San Francisco

Calistoga's Historic Rails Reach End of the Line

The town of Calistoga will soon remove a stretch of 170 feet of battered train tracks — over the protests of preservationists who view the rails as the significant last remnants of an electric train line that once delivered passengers to the Napa Valley town.

The history group Native Sons of the Golden West had urged the city to re-install the tracks once it completes a badly needed upcoming repaving job on Washington Street which runs past the city’s fire station. But city leaders balked at the additional $80k the rail re-installation would’ve added to the tab for the repaving work.

“I didn’t realize it would get as heated as it did for a brief period of time,” said Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning over the ensuing debate surrounding the fate of tracks.

The lingering train tracks, spanning roughly the length of a city block are the last vestiges of the The San Francisco, Napa and Calistoga Railway which carried tourists taking the ferry from San Francisco to Vallejo — into the Napa Valley. The rail line opened in 1905 with the tracks reaching Calistoga several years later.

The rail company ended service in 1937 after the demise of the Vallejo ferry. Of the 42 miles of track, only the short stretch in Calistoga remains.

“The tracks have more importance to the history of Calistoga than just pieces of steel in the street,” said Doug O’Neill who is part of the Native Sons group. “More and more people want to come up here and this is part of the story of what made Calistoga.”

Canning said the city decided to store the rails once they’re removed, and possibly reinstall them somewhere else along the original train route at a later time — if preservation groups would contribute some of the funding.

“So we’ll see how committed people are to the historical value and interest of these tracks,” Canning wisecracked.

At one point the city hired a historian to study the tracks. Canning said the historian concluded the tracks weren’t historically significant.

“Other people felt otherwise,” Canning said with a laugh.

Preservationists said they were caught off-guard by the quick process of hiring a contractor to perform the work. O’Neill said his group didn’t have enough time to raise the funds necessary to retain the tracks. He said he and his fellow history buffs were disappointed with the city’s decision.

“Some people are interested in history, some aren’t,” O’Neill said. “I think we got the short end of the stick here.”

O’Neill pointed out a plaque his group installed in 1999, commemorating the rail line and its significance. He lamented that a new generation of town residents didn’t seem to care share the same passion for the town’s history — which includes many original historic buildings.

“A lot of people aren’t the old time residents here,” O’Neill said, “and really I don’t know how much they care about the old history of Calistoga.”

Others viewed the tracks as a symbolic line between the town’s old-time charm and the modern world of shopping malls and chain stores.

“People move into an area like this and they want to change it to something else sometimes,” said Bob Havens who owns a pharmacy in town, but said he ultimately didn’t care whether or not the tracks were removed.

The road work is set to begin on April 24th, with the tracks set to come out the following week. If the city can’t work out deal to later install them, it will mark the end of the line for the historic rail line.

“This is just a tiny piece of history here,” Havens said. “You can picture this train coming up here and all the way to Vallejo.”

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