Trains haven’t rolled through Sonoma Valley with any consistency for decades, but visitors to Depot Park Museum just might think otherwise.
Located within a replica 100-year-old train depot, the museum’s Rand Room houses model trains, old railroad ties, lights, whistles, photographs, paintings, books, maps and other memorabilia from the bustling railroad era so significant to the valley’s history.
Visitors can sit at a train master’s desk and punch boarding tickets, or ring the heavy bronze bell that once sounded aboard a big steam locomotive.
Founded and operated by the Sonoma Valley Historical Society since 1978, the museum celebrates the rich history of the Valley of the Moon, with a particular emphasis on the 1800s and the heyday of the railroad era that extended into the early 1900s.
It also serves as a research center for local history, with a collection of more than 70,000 historical photographs and countless documents housed at the two-story museum and at two off-site locations.
“We’re the repository for local history. We preserve history,” said Stacey Stern, who succeeded the retiring Sandi Hansen last fall as the museum’s part-time manager.
Just four months into her job, Stern has the daunting task of organizing and streamlining the countless archival materials so they can be accessed through an online database.
The historical society recently received a three-year $135,000 challenge grant. The grant seeks annual matching funds of $15,000 from individual donors and $30,000 from public and private grants through the duration of the grant period. Monies will be used to expand archive services and efforts to share the history of Sonoma Valley.
Stern helps the public with research projects, which might include residents using local history books, genealogical publications and burial records; compiling family histories; or businesses and students searching for historical facts and photos.
She also helps writers and journalists track down information from among the oral and written histories, maps, newspapers, advertisements, original deeds, documents, city records, pamphlets and club minutes that chronicle Sonoma Valley life before and since the city’s incorporation in 1883. Many of the historical documents are signed by some of California’s founding fathers.
More than 6,000 visitors step back in time at the museum every year, from tourists traveling from across the globe to Sonoma Valley natives curious about their hometown history.
“People really like it and they come back,” said Patricia Cullinan, president of the historical society. “They’re usually just stunned.”
Among the artifacts and curiosities on display is a pair of grizzly bear feet taken when Civil War Major Gen. “Fighting” Joe Hooker killed the bear — estimated between 900 and 1,200 pounds — during a knife battle in the hills above Agua Caliente in 1852.
A pistol used during a gunfight between the pioneer Carriger brothers also is housed at the museum. Ironically, rural Carriger Road, named for Nicholas Carriger, is arguably among the most bucolic streets in the valley.
Beyond the popular Rand Room with its train memorabilia, the museum features several permanent displays that showcase Victorian life in the valley. Vignettes highlight a typical kitchen, dining room, parlor and bedroom, complete with antiques donated by local families.
Circa-1897 appliances like a water pump resting on a kitchen sink and a heavy flat iron atop a wood stove suggest day-to-day life wasn’t easy for the pioneer families.