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Shock of the new: Harry Ayres and Napa's electric railway

Shock of the new: Harry Ayres and Napa's electric railway


The marker on Harry Ayres’ grave at Napa’s Tulocay Cemetery is a brief glimpse into the history of transportation in the Napa Valley.

It says “Harry Ayres, born Sept. 27, 1879, died July 10, 1905. Erected by his fellow workmen V.B. & N.V.R.R. CO.”

If Ayres’ coworkers at the Vallejo, Benecia and Napa Valley Electric Railroad Company had not put up this marker after his death by electrocution, his grave might have been unmarked and forgotten. It seems that Ayres had only been in the state for about two years. He first worked building the track for the electric railroad and then was employed as a lineman. An article in the Napa Daily Journal at the time of his death says, “So far as known, he leaves no relatives in California.”  Another article reports that he was survived by his parents and a sister who were living near Elmira, N.Y.; a long way away.

Shipping was already thriving on the Napa River when the Napa Valley Railroad Company began service with steam locomotives between Suscol Landing and Napa in 1865.  The tracks were extended to Calistoga by 1868. The railroad eventually was sold to the Southern Pacific, which abandoned passenger service in 1929.

In the early 1900s, sponsors of an electric railway appeared on the scene. They were two brothers, Col. J.W. Hartzell and his brother H. F. Hartzell.

A remarkable book, “Napa Valley Route,” by Ira L. Swett and Harry C. Aitken, Jr., published in 1975, tells the story of this enterprise.

Col. Hartzell got his first experience building electric railway systems in his native Kansas. He came to California in 1889 and built the inter-urban line from San Francisco to San Mateo. According to Swett and Aitken, “The colonel was largely responsible for the California state Legislature’s passing a bill legalizing the use of electricity as motive power for street railways.”

The Hartzells couldn’t find financial backing in the Bay Area so they went to Los Angeles, where they found a sponsor by the name of Capt. John Cross. Cross was a man with experience building steam railways who had become interested in the idea of using electricity for power. Another financier for the project was W. F. Botsford, president of the American National Bank in Los Angeles. 

The first electrically powered rail cars ran on direct current, but in September 1902 Westinghouse announced that it had developed a motor to propel rail cars using alternating current. Because they felt that alternating current had many advantages over direct current, Cross and Botsford agreed with Westinghouse to wire their rail line for AC. The Napa Valley route became the first AC railroad in the west.

 Eventually this choice was part of the cause of the failure of the line. Most electric railroads in the area were built to use direct current, so the Napa Valley line couldn’t connect with other lines to expand service.

Opening day for the electric train was July 4, 1905. A passage in “Napa Valley Route” describes the scene this way: “The national holiday saw immense crowds converge on Napa where a giant celebration was scheduled under the auspices of the Unity Hose Company. People came from San Francisco via the electric railway and its connecting steamers...”

The original plan was to continue the line north to Calistoga. The Napa Daily Journal of July 9, 1905, just days after the inaugural celebration, wrote, “A large force of men was at work Friday afternoon and Saturday for the Vallejo and Napa Valley Electric Railway… 800 feet of track… will be connected with the rails now laid on Jefferson Street and Calistoga Avenue in the city limits… the road will be extended up the Napa Valley.”

The track to Calistoga was completed in 1912.

On the day after this article appeared, Harry Ayres was killed.

The train, which was coming north to Napa, was stopped about seven miles below town at the Kelly siding while C.F. Otterson, Rollo Laughridge and Ayres were on top of a car trying to make repairs. The Napa Daily Journal of July 11, 1905, reported that “in some way Ayres got one hand on the trolley wire and the other on the span wire at the hangar, making a short circuit. He probably grasped the two wires with considerable force, and the current of 750 volts passed through his body with terrible effect.”

Afterwards the train ran quickly to Napa, where two doctors attended Ayres, including Dr. L. C. Kennon with “his oxygen apparatus,” but they could not save him. As a footnote to history, Charles Otterson, who was with Ayres when he died, later became Napa’s beloved first fire chief. 

An inquest was held and the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of accidental death. Ayres’ funeral was held at the D.S. Kyser Undertaking Parlor. Father Joseph Byrne of St. John’s Catholic Church conducted the service.

In addition to Ayres’ grave at Tulocay, there are remnants of the influence of the electric railway throughout Napa. When the railroad opened in 1905 it stimulated housing development on the west side of town. Part of its route was on Jefferson Street, as far as Oak near Fuller Park. Homes were built in this area because of the easy commute to Vallejo.

Kevin Courtney’s article about the hidden history of Napa in the Dec. 20, 2009, issue of the Napa Valley Register describes the large building at Sixth Street and Soscol Avenue, now home to Wine Country Motors and other businesses, which was the car barn for the electric railway from 1905 to 1938.

According to research done by Napa Valley College, the fieldstone structure opposite the entrance to Napa State Hospital was built about 1910 as a passenger stop for the electric railway at the Asylum, as it was called then.

For a number of reasons, the Napa Valley Route failed as a business. A farewell excursion from Napa to Vallejo, sponsored by the Electric Railroad Historical Society of California, was held on Feb. 13, 1938. Old-timers have wished that the electric train with its green-painted cars could have survived a little longer, picturing the loads of defense workers they could have carried from Calistoga to Vallejo during World War II. But that was not to be.

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