Petaluma trolley dream pursued by pair

Christopher Stevick and Lauren Williams share more than just a love of trains. In separate efforts, the Petaluma men have worked tirelessly to preserve the memory of the trains that once carried passengers and freight into and out of the city.

Williams helped restore one of the rail cars stored at a trolley barn on Baylis Street and sometimes drives a restored locomotive south to Washington Street on a 200-yard track outside the barn. As president of the Petaluma Trolley Living History Railroad Museum, he also oversees a plan to restore trolley service on a trestle that runs along the Petaluma River and on repaired tracks from downtown to the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets mall.

The museum’s first step was uncovering that old Petaluma & Santa Rosa main line track alongside the DeCarli trolley barn, which it shares with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society.

The next step requires breathing life back into the trestle that runs along the river behind the businesses on Petaluma Boulevard North. That’s Stevick’s quixotic pursuit, one that may be permanently derailed. Ultimately, restored track would reach north to the outlets.

“The trolley is just one of the reasons for getting the trestle done,” Williams said. “We’ve had consultants from the east come out and do feasibility studies for the trolley. It came out as a positive.

“Christopher says the trestle is the keystone for the entire thing, and he’s absolutely correct.”

Stevick is a contractor, art historian, restoration expert and preservationist who has for a decade fought against the odds to save the 500-foot rotting trestle that rounds the curves of the downtown Petaluma River Turning Basin.

He has compiled reams of documents, lists, financial estimates, videos, time lines, charts and more to help make his case to preserve the 1922 trestle that was once part of the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad.

“The trestle defines this town’s iconic charm,” Stevick said. “If we had the trestle fixed, we would be a national destination.”

Although his effort is separate from that of restoring a Petaluma Trolley to transport shoppers from downtown to the outlet mall, the two are inextricably linked. And both efforts have stalled.

The main barrier is money. The recommended trestle option - replacing much of the original woodwork with new materials - is ready to go out to bid if $5 million ever materializes. It plan has essentially been shelved for lack of financial support.

While others have given up, Stevick continues to seek potential funding sources. He has no plans to give up, but acknowledges that he is frustrated.

“Life is full of bait and switch,” he says.


At one point, the electric trolley system that operated on the trestle had 200 cars running 10,000 carloads of freight and 250,000 passengers annually from as far away as Forestville, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa.

The last time it held train cars was August 1994, when two 80-ton locomotives pulled a 40-ton grain hopper, Stevick said. Five years later, thousands of people stood on its wooden decking as part of the River Festival.

But in more recent years, the trestle has been ignored. Downtown development now faces away from the river; the boardwalk has become an unremarkable riverside alley. The wooden deck surrounding the tracks is rotted, broken, vandalized and fenced off as unsafe.

Stevick, 67, has become the face of the trestle preservation effort, a position he both relishes and rues. He has butted heads with city staff members, engineers and consultants hired by the city to study preservation possibilities.

“Yes, ‘passionate,’” he acknowledged. “That is the most common word used to describe me.”

Williams said Stevick “has an incisive mind.”

“He has kinda wild hair, penetrating eyes, a great sense of humor and gift of gab you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “He can’t spell worth two hoots in a barrel, but he can figure out what’s going on in the city government better than anybody else. He can figure out the forces at work.”

While Stevick is a layman, he is “extremely knowledgeable” about certain preservation efforts, said Larry Zimmer, the city public works project manager.

But Stevick has continually been frustrated by what he views as a lack of understanding, lack of transparency and lack of will to solve the “trestle problem.”

A decade ago, the then-redevelopment manager declared the trestle too far gone to save and recommended demolishing it. Since then, Stevick has been tilting at the trestle windmill, suspecting conspiracies behind city inaction.

That dogged advocacy earned Stevick the 2011 Good Egg award, a city honor that recognizes a community member whose efforts have helped preserve and contribute to the promotion of the city and its history.

His artistic talents and love for history often come together, said Petaluma historian Katherine Reinhart.

“His unwavering commitment to assuring that Petaluma’s historic character is preserved is impressive,” said Reinhart. “His advocating for historic preservation is not always a bed of roses, and where others have become discouraged, Christopher has pressed on.”

The recommended trestle option includes removing as much as 85 percent of some components of the original woodwork and replacing them with new wood, steel or steel “sleeves” to protect and shore up the pilings deteriorated at the water line.

Stevick challenges many of the engineers’ conclusions, maintaining that only a small portion of the wood is deteriorated beyond repair.

“I hate to see something that is so usable and important to downtown be destroyed,” he said. “Replacing it ruins its historical significance.”

A $475,000 Coastal Conservancy grant Stevick helped secure in 2010 brought new life to efforts to restore the romantic piece of Petaluma’s heritage, but that money has been spent on the analysis, engineering and construction design.

The finished plan sits in a file cabinet at City Hall, waiting for funding. City officials say they’re not actively pursuing grants but keep an eye open for potential sources.

The trestle is actually owned by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit district, but the agency has let Petaluma take the lead in determining the trestle’s future while it concentrates on building a passenger rail system through Sonoma and Marin counties.

“When the city is against it, that’s pretty powerful,” Stevick said. “I’m bordering on cynical.”


Stevick was born in Palo Alto and grew up in Menlo Park before enlisting in the Army and heading off to the Vietnam War working in the signal corps.

He returned to Northern California and earned an art history degree from Humboldt State before he and his wife, Elaine, settled in Petaluma in 1978, declaring it was love at first sight with the quiet town.

“It couldn’t roll up its sidewalks, because there were no sidewalks to roll up,” he jests. “There were three restaurants in town.”

The couple have two adult children.

He served for 14 years on the Heritage Homes board of directors, including three terms as president. He helped restore several historic Petaluma buildings downtown.

“I fix things so you can’t tell I was there. When I do that, I win,” he said.

Stevick was always interested in old things and fixing them: “History! Oh god, that just sent shivers down my spine,” he said.

He designed Petaluma’s Sesquicentennial logo, including the trestle in it. His ingenuity also won a river race with a handmade solar powered kayak.

Stevick shares Williams’ love of trains, trolleys and the often-detailed work that went into them, evidenced by the four Northwest Pacific rail cars in the trolley museum lot that are awaiting restoration.

Once, while on one of the cars, he looked around at the woodwork and realized, “I was riding in this fantastic chariot of American craftsmanship.”

He has made such a pest of himself about the issue at the Heritage Homes board meetings that the group commissioned a study on the trestle and trolley’s cultural and historic significance to Petaluma.

Williams, who at public events wears his conductor’s uniform and carries a ticket punch, shares his friend’s love of trains and transportation.

“A lot of us have that sickness,” he said. “In my case and perhaps with him too, it started very early. When we drove around as a little kid, I always enjoyed looking at old wagons and other things.

“Christopher took it to heart.”

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or On Twitter @loriacarter.


Editor’s note: This story has been altered to reflect the following correction:

The Petaluma Trolley Living History Railway Museum is working to restore trolley service in Petaluma and maintains a museum in the Di Carli trolley barn on Baylis Street. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society shares the barn to store the four historic rail cars its members are working to restore. Christopher Stevick and Lauren Williams belong to both groups. A story in the Nov. 30 Sunday Living section contained incorrect information.

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