Exactly 130 years ago this week, during a wintry December night in 1879, in the street in front of the Sonoma Mission, there were strange sounds and moving lantern lights. Any Sonoman who was awake could hear the clank of sledge hammers on metal, the grunts and muffled voices of workmen in the dark, and the repeated thuds of iron rails on oaken railroad ties.
The next morning a railroad engine, propelled by four large driving wheels and pulling a few cars, slowly chugged past the Mission and came to a halt at the Plaza in a hiss of steam. Across the front it bore the politically correct name, “The General Vallejo.” In front of the crowd to greet the train was the General himself while his wife, daughters and grandchildren draped the engine with floral garlands.
Miraculously, the train stood on railroad tracks which had not even existed when the sun had set the previous evening. For the first time, Sonoma now had at least a tenuous link to the transcontinental railroad which had been completed a decade earlier in 1869. It had arrived after a long, often frustrating, wait.
Even before the gold spike had been driven in Utah to mark the meeting of the Union Pacific from the east and the Central Pacific from the west, local rail lines had begun springing up in California, pushed by promoters, local governments and farmers anxious to move crops to markets. But as more and more tracks were laid, Sonoma was only connected with the world by bumpy roads.
By 1868, the state legislature voted to pay a subsidy of $5,000 a mile to approved railroads. For a rail line from Marin to Santa Rosa there were two suggested routes, proposed by competing companies. One, sponsored by a corporation owned by Vallejo and his son-in-law, would pass through Sonoma Valley. The competing company laid out a right-of-way through Petaluma Valley, by-passing Sonoma.
The state legislature scheduled a county referendum for May 12, 1868, in which the voters chose the Petaluma route, 2,095 to 1,586, leaving Sonoma apparently doomed to become a backwater burgh outside the grid of rail transportation.
The force behind the Petaluma route choice was Peter Donahue, a hard-driving Scotch-born machinist, who had come to California in the gold rush.
He and his brothers started a foundry in San Francisco which quickly grew into the Union Iron Works, the largest manufacturer of rails and locomotives in the west. He built a rail line from San Francisco to San Jose named the Southern Pacific, which he eventually sold to the massive Central Pacific railroad, which adopted the Southern Pacific name. Donahue also ran the paddlewheel ferry “Antelope” that brought passengers to a Lakeville landing and the Schellville Embarcadero where they could board a stagecoach.
Donahue’s influence was widespread. When I was researching in Victoria, B.C., I discovered that the city’s first building constructed with a frame of iron girders had “P. Donahue” painted on the metal beams. But for Sonomans, Donahue was the powerful man who had shattered their dreams.
In 1876, a promoter named Joseph Kohn sold some railroad-hungry Sonoma investors on an experimental mono-rail called the “Crew Prismoidal System,” in which the cars traveled sliding along a single triangular-shaped wooden rail. More than three miles of single “track” were built from the ferry docks at the Schellville Embarcadero toward Sonoma. On Thanksgiving Day 1876, The Sonoma Valley Prismoidal Railway had a splendid test run with optimistic boosters from the Valley’s society on board. Then it died – victim of the problem that the mono-rail could not cross roadways without blocking them.
Kohn quickly switched signals and founded the Sonoma Valley Railroad Company, which acquired a right-of-way from Schellville to Sonoma, and built several miles of narrow-gauge track before running out of money. Seizing the opportunity was Donahue, who had a sharp eye for ailing railroad companies.
Donahue convinced Sonoma County officials to grant him the right to build a rail line from his ferry pier at “Sonoma Landing,” near the mouth of Petaluma Creek, to connect with the incomplete Kohn line at a swampy place called Wingo near San Pablo Bay where speculators had laid out lots for a city which would never exist. There the tracks would turn north to reach Sonoma through Schellville, follow the route along present-day Eighth Street East, and then turn west toward the Plaza along East Spain Street.
Much as Sonomans resented being part of this rapacious outsider’s growing system, the fact was that Donahue could produce. All he asked was the right to use Spain Street in front of the Mission as the entry into the center of the city. He soon convinced the Pioneer Society, then title-holders to the Plaza, that he should be permitted to build a station and roundhouse on that sacred ground.
The Donahue railroad (technically The San Francisco & North Pacific Railway Company) had opponents who either feared it would take business from Sonoma or did not like the location of the terminus at the Plaza. To avoid a confrontation, Donahue had his crew work through that final cold night laying the last several hundred feet of track down Spain Street to the Plaza.
Despite the doubters, Sonoma had become only an easy half-day journey from San Francisco. The railroad immediately spurred tourism in the Valley. Yesterday’s villain had become today’s savior.