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Petaluma’s Past: Peter Donahue and the bitter fight for a railroad

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I’ve just been informed that the Historic Donahue Landing property is now on the market through Petaluma broker, Robert Rapp. These are the prime 32 acres of what was originally 180 acres, once owned by San Francisco industrialist-and-railroad baron Peter Donahue, owned since 1934 by the Marcucci family. This land is where the irascible ‘Colonel’ Donahue constructed his village and railroad yard in 1869, shoving aside the wishes of Petaluma‘s John McNear, Isaac Wickersham, Hiram Fairbanks, Harrison Mecham and William Hill, the movers-and-shakers of our early community.

The story began in 1849.

Peter Donahue came to California — via ship around the Horn — in ’49, to seek gold. However, he soon grew frustrated in the Sierras and rode down to join his brothers in San Francisco, opening a small blacksmith shop in a tent on Montgomery Street. The shop was soon moved to First St., expanded into S.F.’s first foundry, and became known as The Union Iron Works. Later, Donahue added a gas works to his holdings — The San Francisco Gas Company (a forerunner of PG&E).

Peter Donahue was strongly driven by ambition, and that little tent soon became a brick building, eventually four stories high and spread over an entire city block. Donahue lit S.F. with its first street lights. He built steamboats, fire engines, trains and S.F.’s first street railway. He was known as San Francisco’s “Iron Man,” and by 1861 he had also built the San Francisco & San Jose railroad, which he later sold to Leland Stanford.

The hot tempered Donahue went with new ideas only when they were His ideas.

And when California’s “Big Four” were importing thousands of Chinese to work their trans-continental Railroad, Donahue blared that he would never hire “Mongolians!”

He wasn’t bashful about his prejudices.

How did this renowned San Franciscan become involved with Petaluma?

Well, Petaluma in 1865 had been a franchised city for just seven years, and it was strongly lobbying for a railroad. Sam Cassiday, Editor of our Weekly Argus, stated in ’65, “It is very certain that a RR will soon be built up in this valley.” Then, fearing an abandonment of a Petaluma depot — due to the competing Napa Valley RR — he cautioned, “Should that NVRR be extended to Russian River, it would cut the jugular vein of Petaluma to that River and that, would be lunacy itself!” (Think redwood timber.)

So, Petaluma bankers Isaac Wickersham and William Hill hopped on the wagon, offering to fund a Petaluma railroad. Charles Minturn, a successful San Francisco ferry boat owner, was aptly called “The Ferry Boat King.” Minturn knew Petaluma would be an important trade destination and he tried getting his boats up the creek, but was frustrated by the mud flats.

He dredged to Haystack Landing, but that still left nearly 3 miles to Petaluma, so Minturn opined he could cover those last 3 miles by rail. He debuted his railroad in 1864 with a steam engine that bragged 26 horsepower (26 HP?).

But the boiler on that little engine soon blew up, causing Minturn’s Petaluma & Haystack RR to revert to horse-drawn cars, over his newly laid iron tracks. That wasn’t a big hit with shippers.

By 1868, the railroad issue was still up for grabs, and several opposing lines had been proposed to replace Minturn‘s. Some were funded, all quickly failed.

Banker Wickersham and mill owner McNear, two of Petaluma‘s Founders, bought the P&H RR from Minturn, who was happy to stay with the ferry boats he knew so well. Buying the line seemed like a good idea at the time for McNear and associates.

However their plan also failed. It was a rare business loss for John McNear.

It seemed that no one could build a railroad here.

But then … along came Peter Donahue, with his own ideas and plenty of cash.

Those vast, inaccessible redwood forests of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties had caught his attention. A railroad to the Russian River and Cloverdale would reach those forests. It was a gold mine of timber, just waiting for saws and axes — and a way to get the lumber to market.

At that time, the County of Sonoma, along with the City of Petaluma, had proposed a subsidy bond of $5,000 per mile for the first company to install tracks from Petaluma to Santa Rosa. Peter Donahue owned that “first company,” bought out McNear and associates for just $45,000 grand, and within one month, had graded the first 10 miles to Santa Rosa for his new North Pacific RR. Donahue received the initial $50,000 in subsidy money and by 1870, his tracks extended all the way to Santa Rosa.

But then, nasty arguments had started over depot rights in Petaluma.

Wickersham, McNear, Hill and Company desperately wanted a rairlroad to adjoin our town, with a depot on the “Old Eastside” (the Lakeville area). But Donahue demanded his railroad run right down our Main Street.

The fight became very heated and, in a major snit, Peter Donahue bypassed Petaluma altogether, purchasing the 180 acre J. R. Rose ranch, establishing his own “Company Town” on the east side of the Petaluma Creek, eight miles to the south.

He named it … Donahue Landing.

(To Be Continued)

(Historian Skip Sommer is an honorary life member of Heritage Homes and the Petaluma Historical Museum. You can contact him at skipsommer@hotmail.com)