his father in South Berkeley — not just for their contributions through state and local politics, she said, but also because of the relationships they forged with their friends and neighbors in the community.

“This was their area,” she said.

William Byron Rumford III said the plaque is a way to give his father the recognition he deserves, while also serving as a marker of Berkeley’s Black history.

“There needs to be a reminder of the people who really did things in that area,” said Rumford, who now lives in Oakland. “There is a lot of history there.”

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.