SMART extends the long line of North Bay rail service from our past

A Northwestern Pacific passenger train, southbound to Santa Rosa, cuts between orchard and vineyards near Geyserville in 1955. (John LeBaron, "Santa Rosa: A Twentieth Century Town")


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.

“We got off and took our bags and got on to the NWP with the big steam engine and it took us right down to the ferry slip at Sausalito. We walked over to the ferry, went across the bay to the Ferry Building, walked over to an SP railroad car that took us to San Jose. Then we got another little trolley that took us within a block of my grandmother’s house.

“We talk now about the need for rapid transit. Well, there we had rapid transit all the way. ... We let it get away. I don’t think it will come back until things get so bad because of gas, or whatever, that people will have to go again to rail transportation. It’s very hard to get people out of their automobiles.”

This was obviously a very pleasant memory for Volkerts, although he acknowledged “It took the better part of a day,” but added that, with traffic jams, it can still take the better part of the day to get to San Jose.

Another all-time favorite is the oft-told story of Oliver Clay Hopkins, whose 44-year commute is a classic train tale. “Ollie” began his round trips in 1893 as a courier from his Petaluma home to San Francisco. It quickly became a way of life as he graduated to his own insurance business on San Francisco’s Montgomery Street.

He rode the NWP to the SP ferry in Sausalito every workday until he retired in 1937. He became a commuting legend. If he was a few minutes late, the train waited for him in Petaluma. His significant commute anniversaries were subjects for the city newspapers. He met literally thousands of people on his travels.

His granddaughter, Virginia Strom-Martin, could and did cite the family story when she strived to keep trains moving through Sonoma County in her three terms in the state Assembly.

Not all the stories come from the ancient history file.

Allan Hemphill’s video story is set in the earliest years of the vintage renaissance that turned the area into “Wine Country.”

In a 2002 history video, Hemphill, first president of Kenwood’s Chateau St. Jean winery, recalled how his interest in railroads took Sonoma County’s new agribusiness enterprise “on the road.” Railroad, that is.

Eager to acquaint the nation’s wine buyers with the Sonoma County brand, Chateau St. Jean hired a dining car, took its chef and, Allan recalled, “We went to New Orleans on a test run.”

Amtrak parked them on a siding and, he remembered, “it was remarkable.” Brennen’s, the famous New Orleans restaurant, had not been seen at a promotional wine tasting. “We had both branches of the family come aboard.”

So Hemphill’s family bought their own railcars, refurbished them as a sleeper, a lounge and dining car, and took Sonoma County wines cross-country.

This railroad outreach went well beyond Chateau St. Jean, as the Wineries Association came aboard for trips across the nation in the past two decades of the 20th century.

To get to SMART’s debut on Friday, we must fast-track past a collection of false starts, good ideas gone wrong, weather-related calamities, rising costs of equipment and expensive changes in technology.

The slow but beautiful trip up the Eel River Canyon to Eureka may never come back. Too expensive to restore damaged tunnels and tracks.

But, remembering the gleeful welcome Americans gave to the automobile while idling on a six-lane freeway that was crowded before it was finished, we must never say never. It wouldn’t be SMART, would it?