Passenger rail in the North Bay

In May 1906, Collier’s published Jack London’s The Story of an Eyewitness, his report on the devastation wrought by the San Francisco earthquake. Earle Labor’s recent biography of London explains how the writer was able to commute from his home in Glen Ellen, on the slope of Sonoma Mountain, to the burning city.

“EARTHQUAKE” is the opening entry in Charmian’s diary for Wednesday, April 18, 1906.

By six o’clock Jack and Charmian were on horseback, riding up the mountain to their new ranch. From that height they could plainly see the great columns of smoke rising over San Francisco and, to the north, Santa Rosa.

That afternoon they took the train to Santa Rosa. That smaller city has been hit as hard as San Francisco and was a mass of smoking rubble. From there they went to Oakland and took the ferry over to the inferno that San Francisco had become.

They took the train, in other words, from Santa Rosa where I live now, to Glen Ellen, to Sonoma, and finally to Oakland. That mode of transportation, once taken for granted, has been gone for decades.

Last week, walking to a coffee shop in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, I took this photo:

It’s the SMART (Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit) train on one of its first trial runs. I saw it again later in the week, as I was crawling down to San Francisco in a river of traffic on 101. There, in the marshlands of Novato, on a long-abandoned track, was the SMART train cruising along.

I know little about the politics of SMART, a flawed initiative that will not, anytime soon, restore the mobility that Jack and Charmian London enjoyed more than a hundred years ago. It’s a pale reflection of how BART planners in the 1950s imagined serving the North Bay:

When SMART is operational I’ll still need to drive down to San Francisco, or take the bus, and endure insane traffic delays if I have to travel during prime commute times. Sadly, the first phase of SMART won’t even reach the Larkspur ferry.

But one day next year Luann and I will be able to walk a few blocks to Railroad Square, get on a train, ride to Petaluma, enjoy its downtown for a few hours, and return home.

Jack and Charmian, if you’re reading this somehow, I know, it’s ridiculous, and I apologize. We really did screw things up, and this is a rather pathetic step the right direction. But at least it’s a start.

5 Comments

  1. I like that sentiment, at least it’s a start. It’s like we ate the elephant once, but then by degrees it came back again, then we forgot how to eat an elephant. Now we’re back to learning how to eat an elephant,… one bite at a time.

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