Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, June 8, 2012

Electric Railroads / Pacific Railroad History


Electric railroads grew tremendously during the first part of the 1900's as did rail transportation in general. Many of us are familiar with the electrified rail cars that plied the streets of many if not most American cities during the first thirty years of the 20th century. The dc rail system proved to be an efficient and reliable mode of transportation.  In addition to these urban transports, there were many electric interurban railroad lines that sprang up in many regions. Some were not necessarily connecting large cities. When electric trains started to connect smaller towns to one another this in effect presented competition to the steam locomotive railways and, as you can imagine, there were more than one showdown between the two.

A Railway From Petaluma to Santa Rosa California

The building out of the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Electric Railroad that connected several towns in Sonoma County California is one case in point and an interesting one. Sonoma County played a big role in Pacific railroad history. The Petaluma and Santa Rosa electric railroad connected both of those Sonoma County towns as well as Sebastopol, about 10 miles west of Santa Rosa. Petaluma passengers could be transported to San Francisco via the railroad's ferry. This was important since the railroad through it's ferry could bring Sonoma residents directly to the city on the bay. The electric railroad line ran as far north as Forestville.

Competition and the Frog Wars

north california electric railroads
There was big competitive friction between the new electric railroad and the steam railroad which had been operating between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol since 1890. In other words, there were parallel rail tracks. The electric railroad however had to cross the steam railroad's tracks to reach downtown Santa Rosa.

The conflict involved work crews from each railroad. One representing steam railroads and one from the electric railroads. Interestingly enough, this same type of conflict occurred in southern California in 1882 between the Southern Pacific Railroad and the California Southern, a subsidiary of the AT & SF Railroad. These conflicts were referred to as "frog wars", named after the devices built to intersect two perpendicular rail tracks. The "frog" in effect was a crossing. This particular conflict involved a crossing at Colton California. In both cases, the one in southern California and the one in Santa Rosa California, there were court injunctions, stand offs, miscommunications and eventually the crossings were made.

sebastopol railroad museumIf you have the opportunity to visit Sonoma County and Sebastopol in particular, there is an excellent railway museum that was built inside the old electric railway depot.

The West County Museum explains the railroad history in both Sebastopol and in Sonoma County in great detail. Plenty of unique old photographs and authentic artifacts of the era. These electric railroads had there heyday during the first part of the 1900's. Much of the electric railroads tracks were torn up after service ceased. Some of these right of ways have been converted to hiking and bike trails. Ironically today, the need for mass transportation is front and center and the clean energy that electric railroads rely on is the preferred power. There currently are plans in Sonoma County to resurrect electric mass transportation with the SMART system that will connect Sonoma to Marin County to the south. It will be interesting to see how the SMART system unfolds. Just like the early electric trains such as the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad. the goal will be to connect the north counties to San Francisco.

west county railroad museum
Again, if you have the opportunity to enjoy a trip to the beautiful Sonoma wine country, adding a trip stop to the West County Museum in Sebastolpol will be rewarding.You might also make note that Sebastolpol is a relatively short drive to the Pacific coast at Bodega Bay.

If you visit Bodega Bay, in addition to the great seafood available there, I would take a short ten minute drive out to Bodega Head. Here you will find some of the best views on the Pacific coast along with some scenic hiking trails. Bodega Head is also a popular whale watching site. Have a great trip.

Another article you'll enjoy is a self guided tour of the old Central Pacific Railroad tracks from Auburn California to Donner Pass. See our article, Rails, Tales and Trails.

(Article is copyright 2013 Western Trips. Photos are from authors private collection. Old electric railroad station photos courtesy of West County Museum)

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