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A look at the Petaluma trestle past, present and future

Petaluma’s location at the head of a tidal slough established it as the commercial hub of the North Bay region as early as 1850, when schooners made regular trips up and down the river. River traffic grew to include paddlewheel steamers with capacities of up to 300 tons. In 1922, two major projects enhanced the river’s attraction for commercial activity. Those were the creation of a 300 x 300-foot turning basin and the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railway’s spur track and trestle along the west bank of the Petaluma River.

This trestle serviced the spur line for decades and is now shovel-ready for a major rehabilitation project. Its advantage from the start was that nearby warehouses could load directly onto rail cars on the spur, while cargo could be loaded to and from rail cars to ships and barges.

After the Golden Gate Bridge was completed, in 1937, commercial traffic on the river declined, while truck transport took over. By 1947, Hunt & Behrens, who had been one of the major shippers on the Petaluma River, relocated from the foot of C Street to Lakeville Street, where the company could access trucks as well as trains for transporting goods, as they continue to do today.

Further developments led to the demise of the trestle’s use. During the 1960s, the Golden Eagle Mill was demolished and the G. P. McNear Feed Mill was largely destroyed by fire. Like Hunt & Behrens, these businesses had depended on river and rail to transport their goods to and from market. Additionally, the drawbridge at Washington Street was replaced with a fixed span, which prevented access to businesses upriver from businesses such as Nulaid (now Dairyman’s Feed).

Cabin cruisers, small yachts and fishing boats replaced steamers and barges in the turning basin, and the trestle was used as a place to gather and watch a variety of river activities. In 1986, the Old Adobe Fiesta organizers joined forces with a group of volunteer river enthusiasts, led by Bill Rhodes, to host a joint event.

This event emphasized future beautification plans for the river, as well as recognition of the 25th anniversary of the Petaluma Old Adobe Fiesta. Ten shopping areas from both sides of the town were involved. A diversity of entertainment from a “mermaid” to a mariachi band was offered. Boat races, music, food vendors and a visit by the San Francisco Maritime Museum’s Alma, the 1891 gaff-rigged sailing scow that once hauled hay from Petaluma to San Francisco, were all part of the festivities. The event proved to be such a success that a nonprofit board established the River Festival in 1991, it drew 40,000 visitors.

The River Festival weighed anchor in 1997. During its time, it raised more than $60,000 for downtown riverfront improvements and met its primary goal of bringing attention to the importance of the Petaluma River as a recreational as well as a commercial resource. The Petaluma City Council’s 1996 unanimous approval of the Petaluma River Access and Enhancement Plan, funded by the Coastal Conservancy, is evidence of that recognition.

In 2007, the author of the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad Trestle Historic Structure Report noted that the trestle was in poor physical condition, but appeared eligible for listing in the National and California registers as an individual historic resource as well as a contributor to Petaluma’s nationally registered historic commercial district. Another California Coastal Conservancy grant helped pay for the 2013 Petaluma Trestle Rehabilitation Final Design Report. The estimated cost to rehabilitate the trestle in a manner that will accommodate pedestrian as well as future rail use is $5 million.

A funding strategy has yet to be identified, but momentum is building.

Attention is once again focused on the turning basin and trestle. Plans for a float house, to be located across from the trestle, are in their final stage of approvals. Petaluma Small Craft Center expects to open that facility in the summer of 2017. Meanwhile, a first major public art project will be installed within proximity to the trestle, on Water Street, in 2016.

The old trestle will come to life again.

Local historian Katherine J. Rinehart presents “Trestle Talk” Sunday, Aug. 30, 2015, at 2 p.m., at the Petaluma Historical Library & Museum, 20 Fourth St. (778-4398). There is no charge, but donations are appreciated.

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