In a dedication ceremony that featured a dozen speakers and a blessing in less than one hour, possibly setting a new world record, SMART launched on Friday. The crowd at the old stone station at the foot of Santa Rosa’s Fourth Street was in a celebratory mood. After the long delays and snarky comments about scheduling, fares and whistles, the send-off for the first leg of a Sonoma-Marin transit system proved itself a historic event.
Think about it. The last scheduled stop at the Santa Rosa depot was Northwestern Pacific’s passenger train known as The Redwood, making its final run from Eureka south. That was November 1958, very close to 60 years ago.
You don’t need me to tell you how trains have come and gone in and around Sonoma County. You can, I’m fairly certain, Google it for every detail including what locomotive was built where.
While the word won’t be found in the old conductor’s handbooks, there is definitely a mystique to railroads. Stacks of books have been written, organizations formed at every whistle-stop. At last count the Northwestern Pacific Historical Society had more than 700 members.
Well into the 20th century everyone went everywhere by train.
Sonoma County’s trains ran pretty much on time, even after the automobile took hold — about 10 per day passing through the Northwestern Pacific, or NWP, depot, including uptrains from the ferry in Sausalito and downtrains from Eureka. Long-distance travelers headed for all points east from the North Street’s Southern Pacific (SP) station. The crossing whistles were just part of the atmosphere.
Passengers came in all sizes, shapes and purposes — salesmen hawking dry goods and hardware; young men who were couriers carrying cash and bonds and stock certificates to and from banks; escorts accompanying valuable cargo, baseball teams from the Bay Area, honeymooners and families with children.
Train riders from those glory years have great tales to tell.
One of my favorites came from the late Rita Carniglia Hall, who liked to tell about her father, Charles Carniglia Sr., the superintendent of the California Packing Corporation’s (Del Monte) cannery west of the tracks.
He courted her mother, Rose, as she made the daily train trip from her family’s home in Fulton to work in the cannery.
At the end of the workday, she would often be accompanied by the young Carniglia, who would then hang out at the Fulton station to wait for the next downtrain.
It was a 1920s courting ritual, equivalent to the drive-in movies of the ’50s or the Friday night cruise down Fourth Street.
Another picture of the railroad glory days here was painted vividly by the late Press Democrat editor Art Volkerts, born and raised on a ranch in Hessel. In a video interview in the ’90s, Volkerts said: “I would like to say something about transportation. I was thinking today, remembering when I was a boy, about 8 years old (circa 1928) and my mother wanted to visit her mother, who lived in San Jose.
“She took me and my younger sister to the Hessel Station where the P&SR (Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad) was running an electric car and we got on and I remember it had these old wicker seats and one man ran the whole thing and we trundled off to the railroad station at Petaluma.
For more PD coverage of SMART, including what you can and can't do on the train, go here