Jun 2, 2019
By Rachel Hood
We are standing next to the ferry terminal in Sausalito, looking at the ornate fountain in Viña del Mar Park created for the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair. In this very spot there was once a railroad terminal, the beginning of a journey toward the ocean and the redwood forests of Marin and Sonoma Counties. The North Pacific Coast Railroad may be long gone, but passengers in the 1920s who took the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito and transferred to the train would have seen this same fountain.
We bicycle along the old train route next to the Bay, a proposed part of the North Pacific Coast Railroad Heritage Trail, adhering closely to the shoreline. We see marinas with beautiful boats, a park with paddle boarders, and unusual, colorful houseboats. Our winding route gives us expansive views of the Bay, from the Tiburon peninsula to Angel Island to the city of San Francisco, sharp lines of skyscrapers punctuating the otherwise gradual transitions between land and water.
We pass by the San Francisco Bay Model, a scale model of the Bay that simulates tides and currents and shows the movement of water from California’s mountains through the Central Valley and Sacramento River Delta out to the Golden Gate. In the 1800s, this part of Sausalito between Richardson Bay and Bridgeway housed rail yards and repair shops that were transformed into shipyards during World War II. Now, it is a patchwork landscape of shops, parks, warehouses, and restaurants.
The northern end of Sausalito brings us to the wetland called Bothin Marsh, where constantly changing tides make each visit unique. The multi-use path through this area is great for bicycling, bird watching, jogging, dog walking, or simply strolling and taking in the sights. Continuing northward for a few miles to a "No Outlet" sign, the trail turns from pavement to dirt and quickly becomes overgrown. In railroad days, the North Pacific Coast train continued on this path and into the Alto Tunnel, emerging on the other side in Corte Madera. Since the North Pacific Coast Railroad stopped operating in the 1930s, the tunnel has largely been left to decay. An ongoing study is determining the cost and feasibility of renovating and reopening the tunnel. Groups like Friends of Alto Tunnel are actively working to reopen the tunnel, an important connecting piece in the network of multi-use paths in Marin County.
For now, we detour north of Alto Tunnel, where the path continues through residential neighborhoods in Corte Madera that used to be served by electric passenger streetcars. An old power plant for the railroad still stands near where the multi-use path splits in Larkspur's Baltimore Park. At this junction, the westward branch leads to Ross and points further west, while the eastward branch connects with the Larkspur ferry and SMART (Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit) train station, expected to open in 2019 and with connections north into Sonoma County.
This article is the first in a series tracing the route of the old North Pacific Coast Railroad north to the Russian River and beyond. This railroad was a key link that helped shape the development of the North Bay. Today, its route represents not only a travel back through time, but a unique way to experience Marin and Sonoma Counties. EcoRing, a green travel organization in the North Bay, advocates stitching together existing pathway segments and extending the route on publically owned portions of the original route to the Russian River. For more information visit www.ecoring.org.
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