‘A big attraction’: When the train came, small town crowds gathered

Imagine idyllic rural Sonoma County in 1910, before cars were dominant. Stagecoaches took passengers to small train depots where horses whinnied and trains chugged. And there was a cacophony of loved ones parted and reunited, conductors yelling and mail carriers who brought news of the world.

For towns in the second half of the 19th century through the 1920s, railroads were a lifeline that brought everything from food, mail, news, friends, family, livestock, business and more. The major railway line in Sonoma County was the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, also known as the Redwood Empire Route.

The Northwestern Pacific Railroad was at one point an amalgamation of about 60 companies, according to the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society, including the North Pacific Coast Railroad built in the 1870s from Sausalito to the Russian River.

The railroad was sometimes referred to by its acronym NWP, of which the nickname “Nowhere In Particular” came from, according to the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society.

NWP worker Elmore Powell began working for the railroad in 1927, starting as an engine wiper and watchman. In a 1990 interview with the Sonoma Historian, the quarterly journal of the Sonoma County Historical Society, Powell recalled how the train coming into smaller towns would be “a big attraction” for crowds to gather and watch.

“In Glen Ellen and Sonoma practically the whole town would turn out,” he said.

The train brought news, products and people, and it was a major event for small towns. People even followed the postmistress when she got off the train at Glen Ellen, chatting with her as she sorted through her heavy mail sacks, Powell said.

Powell also said he enjoyed the Russian River branch of the railroad line through Guerneville, where the “tracks ran right down the main street, down the highway,” according to the Sonoma Historian.

Powell also worked for the railroad through the 1920s Prohibition era and in the early 1930s, when he recalled trains carrying wine and hops through Sonoma County.

By the 1930s, passenger trains diminished in popularity due to the Great Depression and the ubiquity of automobiles. Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, or SMART, currently operates commuter trains on the old Northwestern Pacific Railroad line in Sonoma and Marin counties.

See the gallery above for photos of the railroad in Sonoma County from the 1880s to the 1950s.

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