Railroad history runs deep in Petaluma

But before the dominance of the internal combustion engine, rail traffic provided the Petaluma area with markets and transportation for more than half a century.

Petaluma once had a horsecar line and the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad was a more picturesque, if not more efficient, predecessor of the local and regional bus transit systems.

Sonoma County’s first rail system, forerunner to the more recent Northwestern Pacific, wasn’t in existence until the mid-1870s, when the North Pacific Coast Railroad extended northward from Tomales to Monte Rio.

Prior to that, rails had been laid in Marin County, starting with the 3.48- mile San Rafael and San Quentin Railroad that linked those two settlements, the latter being a ferry port. In 1871, the NPC was formed to stretch from Sausalito to Tomales Bay and then to Freestone, Occidental, Monte Rio and Duncans Mills.

The first railway in Petaluma was a short one, linking the city with the steamer dock at Haystack Landing.

Called the Petaluma and Haystack Railroad, it was the third rail line in the state.

At its Second-and-B-streets depot in August 1866, a locomotive explosion killed several people and severely injured John A. McNear, patriarch of Petaluma’s famous family.

Afterwards, the railroad switched to mule power instead of steam.

The first intercity railway went into operation two years later when the North Pacific Railroad laid track from Petaluma north, starting a line through Santa Rosa to Cloverdale.

The line eventually ran to Eureka with a connection to the Southern Pacific at Ignacio near Novato and its terminus at the Tiburon ferry terminal.

Petaluma’s still-standing depot was built in 1914 and operated for decades. In the first decade of the 20th century, when the steam rail line running through Petaluma was still called the California Northwestern, another railroad was formed, this time using electricity as its power source.

The Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad drove its first spike April 5, 1904 at the steamer landing - now called Steamer Landing Park, at Copeland Street - and eventually the track and trolley lines extended north to Sebastopol and Forestville, with spurs to Two Rock and Santa Rosa.

Carrying both passenger cars and farm products, the line served Sonoma County until passenger service ended in 1935, and the electric freight locomotives were pulled off in the 1940s as the line was torn up in some areas.

The old right-of-way is still visible in areas of Petaluma, most notably the Water Street trestle that supported part of the railroad’s west Petaluma spur that ran to the end of First Street, near Foundry Wharf.

In 2001, the former P&SR car barn at Weller and East D streets burned down in a suspected arson fire.

The railroad through Petaluma was silent for almost a decade until freight service resumed on the North Coast in 2011 to Windsor.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority, approved by voters in 2008, is expected to launch next year the first passenger rail service in the North Bay in a generation. Workers have rebuilt the tracks in Sonoma and Marin counties, including replacing the Haystack Bridge over the Petaluma River. Petaluma will initially have one stop at the old train depot downtown, while a second stop on the east side is planned.

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