Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article October 2006.
Listening for Trains
By Lauren Coodley
And if your room, restless one,
Is much too still, listen to the clatter
Of the freight, rattling past trestles
On the cool night breeze. Then follow
The moon to the side of the tracks,
Where the train is a long, slow dream.
(“For a Sleepless Child” by Peter Schmitt, published in Country Airport)
A former Napan sent me this poem, writing: “When I was a little girl in Napa, living on Summit, then Hoffman, Avenues, I would do exactly as the poet advises. When the train came through in the night, my whole being shifted at the sound of the approach. I waited for the right moment, then jumped on, traveled with it, imagining that I was going somewhere wonderful, at the same time trying to understand the pit of yearning that overtook me whenever I heard the long whistle and steady respiration of the thing. Train sounds illuminated the natural loneliness I felt as a child but the light was warm. I felt special, believed the train and I shared a secret about life that no one else knew.”
This poem and memory evoked this essay. In Napa in l977, thousands of people worked at the State Hospital, as did I. I heard vague stories that in the old days, the patients would take the trolley into downtown Napa, up the street we now call Soscol. I heard that the old tracks were buried when they built Highway 29, their only vestige the Greyhound Bus stop across from the gate to the Asylum (as it was originally called). It was a quarter of a century before I learned more of the story.
In l905, most Napans did not own cars, but the electric train was built that year, and eventually traveled all the way up the valley, providing hourly transportation for the whole town and steady work for its employees. The day the electricity was connected for train operation, Napa’s Mayor J.A. Fuller announced, “Napa for half a century has been slumbering in a Rip Van Winkle sleep but she has awakened at last.”
A great banquet was held by the 20,000 Club of Vallejo to celebrate the link between the Vallejo ferry and the railroad, which was located next to the ferry building. Businessmen feasted on oysters, peeled tomatoes and mayonnaise, sweet bread patties, French peas, desserts, cheese, coffee and Havana cigars. The first chartered electric train carried 55 officers and sailors from Mare Island to Napa, along with “several ladies and a ten piece band.” The band gave a public concert at the Napa Courthouse. By 1907, the Napa-Vallejo and Benicia Railroad offered a special roundtrip for Vallejo women who worked at the canning company in East Napa; tickets were fifteen cents.
In 1929, the Southern Pacific shut down its passenger line in Napa, cut river service from South Vallejo to Napa Junction, and turned over mail delivery to the electric railroad. In 1930, Greyhound Bus Lines sought permission from the Railroad Commission to merge its companies in California. The Napa City Council, the Napa Chamber of Commerce and the Napa Central Labor Council opposed the expansion of Greyhound. “It was the belief of these bodies that the inter-urban [electric train] had long rendered adequate dependable and comfortable transportation service,” writes Ira Swett, railroad historian (The Napa Valley Route, l975). But the Railroad Commission decided in favor of Greyhound.
In 1932, a fire erupted in Napa’s electric train barn. Cars were destroyed, the expensive electrical equipment was gone, and the railway seemed dead. Manager Clyde Brown lay off all seventy employees. Townspeople came to the support of the Interurban, aggressively campaigning to get the big electric trains back in service. Large ads were taken out in the newspapers calling for electric railway service to resume. But these efforts failed; by 1938, buses had successfully replaced the electric train. The building of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges during the Thirties (what Ira Swett calls “the hangman’s scaffold”) destroyed the financial success of ferry business. People no longer traveled from the East Bay or San Francisco by ferry to Vallejo and then up on the electric train to Napa.
What is left of the railroads here in 2006? The Wine Train uses its old tracks. The first sentence of the Wine Train website explains: “The Napa Valley Railroad Company was founded in 1864 by Samuel Brannan.” Sam Brannan had been a Mormon, next a vigilante and finally an entrepreneur. After visiting the spas of Europe, he decided in 1862 to set up, along with his lover Lola Montez, his own spa. He named it Calistoga. Brannan wanted people from San Francisco to be able to travel to his spa after they got off the steamboat from San Francisco, so he and Nathan Coombs opened a stagecoach line. Coombs and Brannan’s coaches, drawn by six horses, met passengers stepping off their steamboat at Suscol House Hotel and carried them up to Calistoga.
But Brannan also wanted a railroad to transport his visitors, and he persuaded the state legislature to propose bonds for one. The first engine, called the Calistoga, came into Napa in 1865. In 1866, the Napa Valley Railroad was built, with track laid down from Suscol to connect with the California Pacific Railroad at a place called Napa Junction. A traveler could board the train at Suscol; get off at Thompson Station, the Napa Depot at Suscol and Fourth Street, or the West Napa Depot on California Street.
Service was completed to Calistoga by 1868. Forests were felled on the hillsides for the wood-burning furnaces on the trains. In 1885 the Southern Pacific Railroad Company purchased the line and operated it for the next 102 years. It was sold to the Napa Valley Wine Train, Inc. in 1987. The new owner refurbished the cars so visitors would have an opportunity to experience the romance of the past by cruising through the valley without ever dropping anyone off. At http://www.sdrm.org/sounds/, you can listen to the sounds of the railroads as they once were in California.
“I read that Third Street and Jefferson Street are to be paved. It would be nice to see the old ‘car tracks’ that are buried there. I used to march on them every fair parade during the Fifties and Sixties. The Napa Valley Interurban used to operate over these streets from about l9l0 to l933. There are only two Napa Interurban cars still in existence at the Western Railway Museum located on Highway 12 at Suisun City, or see http://www.wrm.org… I am a volunteer at the museum. Please drop by some weekend and say hello and look over some of Napa’s history.” (Don Meehan, Letter to the Register, August 24, 2006.