Tom Panas, EC Historical Society, Railroads in El Cerrito

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Tom Panas will review almost 100 years of freight and passenger railroading in El Cerrito.

The right of way where BART runs through El Cerrito today was at one time a busy Santa Fe route with many passenger and freight trains scheduled each day. Earlier this right of way had been the California and Nevada Railroad, whose trains first passed through El Cerrito in 1885. It all ended in 1980. Tom Panas will review almost 100 years of freight and passenger railroading in El Cerrito.


Note: Tom Panas was named to the city’s Wall of Fame in 2014. An article about his interest in local history, architecture and improving El Cerrito’s quality of life can be read on the the Contra Costa Times site or below.

El Cerrito’s newest Wall of Fame member has passion for city and its history By Rick Radin Correspondent

POSTED:   09/24/2014

EL CERRITO — To say that Tom Panas was an obvious candidate for El Cerrito’s Wall of Fame that honors residents for “above and beyond” contributions to the community is to risk understatement.

Panas, who was named to the select group in July, has been a key instigator of the city’s growing commitment to preserving its history, architectural and otherwise. He has also worked for years to improve residents’ quality of life with his service on El Cerrito’s New Library Committee that is trying to help the city build a larger state-of-the-art facility to replace the antiquated existing structure.

“I think Tom has been a remarkable asset to the community,” said Grace MacNeill, a retired El Cerrito branch librarian and a colleague on the New Library Committee.

Tom Panas in the back yard of his El Cerrito home, where he is an avid vegetable gardener, is the newest figure named to the city’s Wall of Fame.

Panas, 63, moved to El Cerrito from his hometown of Santa Rosa in 1975, when he began working on his master’s degree in business at UC Berkeley. Soon after, he began taking an interest in civic affairs, particularly historical preservation.

“I was never interested in history at all until I came here,” said Panas, an engineering and computer science major in college. “When I arrived in El Cerrito, I started getting interested in it, especially in the Santa Fe railroad.”

Panas began researching the history of the city and was chagrined to find that so many structures and artifacts from earlier eras had disappeared.

For example, the Castro Adobe, built by the son of Spanish land grant holder Francisco Castro in 1839, was destroyed in a 1956 fire. The developers of the original El Cerrito Plaza shopping center demolished the remains to make way for a parking lot of the new mall.

Panas began fighting to preserve what was left of El Cerrito’s historical resources, working with state and federal authorities to identify and protect significant structures.

He was successful in placing the Chung Mei Home for Chinese Boys on Elm Street on the National Register of Historic Places. Although the building was modified in recent years to house a private school, its designation as a historic district preserves the integrity of the role it once played.

Panas has also worked with Edward Biggs, Albany-based developer of a 15-unit condominium structure to be built at 1715 Elm St. near the Chung Mei home. As part of the development plan, which received final approval from the City Council in August, Biggs will restore the 117-year-old Rodini house, the third-oldest home in El Cerrito, which will remain on the property and have public uses.

Panas also successfully campaigned for the preservation of the former Contra Costa Florist shop on San Pablo Avenue as part of plans for developing a six-story low-income senior housing project on the property.

The shop structure was originally built to house a sales office for one of the local quarries, but was later owned by the Mabuchi family, who converted it to a florist shop. The Mabuchis were interned in a camp for residents of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

Woody Karp, the project manager for Hayward-based Eden Housing, the developer of the project next to City Hall, said he has “an amazing amount of respect for Tom,” who convinced Eden to alter its plans to tear down the shop along with the Mabuchi home at the rear of the shop.

“The shop was not identified as a historical resource at first, and Tom advocated for the preservation of the building,” Karp said. “He was passionate about it, and we listened to him and went back to the drawing board to preserve it.”

Historical displays about the Japanese community will be included in a public plaza on the property.

Panas’ interest in Japanese-Americans who operated nurseries and flower businesses in Richmond and El Cerrito began long before the Eden project.

After befriending a number of older Japanese residents, he discovered that most of them only saw each other at funerals, so he organized a party so that they could get together under happier circumstances, along with a historical photo exhibit about the nurseries.

The exhibit opened at the El Cerrito Senior Center and was also displayed at City Hall.

“We really did it up for them, with the party and celebration, and people were able to rekindle relationships,” Panas said.


Panas’ work as a Contra Costa County library commissioner has given him the background to help colleagues push forward with plans for a new library. So far, the city has commissioned a “needs assessment” to determine what residents want in terms of library design and facilities.

Panas said El Cerrito “needs to determine where it’s going to be and make sure it has the right features and the library committee needs to facilitate that.”

Panas is leading the private fundraising for the library project, MacNeill said.

“After there is a site and design selected, I think people will be more interested in giving large amounts of money,” she said.

In the meantime, Panas has been the instigator and promoter of a pair of seed libraries that have been established at the El Cerrito Library and the El Cerrito Recycling Center with the cooperation of the El Cerrito Community Garden Network.

An avid gardener, Panas says El Cerrito is the first library in the county system to have a seed library, where residents can borrow seeds to plant in their gardens and may donate them back after their crop is harvested.

“The question is always ‘How can we serve the public better and do the right thing,'” Panas said.

Panas and his wife, Ann Duveneck, have twin sons, Mike and Allan.

7901 Cutting Boulevard, El Cerrito, CA 94530, USA