New Railway To Rural California, Published 28 June 1945A long time ago, I was standing beside a window in West Saint John, when a box car went by, with the initials N.W.P. thereon. Since I have always prided myself on knowing my railways, this one, the first of that line I had ever seen, irked me. A quick rush to my perennial comforter, the Railway Guide, told me it was the Northwestern Pacific.
"I am going to ride that line some day," I said to myself. However, it took me quite a while to get around to it. In 1937, I got as close as their old roundhouse at Sausalito, and had it all planned to ride the line, but I got detoured, as I quested for the place up in the mountains beyond Calistoga where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote most of his Silverado Squatters and thus, in this cultural pilgrimage, I passed up a chance to ride the N.W.P.
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This time, I made no mistake. While in San Francisco, I played hookey from the big town and rode with the N.W.P. Now a word about it. This road, originally designed to offer a competitive route to the Southern Pacific, by running north to Portland, Oregon, via Eureka, California, found itself penetrating some lovely scenery, but not much else. Hard boiled railway operators said that from a freight revenue standpoint, it spelt swift starvation. However, as an integral part of the Southern Pacific, somebody might do something, and so it was bought in by the S.P. octopus.
Until they built the Golden Gate Bridge, you used to take the ferry to Sausalito, on the north side of the Golden Gate, and entrain there. It was a pretty run, skirting grim Alcatraz. and giving you San Francisco's rolling skyline, all for the price of a ticket. You stared up at the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, you noted the swank hotels of Nob Hill, the picturesque apartments on Russian Hill. That ferry trip Is all gone.
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So you find me riding a bus, rushing me up to San Rafael, the new southern terminus of the N.W.P. The swift trip across the stupendous Golden Gate would be interesting, even if you could not see an inch beyond the bridge, because of the truly titanic proportions of everything. For instance, you are over land on the bridge for a mile or more before you are actually over water.
On the northern side, in Marin County, you go through tunnels, and travel for miles, before you are really back down to, and free to step on to the countryside. This bridge is about eight miles long from one end to the other. Imagine, you Citizen readers, a bridge that starts in Eastview, and comes down around Westboro, some place, and you begin to get the size. Add to that, the fact I that for height at center it would clear any structure on Sparks street, and you begin to realize its size.
I saw the famous Mount Tamalpais in the setting sun, and only wished I could have been here years ago, when the little funicular railway huffed its way to the top. But the grim necessities of Jap war have closed it to tourists, even if afoot. We moved along all too swiftly, till in the twilight of a lovely California evening, we rolled into the attractive palm-strewn town of San Rafael (pronounced San Rawfell).
Here was our train, headed by 2336, a 4-6-0 type. Then, to help us. was 2561. a 2-8-0 type. As it turns out. the little line has a terrible grade, almost three per cent, out of San Rafael, and our limited local, lengthened greatly by war conditions, needs a helper up the hill to Ignacio. So these two little old timers hopped to it, and we swung around the backyards of this town, while the palm fronds caressed our coaches going by. The narrow right-of-way gave the impression that we were going down a lane, rather than running along a normal track.
The stars took charge of the California sky all too soon, and then, when our little train had poked along for a while, we arrived at Petaluma. Here I got off.
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Petaluma, styling itself as the "Egg Basket of the World," might also be called the Wettest Town in the World." It is said that the town contains 37 bars, and it's not as big as Carleton Place.
I left the little N.W.P. train with its SP, engine here. The train rises to an altitude of 1365 feet at Willits, 123 miles up the line, then drops down ultimately to 9 feet above sea level at Eureka, the end of the line. From Eureka runs a daily bus through the redwoods, "the oldest living" things up to Grant's Pass. In peacetime, this is a most pleasant alternative route north, and widely patronized. Gas shortage has reduced the service to a shadow of itself.
The Northwestern Pacific excels in curves, tunnels, grades, and scenery. It is not the fastest trip in California, but few are finer. In any event, it was my 97th railway.