A History of Trains and Railroads in Santa Rosa, CA

Sonoma County train depot; sign for Track 5 lists Ignacio, Novato, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Cloverdale, Hopland, Ukiah, and Willits. Northwestern Pacific observation car, handcarts and various railroad tracks.

Trains have been a big part of Santa Rosa’s history, chugging through our town for over 150 years! In this post, we take a trip back in time and see how trains helped Santa Rosa grow from a small town to the bustling city it is today. From the first steam engines of the 1870s to the modern Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), we’ll explore the fascinating history of trains and railroads in Santa Rosa, CA!

Purple and white icon featuring a Train with the Children's Museum of Sonoma County logo on it

Celebrate The Great Train Month at the Children’s Museum!
All aboard for adventure! Join the fun at The Great Train Month at the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County this May 2024.

We celebrate trains year-round too! During your next visit, be sure to stop by Jesse’s Train Station in our Science and Imagination Gallery.

Santa Rosa’s First Train: The San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad (1870)

897 Map of the San Francisco and Northern Pacific Railway
1897 Map of the San Francisco and Northern Pacific Railway, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1870, the arrival of the first train in Santa Rosa marked a momentous occasion. The San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad (SF&NP) connected Petaluma to Santa Rosa, reduced travel times, and opened new opportunities for people and businesses.

The SF&NP railroad played a major role in the future development of Sonoma County as a whole, signifying a new era of connectivity and economic opportunity. 

Santa Rosa and Carquinez Railroad (1888)

Early white border postcard of the Southern Pacific station in Santa Rosa. Separate from the surviving NWP station, the SP station was located on the Santa Rosa Branch at North Street between 13th and 14th.
Postcard of the Southern Pacific Railway Train Station in Santa Rosa, via Wikimedia Commons

Completed in 1888, the Santa Rosa and Carquinez Railroad established a crucial connection between Santa Rosa and the national rail network at Napa Junction. The line was part of the Northern Railway, which was a subsidiary of the larger Southern Pacific railroad, which it would formally merge with in 1898.

The railroad brought a boom of people and economic opportunities to Santa Rosa. Local farmers, winemakers, and basalt quarry miners, finally had a way to transport their products directly to eastern markets, boosting the region’s prosperity even further. It brought new people and businesses to town, helping our city grow from a small farming community to a thriving city. 

Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway (1903)

 Restored Petaluma and Santa Rosa Electric Train Car at the Western Railway Museum, Rio Vista, CA
Restored Petaluma and Santa Rosa Electric Train Car – Nicholas Kibre, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Locomotives weren’t the only mode of transportation evolving during this period. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, horse-drawn streetcars operate within Santa Rosa. In 1903, these various horse-car lines were replaced by an electric railway called the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway.  

This railroad wasn’t for big steam engine trains though. Instead, smaller electric streetcars ran between the cities of Petaluma, Sebastopol, Forestville, and Santa Rosa. The Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway made it possible for local farmers to ship fresh chicken eggs and other produce to San Francisco markets. This in turn earned Petaluma its famous nickname “the eggbasket of the world.” 

Historic Railroad Square: Santa Rosa’s Train Depot

Postcard of a Northwestern Pacific Railroad train at Santa Rosa, CA Train Depot in 1911
Postcard of a Northwestern Pacific Railroad train at Santa Rosa, CA Train Depot in 1911, via Wikimedia Commons

The Northwestern Pacific Railroad Depot was constructed in 1904. It was made from basalt stone mined from a local quarry in what is now known as Trione-Annadel State Park. The train depot instantly became a central landmark in Santa Rosa, creating a town center: Historic Railroad Square! Today, this iconic train depot building is known as the Santa Rosa Visitors Center

Back in the early 1900s, steam trains continued to be the main mode of rail transportation in Santa Rosa, facilitating the movement of food, wine, and people. Railroad Square was the heart of the city’s railroad operations including all shipping, freight, passenger transportation, and local commerce.  

The 1906 Earthquake

Santa Rosa Flour Mill after earthquake, April 18, 1906 Santa Rosa, Ca
Santa Rosa Flour Mill after earthquake, April 18, 1906 – By: Hosmer, W. S., via Wikimedia Commons

In 1906, a devastating earthquake struck Santa Rosa and surrounding communities. While the earthquake’s epicenter was closer to San Francisco, Santa Rosa suffered immensely. In fact, more damage occurred in Santa Rosa per capita than in its larger neighboring city.  

Much of the downtown area was destroyed, and only 7 buildings in all of Railroad Square were left standing. One of which was the recently constructed Train Depot. Despite the widespread destruction, the city’s spirit remained unbroken.  

Santa Rosa rose from the ashes, rapidly rebuilding, and Railroad Square became a prime example of this rebirth. This neighborhood formed the core of a new district designed to cater to the railroad industry. Hotels, saloons, wholesale businesses, grocery stores, and small factories sprang up, catering to the needs of the growing community.  

The Northwestern Pacific Railroad

In 1932 the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway was purchased by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad and all trolley passenger service ended. By 1935, the use of the railway in Sonoma County ended entirely. 

Eventually, the portion of the railway between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa was acquired by the Sonoma County Parks Department. In the 1980s they converted the former railway line into a walking and bicycle path which we know today as the Joe Rodota Trail

The Decline of Rail Service and Passenger Trains 

By the mid-1900s, cars were becoming more affordable and popular. In the early 1940s, portions of unused train tracks were torn up to be used as scrap metal as part of the war effort. Train travel continued to decline, and passenger service to Santa Rosa stopped altogether in 1958. Freight trains, however, continued to be important for transporting goods.  

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) (2000s-Present)

Northbound SMART Train at Santa Rosa Downtown station, August 2018
Northbound SMART Train at Santa Rosa Downtown station, August 2018 – By: Pi.1415926535, via Wikimedia Commons

This history of trains in Santa Rosa got a new chapter in 2002 when plans for a future passenger rail service connecting Sonoma and Marin Counties first emerged. By 2017, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system, known to most locals as the SMART train, officially began passenger service. 

The SMART rail runs parallel to Highway 101, utilizing a portion of the historic Northwestern Pacific Railroad right-of-way. SMART offers residents and visitors a direct connection from the Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa, all the way to the Larkspur ferry terminal. 

Best of all – The story isn’t over yet! SMART is actively working on extending its reach further north, with plans to reach Healdsburg and eventually Cloverdale. This expansion promises to further solidify Santa Rosa’s position as a key transportation hub within Sonoma County! 

All Aboard for The Great Train Month at the Children’s Museum

great train days

Want to learn more about trains and railroads? Here at the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County, we love trains too! That’s why all throughout May 2024, we’re having a special event – The Great Train Month! This month-long celebration is packed with train-tastic activities for families and little engineers of all ages.

Can’t join us for Great Train Month? Don’t fret! We celebrate trains year-round! During your next visit to the Children’s Museum, head over to our Science and Imagination Gallery to explore Jesse’s Train Station! Modeled after a real train station in Petaluma, our miniature train depot has something for everyone to enjoy.


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