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The history of Sonoma County's railroads

Railroad Square, at the foot of Fourth Street west of Highway 101 in Santa Rosa, recalls the days when trains were the fastest way to travel. Before railroads, journeying from Santa Rosa to San Francisco usually involved spending the night along the way. A round-trip to the East Coast required a year or more.

Things changed instantly when the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. As the symbolic Golden Spike was hammered into place, the news was telegraphed to the whole country - it was our first “real time” national media event. Transportation and communications were suddenly orders of magnitude faster.

Sonoma County’s first railway, the Petaluma & Haystack, had already been running for five years; it was two miles long and powered by mules. Inspired by the transcontinental, a bond was passed in 1870 promising a $5,000-a-mile subsidy for railroad construction within the county. It unleashed what was called a “railroad cyclone.”

By 1877, tracks had been laid from the Petaluma River to Cloverdale and from Tomales to the Russian River. By the early 20th century, there were railroads serving Sonoma Valley and remote places like Cazadero. You could get almost anywhere by train. An electric municipal railway connected Santa Rosa to Forestville, Sebastopol, Petaluma and even Two Rock.

The layout of many towns still reflects the railroads’ influence. As the first trains began arriving at Railroad Square, businesses shifted to lower Fourth Street, which is still downtown. Glen Ellen began as a hotel and post office between Sonoma and Santa Rosa. When a train depot was established a mile away, the Glen Ellen we know today sprang up.

Tourists came from San Francisco. Huge crowds poured into Glen Ellen, Santa Rosa and elsewhere. Trains bolstered the economy and also brought gangs of “hooligans” who drank heavily and destroyed property. Railroads also made it easy to ship products out. The cutting of trees for lumber, firewood and charcoal for San Francisco consumers left whole valleys and mountainsides bare. Trains also gave Sonoma wines a national market.

Some things never change; some do. The adoption of the auto began eating into the railroads’ passenger business. By the 1930s, service was being severely cut back and lines abandoned; in the early 1940s, some tracks were torn up to supply scrap metal for the war effort.

Today there is no passenger service in the county, but that will change in a few months when the SMART train begins running between Santa Rosa and Marin County, with a stop at Railroad Square. Once again it will be a place to begin or end a journey by rail.

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