ST. HELENA — The current Highway 29 channelization project is just the latest solution to the Napa Valley’s ongoing transportation woes. But some may not realize that the most efficient and successful transportation system ever built in the county, an electric railway line, once transported 830,000 riders between Calistoga and Vallejo in a single year.
Had that system survived, it would be 110 years old. Instead, the only visible remnant is a section of track in the middle of Washington Street in Calistoga.
The county roads back at the turn of the 20th century were not a pretty sight, according to a report prepared by the cultural resource management firm of Evans & De Shazo for the city of Calistoga. Universal automobile ownership may have seemed like science fiction, as the first affordable Ford Model T wasn’t to be manufactured until 1908. The road from St. Helena to Calistoga wasn’t even paved until 1921.
Passenger service on an earlier rail system, the steam-driven Napa Valley Railroad, was limited, so in 1901 Col. J.W. Hartzell and his brother H.F. Hartzell secured a franchise for electric railway lines, which allowed them the right to build on city streets and along county roads. In April 1902, the Benicia, Vallejo & Napa Valley Railroad Company was incorporated.
Construction was started in 1903, with the southern terminus in Vallejo (instead of Benicia) and the northern terminus planned to be in St. Helena. By 1907, according to the Evans & De Shazo report, the railroad was in full operation as far as Yountville “with four additional stops that included Napa City limits, Union Station, Oak Knoll and Trubody.”
The extension to St. Helena was to run parallel to the Napa Valley Railroad (later the Southern Pacific Railroad) tracks almost to Rutherford.
From there, its path went west to pass behind the Rutherford school house and then, just before reaching St. Helena, turning east to within 200 feet of the Napa Valley Railroad tracks where it crossed Sulphur Creek and continued up Main Street.
The extension was opened on New Year’s Day in 1908, connecting St. Helena with the cities and towns in the lower valley, and with the ferry system that served San Francisco.
The railroad went through a number of reorganizations, and in 1906 was called the San Francisco, Vallejo & Napa Valley Railroad, five years later becoming the San Francisco, Napa & Calistoga Railway Company.
It had put into service eight of what were considered state-of-the-art electric cars from the Niles Car & Manufacturing Company of Ohio, with full Empire ceilings, plush upholstery, baggage racks, dome lights, water coolers, plate glass windows, automatic brakes, and a private compartment for the motorman.
According to the Niles records, the cars had a potential top speed of 85 mph, with two Westinghouse electric motors that ran on alternating current, making the electric railroad the first AC-powered interurban train system in the west.
In 1911, the SFN&C obtained the right of way extending the line to Calistoga, running parallel to the county road (eventually renamed Highway 29) up to Lodi Lane. Then the tracks headed east toward the Napa Valley Railroad tracks and paralleled those tracks until Calistoga, where they veered west to approach Washington Street.
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The Calistoga Board of Trustees approved a franchise to run the rail lines into town, where the terminus was at Lincoln Avenue. There were plans to extend the line to Lake County, and poles were set for a distance of three blocks past Lincoln. But this extension was never completed.
A Calistoga depot was completed in 1913 at the corner of Gerard and Washington streets, constructed in the Mission Revival style. According to the Evans & De Shazo report, the opening event was advertised as far away as San Francisco, with a celebration featuring a banquet and social dance hosted by the Native Sons of the Golden West.
Passenger service on the electric interurban railroad continued to Calistoga until 1936, but the influence of that railroad to the growth of the valley can not be overstated.
Evans & De Shazo note that between 1900 and 1910 the population of the valley increased from 16,451 to 19,800. By 1930, the population 23,541.
The report theorizes this growth was primarily due to the increased accessibility provided by the interurban rail system, “the chief link between Napa Valley and the metropolis.”
The arrival of affordable automobiles and the building of the Bay Bridge, the Carquinez Bridge, and the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s, according to the report, created an alternative transportation route that more successfully captured the American imagination.
In 1938, about 22 miles of track and overhead lines were removed between Napa and Calistoga, and the rails were removed in Napa in 1940. By 1942, most of the system was gone, sold as scrap metal to support the war effort.
In Calistoga, the interurban train depot was torn down and the Calistoga Fire Station was built, but the tracks in front of the fire station remain. In 1999, the Native Sons of the Golden West dedicated a plaque to the railway as the “only existing traces of the Vallejo and Napa Valley interurban railway” in Calistoga. The century-old rail track on Washington Street is now under consideration for removal or preservation.
“It’s the last living piece of an era gone by,” said Dieter Deiss, a Calistoga resident who is among those who believe the piece of rail track deserves to be not only preserved, but celebrated.
In recent years, there have been proposals to restore regular rail passenger service to the valley, perhaps by extending the mission of Napa Valley Wine Train, which carries mostly diners from Napa to St. Helena. The economics of passenger rail are considered daunting.
Meanwhile, the Napa County Highway 29 Channelization project continues apace, tying up automobile traffic as it channels more and more tourists into the valley.