Western Trips

Western Trips

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Santa Rosa California's Railroad Square Historic District

Railroad enthusiasts who have the opportunity to travel to California's scenic Sonoma County have a fun opportunity awaiting them to learn about early railroading in the area. Not that there ever is a shortage of fun things to do in Sonoma County but a visit to Santa Rosa California's Railroad Museum and Visitor Center in historic Railroad Square can make a fine addition to your northern California vacation planner.

santa rosa california train depot
Old Northwestern Pacific Depot, Santa Rosa, CA
The Great Earthquake of 1906 hit Santa Rosa California particularly hard. In Railroad Square, only 7 buildings survived the destruction, including the 1903 Train Depot, the Western Hotel and several brick warehouses.

Rebuilding after the earthquake occurred immediately. The businesses and buildings in Railroad Square were there to serve the needs of the railroad community. Railroad commerce was invaluable during the early 1900's for a town such as Santa Rosa. Many hotels, including the historic Hotel La Rose, were built as well as drinking establishments, wholesale businesses, grocery stores and small factories.

Visiting the Santa Rosa California Railroad Square Historic District

Located in the Railroad Square Historic District, the old Santa Rosa train station serves as both a Visitors Center and a railroad museum. Here you'll find a model railroad layout, plenty of vintage photos and artifacts of early railroading north of San Francisco. The Santa Rosa Visitor Center also offers maps and literature on just about every travel site you'll want to visit while in Sonoma County.

old southern pacific railroad china
China exhibit from SP Railroad car "Redwood"
The Railroad Square Historic District in Santa Rosa is the city's "Old Town". It's filled with unique small shops and eateries which make a visit to the Visitors Center and museum an even more fun experience in a village like environment.The District was added to the National Register of Historic Places due to it's fine preservation efforts for restoring and preserving the unique architectural buildings that tell the story of the railroad's influence on the community.

The Railroad Built Towns

During it's heyday, almost a dozen trains came through Santa Rosa daily. Passenger service on the route was very busy until the 1930's and the onset of the Great Depression.

As with all railroads, the automobile and improved highways ate at profits and railroad usage diminished. Railroad Square fell into disrepair over the years but finally an effort by the city and local businesses restored the district to the historic splendor it is today. Scenes for several motion pictures have been shot at the restored Northwestern Pacific Railroad Depot and the Railroad Square District.

model train exhibits
Museum model train exhibit
The Northwestern Pacific Railroad

One very interesting story is the building of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad and it's impact on the region. The NWP was a joint effort by the two railroad giants of California, the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe Railroad. Not anything too significant regarding railroads would happen in California without some involvement of these two railroading giants.

By the late 1800's both railroads wanted to establish lines north of San Francisco to Humboldt County primarily for the purpose of transporting logs southward. Economically, it was apparent to both railroads that only one line could operate between San Francisco Bay and Humboldt County and show a profit. As a result both railroads arranged a joint venture and in 1906 bought up 42 short lines to create the Northwestern Pacific Railroad.

As mentioned above, traffic on the route was strong and passenger traffic was busy until the 1930's. By 1929 the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe had sold it's share to the Southern Pacific making the NWP a fully owned subsidiary. 

In addition to visiting Santa Rosa's Railroad Square Historic District you may also want to explore the sites featured in our Western Trip articles on the links below...

The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa

Two of the Best Vineyards in Sonoma County

Healdsburg and Wineries

Visit Truckee CA and It's Historic Hotel

hotel la rose santa rosa
Historic Hotel La Rose
Two excellent books to consider reading include Redwood Railways : A History of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad and Predecessor Lines by author Gilbert Kneiss and The Northwestern Pacific Railroad, Redwood Empire Route by Fred A. Stindt and Guy L. Dunscomb.

Visiting Santa Rosa California and Sonoma County is an easy drive north from San Francisco. Santa Rosa is located along U.S. Hwy 101 about 50 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Railroad Square Historic District is located on the west side of Hwy 101 between 3rd and 5th Streets and Wilson Street.

(Article and photos copyright 2014 Western Trips)

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