Gaye LeBaron: SMART train whistle echoes Sonoma County’s railroad history
By GAYE LeBARON | Aug 27, 2016

This may be old news. But that’s my specialty.

The Sonoma Democrat, this newspaper’s ancestor, offered a front-page editorial in its first issue, on Oct. 22, 1857. It promised readers the sound of a train whistle could be heard, just beyond the horizon.

Alpheus Russell, a semi-itinerant pioneer printer, began the Democrat when the town was scarcely three years old.

“In this age of progress,” he wrote in that premier edition, “We presume it will not be asserted that the day is very far remote when the shrill scream of the locomotive will awake the echoes of the surrounding hills as it goes speeding on through the heart of this fertile region.”

That’s 19th century prose meaning, “The train is coming!”

It was more of a wish than a promise. Russell was writing for farmers eager to share the products of their fertile fields with the wider world, but it would be 13 years before Sonoma County heard that “shrill scream.”

As you may have guessed, it’s that whistle that brings me to the subject of trains. To echo Alpheus, “with the day not far remote” that the SMART train takes on its first passengers at our old stone station, the whistle is now an issue.

I wouldn’t describe SMART’s whistle as shrill. It’s more of a mournful sound. More horn than whistle. But it is designed to be heard. And for very good reason.

That’s one of the lessons we learn from our railroad history. Trains are big and fast and, for the unwary, dangerous. Just as you have to know how to drive to be safe in a car, and have good sense to be safe as a pedestrian, you must give trains the same respect.

Because they don’t stop on a dime or even a dollar, they need a whistle to tell us they are drawing nigh. Clear the tracks! Get out of the way!

The first trains in the area proved damaging to those who didn’t heed that whistle.

There are stories in the 1870s newspapers about unsupervised children playing on the tracks, rushing out to meet the engine, running under the standing railcars. And, of course, there were the daredevil teenage boys who raced the train and jumped off and on as it arrived at and left the station. The railroad paid a physician, who kept an office nearby, deemed a necessary business expense.

We still have the daredevils, and now we have those whose attention is elsewhere — the unrepentant phone-and-drive folks, those who can’t let a text go unread or unanswered, the music lovers whose stereo is so loud it rattles the windows of passing cars.

In addition we have a whole lot of people who have never been around a track with a train on it.

Maybe that whistle should be shrill.

Railroads were a very big deal 140 years ago. They were the only way to get your apples and prunes and eggs and potatoes to San Francisco and Oakland before they lost their fresh flavor sitting on the dock in Petaluma waiting for the right tide.

Trains were the catalyst for change that made Sonoma County into a leading agricultural power — and, by the way, political power — in the early years.

Since we are talking history here, take a quick look at a timeline of Sonoma County’s early railroads. It will give you some notion of the traffic in the area.

1870: The SF&NP — San Francisco and North Pacific, using, basically the same north-south tracks that SMART will run on — expensively updated, to be sure.

1875: The NPC — North Pacific Coast: a narrow gauge from the ferry through West Marin coming into the county at Valley Ford, ending at the Russian River. Built to haul lumber out, it hauled thousands of tourists in. It ran to the mid-1900s, until the trestle just south of Occidental burned.

1888: SP — The mighty Southern Pacific. Built from Carquinez, where it met the Central Pacific, through Solano and Napa counties to Santa Rosa via Sonoma, Glen Ellen and Kenwood. This was the rail link that took our farm products far and away and brought our farmers fortune and glory.

By the 1930s we had trucks and buses and promise of a bridge over the Golden Gate. So when the SP depot on North Street burned down in 1934, service ended. The tracks were torn up and the right-of-way became Montgomery Drive.

1905: The P&SR — Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad, an electric line that originally wandered past farmlands to the west and carried milk to the creameries, apples to the dryers and farmers and their families to the county seat for business and shopping.

The last leg of the P&SR, long since converted to diesel, hauled apples right down Sebastopol’s Main Street well into the late 20th century.

That’s the train story in a nutshell. It occurs to me that there are a lot of people who don’t understand how SMART can seem to some like a kind of railroad revival.

I can only remind them that for their grandparents and great-grandparents the railroads were a most important aspect of daily living.

A brief railroad history I read long ago said something like: “The sound of a train whistle should make you remember.”

So let’s remember that our early trains ran both ways.

The railcars, freight and passenger, not only carried hops and paving blocks from the quarries and barrels of wine to market, they brought our ancestors west — European immigrants, like my mother, from Ellis Island to California.

The first Chinese laid the rails at the start. Japanese families took sad rides to internment camps — behind covered windows so they couldn’t see where they were going. Filipino and Mexican immigrants rode the train to come and pick our crops. The railroads brought flocks of tourists bound for Russian River resorts, some with trunks to stay the summer.

In the early 20th century, there were 10 up-trains and down-trains passing through the depot at the end of Fourth Street, taking all kinds of people to the ferry and “The City.”

Those trains brought Luther Burbank to Santa Rosa — and Henry Ford and Thomas Edison to visit him. They took young men to fight two world wars. They carried deeds and documents and satchels of cash entrusted to young men working as messengers between San Francisco’s finance district and Sonoma County banks. The same train might carry salesmen with their cases of samples (Think “Harold Hill”) to sell to the merchants in their territory.

Trains brought relatives to visit (Think Hitchcock’s “Uncle Charlie”) and the kids to visit Grandma. Sometimes they carried eager young bachelors on round-trips to Fulton or Sebastopol or Penngrove to “keep company” with a pretty girl who was going home from work. They carried students from the western parts of the county to Santa Rosa High School, before they had their own, and to junior college and Sweet’s Business College as well. (Some kept a bicycle at the station to make faster connections.)

I hear SMART’s whistle when the wind is right. Not up close, so I may not be qualified to opine. But, personally, I will welcome it. Trains are a more relaxed way to travel and, heaven knows, we all need to relax.

We need to find a seat, take three deep breaths and, if you don’t want to look out the window, you could read a newspaper. Why not?

All this is not to say that SMART won’t bring its own problems. It’s got to grow tracks in both directions and soon. And it’s got to be safe. Which brings us back to the whistle, doesn’t it.

Who knows? Even close neighbors may become accustomed to the sound. And if the trains run on time, they can set their clocks by it.

The Petaluma and Santa Rosa electric railway trolleys carried passengers through Roseland from 1905 to 1932. Bud Park stands by the old Petaluma and Santa Rosa passenger trolley train around 1910.