Exploring the Route of the North Pacific Coast Railroad Part 2: Corte Madera to Fairfax

By Rachel Hood

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the North Pacific Coast Railroad (NPCRR) carried passengers and freight from Sausalito to Cazadero, north of the Russian River. In 2019, the old NPCRR right-of-way exists as disparate sections of paved trail, dirt trail, and road – but someday the entire route could be linked together to create a continuous path: the NPCRR Heritage Trail. It would be a path through history and the beautiful, varied landscapes of Marin and Sonoma Counties.

For Part 1 of our Heritage Trail exploration we traveled from Sausalito to Corte Madera (described in the June 2, 2019 article of the Sonoma County Gazette). In this installment, we transition from developed to wilder areas of Marin, ending at one of the high points of the NPCRR route: White’s Hill just west of Fairfax.

We start Part 2 at Menke Park in Corte Madera near the north portal of the Alto Tunnel, where a tranquil paved multi-use path, screened by trees and bushes, leads northward to Baltimore Park. In later years, this site hosted a trolley stop of the North Shore, the second owner of the railroad line. The rails – now paths – branch at Baltimore Park, with one branch leading to Larkspur and the other to San Anselmo. The old electric power station, which supplied energy to the electric trolleys that came after the NPCRR, still stands at Baltimore Park.

A short bike ride takes us into Larkspur, and we stop at a bright white Spanish-style building, now home to the Japanese restaurant King of the Roll. Looking between the restaurant and the adjacent business on the nearly-hidden side of the building, we see a hint of its heritage as a railroad station: the Northwestern Pacific emblem, leftover from the third owner of the railroad line. Behind the restaurant and across the trail is a small building in the same Spanish style with an old wooden “LARKSPUR” sign above the door. ( see the article Photo above tiltle) This too is a remnant of the NPCRR – an old warming hut for passengers awaiting their train. From there the railroad followed Magnolia Avenue, where the original right-of-way is now a bike path adjacent to the street.

On the west side of Magnolia just beyond the cross street Creekside Drive still stands the original brick station for Escalle Winery, where tourists stopped and where noisy Bastille Day celebrations were held. Jean Escalle was one of the original residents of Larkspur.

Although the rail route continued on Magnolia, we turn northeast on Bon Air Road, cross Corte Madera Creek and turn north onto the paved path close to Hal Brown Park. This pathway follows the sinuous creek through wetlands with ducks, geese, and egrets, estuary grasses, and shifting landscapes. As the creek narrows, we cross it on a wooden bridge, following the creek and rejoining the rail right-of-way near the College of Marin. We pass Frederick Allen Park, a small pocket park with tennis courts and picnic tables next to the path.

Continuing along the path, we next come to the Ross Post Office. This is the site of another historic NPCRR station, now beautifully restored. Once it sent passengers and freight by steam train; now it sends letters and packages by vehicle and air. This building too has the Northwestern Pacific logo emblazoned just below the roof on the side of the building. We follow a short bike route through a Ross neighborhood with beautiful mansions.

Soon downtown San Anselmo comes into view with its restaurants, cafes, shops, bars, and lodging. Look closely for San Anselmo Creek running behind or underneath buildings on the east side of San Anselmo Avenue. Hidden bridges cross the creek toward Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, but those who stray off the main street will find a little creekside oasis. In between the concrete and the downtown buildings lies a little park – appropriately named Creek Park – with redwoods and wooden platforms with seating areas overlooking the stream. I wanted to stay longer, but we had more of the railroad route to follow! This park is within a few steps of the original site of the San Anselmo Depot, now the middle of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

A photo of crowds gathered around the old San Anselmo railroad station hangs in a window at the intersection of Bridge & San Anselmo Avenues and we stand there looking at the photo for a while, imagining how this area would’ve looked and sounded some 100 years ago.

Leaving San Anselmo, the old right-of-way to Fairfax is now busy Center Boulevard. Instead we take the parallel well-signed bike route along residential streets. The route passes two of the original trolley stations: Yolanda and Lansdale. A few more blocks bring us into downtown Fairfax, a great spot to grab coffee, a drink, or a bite to eat. Where the parking lot now sits between Broadway and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard was once the railroad station and right-of-way. We continue on a bike route down tree-lined Olema Road but make a brief detour to a bus stop where Marin Road intersects Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, where a wooden sign reads, “MANOR, ELEVATION 151 FEET, TO CAZADERO 65.53 M, TO SAN FRANCISCO 18.72 M.” NPCRR steam trains and electric trolley lines passed by here, with trolleys carrying passengers from Sausalito as far as this station until 1941.

To ascend White’s Hill, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard takes the shorter, steeper way, while the more gradual NPCRR route goes through what is now Loma Alta Open Space Preserve. Entering the park where Glen Drive dead-ends, the ground beneath us changes from pavement to dirt, houses turn to trees, and the views open up. We finish tracing this section of the railroad route as it winds its way to the top of White’s Hill looking out at the rolling hills – capping a beautiful day exploring NPCRR history and Heritage Trail possibility.

This article is the second 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 Heritage Trail route on publically owned portions of the original route to the Russian River. For more information visit www.ecoring.org.

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