Try to imagine the West Coast criss-crossed by electric streetcars. You could hop aboard a trolley in Santa Rosa and maybe step off in Sacramento a block from Aunt Mabel’s house, or you might start the weekend early by visiting friends in Oakland so the next morning you can all take a streetcar directly to the new amusement boardwalk at Santa Cruz. A world awaits.
Such was the bright future that seemed inevitable between about 1905 and 1910. Probably every cosmopolitan area in the country had an electric trolley system that offered an easy way to move around a city and its outlying towns. What later became known as the Key System served every community along the East Bay shore down to Hayward; the Northern Electric connected Sacramento and Chico and all the small valley towns in between, as just a couple of examples. Locally our interurban system was the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway, which carried our great-grandparents between those towns as well as to Graton and Sebastopol and forgotten country crossroads such as Liberty (about 1.5 miles west of the Petaluma Pumpkin Patch and Corn Maze).
And it was only getting better. Everywhere existing “traction systems” (the formal name) were adding new routes and equally important, making deals to link up with other systems; Northern Electric would soon stretch down to the East Bay, sharing tracks and electricity with the Key System. There was talk about forming great interstate networks and maybe even a transcontinental route.
Thus there was excitement but no great surprise when it was reported in 1908 that plans were underway to build an electric railroad from Marin county to Lake Tahoe, with a spur stretching to Petaluma and Santa Rosa. Despite assurances by Bay Area newspapers including the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican, the deal died quickly, not least because it required $12,000,000 from investors in one of the tightest economies in the nation’s history; it was only a year past the bank panic of 1907 which saw the U.S. financial system near collapse, and no one was in the mood to gamble on risky projects. Nor did it help that the mastermind behind it was Richard M. Hotaling, a San Francisco playboy who knew nothing about railroads, or for that matter, business.*
But aside from Hotaling’s complete lack of business acumen and the wildly ambitious scope of building a Lake Tahoe road, the deal wasn’t that unusual. Typically a group of investors formed a new company to build a specific small railroad. Bonds were offered for sale, and from the newspaper announcements it seems the company claimed work would be completed with remarkable (and improbable) speed and/or the hardest phase of construction was already finished. When they inevitably ran out of money or faced some sort of serious obstacle, work stopped and didn’t resume for months, years, or maybe ever. It was pay-as-you-go railroad tycooning.
Hotaling had also fizzled in trying to start a railroad company in 1905; that time he planned an electric line from Sausalito to Lakeport via Napa. The road was projected to cost up to $15 million, even more than he would later guesstimate to reach Lake Tahoe. Today it may seem like a crummy investment, but in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, it would have had great appeal for one reason alone: It reached Clear Lake, which was the Holy Grail for railroaders. At the time there was not a single railroad track of any kind in Lake county. Everyone went in and out of the area via bumpy stagecoach until 1907, when a company started offering bumpy auto transport between Calistoga and Middletown. And everyone, it seems, wanted to go to Lake county.
Lake county was then being promoted as the “Switzerland of America” (never mind that Colorado claimed the same after the Civil War, and New Hampshire used the motto a half-century before that) and its mineral spring resorts were world famous. Tens of thousands of visitors spent weeks there every summer. You rubbed elbows with royalty and world leaders; you could watch a boxing champion train at one resort and his upcoming challenger spar at another. The most opulent of the resorts, Bartlett Springs, was virtually a small city, accommodating up to 5,000 guests and an even larger staff. It had a casino, gourmet European chefs, a resident orchestra, five hotels and hundreds of cabins. The Lake county Chamber of Commerce wrote a history of the resorts with a vivid (if somewhat purple) description:
|Turrets and towers reaching nearly to the sky, adorned the multicolored flags waving festively in the mountain breezes, loomed high above the stately evergreen forests in which they were centered. These luxury hotels or baronial castles featured every type of architecture-from the airy Swiss Chalet style, Victorian, with accommodations for 500 or more persons in the main hotel buildings. Often these resorts would have their main hotel and several secondary or smaller hotels that could accommodate from 200 to 300 persons. Also dozens of individual housekeeping cottages, annexes, dormitory type buildings and even extensive campground facilities. Posh casinos, mirrored ballrooms, brocade and satin upholstered salons, music halls redolent with gold leaf and formal dining rooms gleaming with silver and crystal were just some of the luxuries offered the clientele.|
My lord, it sounded like a county full of Disneylands.
Plans to construct some type of a railroad into Lake county went back to 1869. According to county histories, companies were also founded to lay tracks in 1896, 1900, 1903, two in 1905 (not counting Hotaling’s plan) and 1907. Hey, want to lose money on a sure thing? I’ve got some Lake county railroad bonds I’d like to sell you.
Then come 1908, both Santa Rosa papers herald yet another Lake train scheme. The difference this time is that the 56-mile electric line was to be built by a Santa Rosa company: The Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad, headed by William Reynolds – who was also president of the Santa Rosa Bank. Hearing Reynolds’ presentation to the Chamber of Commerce were many of Santa Rosa’s real estate and investment heavy hitters.
Little was written of the project until almost exactly a year later, when the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce heard another pitch. This time it was from a group of Lake county investors with a company called Highland Pacific that proposed their own Lakeport to Santa Rosa train. Rival Reynolds was there and didn’t seem threatened, even proposing the two could share tracks into Santa Rosa from Gwynn’s Corners (the intersection of Old Redwood Highway and Mark West). Perhaps the Lake county guys were not aware how much they were revealing their hands to the enemy camp; a few weeks later the Press Democrat reported Santa Rosa’s mayor and the Chamber Secretary had been “busy for several days securing rights of way from property owners for the Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Scenic Railway” and they had “practically secured $3,000” to start work.
But the project gained no traction. The PD announced in 1910 that construction would begin at the end of the year and take twenty months. Work appears to have stopped after five miles were graded.
While the Santa Rosa efforts were on hiatus, yet another team showed up to play: The newly-created Clear Lake Railroad Company stated in 1911 they would construct a standard gauge road from Hopland to Lakeport. The shortest route of all at slightly less than 25 miles, it would be a spur from the Northwestern Pacific main line. The NWP would also sell them rails at cost, finance them with discount loans and would be in no hurry to be paid back.
The Press Democrat complained this sweetest of sweetheart deals was really aimed at killing Santa Rosa’s dreams: “The Northwestern revives again this old, old proposition at a time when its revival might have a chilling influence upon the new enterprise.” The PD announced shortly after that “work on the new Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad, which has been temporarily discontinued, is to be resumed at once.” Apparently it was not.
The Hopland project broke ground in November, 1911 and quickly became entangled in a labor dispute. Work sputtered along for over five years, the company selling more bonds and making (what appear to be) questionable insider deals concerning Clear Lake frontage. All they accomplished was a few miles of graded roadbed in Mendocino County. And thus endeth this chapter on Lake county rail.
It can be argued that the failure of the Santa Rosa electric line was the biggest setback to the town’s progress since the 1906 earthquake. Not that business interests had such love to serve their Lake county brethren; the attraction was all those wealthy people passing through town. As the Press Democrat explained: “In making Santa Rosa the terminal the city becomes a railroad center of considerable importance. It is estimated that over 50,000 visitors will pass through Santa Rosa in and out annually on their way to and from the various resorts.”
Perhaps just as important, the trolley line would have extended Santa Rosa’s sphere of influence north to Healdsburg; note the 1910 full-page ad that appeared in the Republican selling property in the “new subdivision” on the yet-to-be-built route. Lacking a boost in land values from developments and lacking the draw of a major transit hub, it seemed like Santa Rosa had again missed out on boom times.
But maybe that was for the best. Those were the peak years for interurban trains, and it’s no mystery why interest began to decline thereafter; in 1907 we began to go car crazy on the West Coast and in 1910 California voted to create a state highway system. People wanted their private cars and paved roads, not efficient public transit on rails. During and after WWI electric systems increasingly shut down or switched to freight-only; in the dozen years centered on the 1929 start of the Great Depression, 8,400 miles of track were abandoned nationwide. The Petaluma & Santa Rosa trolley ended passenger service in 1932 for lack of ridership. During those years the Lake county resort scene was also vanishing; several of the resorts – including the magnificent Bartlett Springs – burned to the ground and were not rebuilt. Had it been completed, the Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad would have been the train to nowhere after about two decades.
Still, those early years would have been marvelous. Imagine: Just a couple of effortless hours away from downtown Santa Rosa, there awaited “turrets and towers reaching nearly to the sky, adorned the multicolored flags waving festively in the mountain breezes.” I’d certainly buy a ticket. Maybe just one way.
|* Richard (“Dick”) Hotaling (1868-1925) was a San Francisco millionaire and one of the heirs to the A. P. Hotaling whiskey fortune. Besides his short-lived railroad venture he managed the family’s 1600-acre Sleepy Hollow dairy ranch in San Anselmo for a few years. But his interest in business matters quickly wained; he was always described in the papers as a clubman and amateur actor, performing at the Bohemian Grove and with a theatrical company in Oakland which usually cast him in the leading roles. He specialized in Shakespearian roles and his interpretations would certainly raise eyebrows today – he performed Shylock with a Yiddish accent and Othello in “African dialect,” explaining to the San Francisco Call there was “no logical reason why Shylock and Othello should speak like Venetians” before laughing, “Wouldn’t it be funny to hear Othello declaim a la Uncle Tom?” Hotaling was also accused of attempting to defraud family members. He claimed his elderly mother gave him the ranch and handed over the one-quarter share in the business inherited by his brother Fred after she was embarrassed in 1913 by Fred appearing drunk after a society ball. His mother supposedly also gave him her own quarter share of stock with the understanding the deed would be recorded only after she died or in the case of a “German invasion,” meaning her fears that the widow of her eldest son was planning to marry a German nobleman seeking to occupy the San Anselmo mansion. The court returned Fred’s stock and ruled in favor of mom in 1919. Dick was also investigated by a grand jury a few months before his death regarding a murder-for-hire scheme to poison Fred and his wife, but was not indicted for lack of corroborating evidence.|
NARROW GAUGE RAILROADLine Into Lake County Discussed Thursday Night
There was a good attendance at the regular meeting of the Chamber of Commerce Thursday evening and the time was largely devoted to discussion of a narrow gauge railroad from Santa Rosa into Lake county. This is a project in which W. D. Reynolds and J. W. Barrows have taken an especially deep interest for several years. Maps of the proposed line were drawn in 1906 and 1907 under direction of Mr. Barrows, and when he went east last year he gave the matter considerable investigation. At that time the REPUBLICAN gave the story of his investigations and some points in regard to such roads. The proposed road would have a width of 24 to 27 inches and such lines are declared to have proven very profitable. They go up and down grads much steeper than those of standard gauge lines and are declared to be very safe in their management. The meeting Thursday night was addressed by Judge Crawford, Rev. Peter Colvin, R. C. Moodey, Mayor Gray, A. Trembley , John Rinner, Frank Leppo, Dr. Harry Leppo, Dr. Jackson Temple, and others.
[..]– Santa Rosa Republican, September 18, 1908
MAY MEAN BIG THINGSProposed Electric Road May Bring Eastern Lines
The proposed electric railroad that was mentioned in the REPUBLICAN of Thursday, beginning from Belvedere, and running north through Santa Rosa and other cities to Lake Tahoe, is really to be the connecting point with a large transcontinental route.
It will mean the entrance to this city and county and state from the northeast to the bay of either the Hill system, the Rockefellers’ St. Paul system, the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific project of David M. Moffat of Denver, or the Chicago and Northwestern.
The road projected by Richard M. Hotaling is to be 178 miles in length, and can be used for steam or electric trains. It is to cost $12,000,000 and work is to begin by next March.
At Sacramento the proposed road will connect with the Butters road known as the Northern Electric, which is built as far as Chico and is in operation. It will extend to Redding and form an important link in the transcontinental route. Since the death of Henry A. Butters, interested parties have proposed a combination of the Northern Electric and the Hotaling projects, and it is certain that a merger of these two properties will be made within a year. It is these two companies which will be eventually utilized by some big eastern road to get an outlet to the Bay of San Francisco.
The late Henry A. Butters, along with Louis Sloss, E. R. Lillienthal and other wealthy San Franciscans, built the Northern Electric system between Sacramento and Yuba City, Marysville, Oroville and Chico, and projected it north to Red Bluff and Redding because he has great faith in the development of Northern California.
Hotaling and his associates say they have the same faith in the growth of this part of the State and that the three firms of engineers employed by them reported that this section of the state is a fine field for railway development.
Interested parties in both systems said yesterday the logic of the situation pointed to a close affiliation or combination of both properties. They refuse to say when and how the companies might reach an understanding.
Like the Hotaling system is to be, the Northern Electric can be used by steam or electric trains, or both. It is now being operated by electric power furnished by the transmission mountain plants of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of this city. Presumably the Hotaling road will use powere from the same company. People who are interested in a merger of the two properties say that as one system they could handle by electric power all traffic purely local. In case of some big eastern road later on became interested in the system, it could readily use steam trains for through freight and passenger traffic.– Santa Rosa Republican, November 6, 1908TALKS ABOUT THINGS HE DOES NOT LIKE
Kinsfolk, Neighbors and Friends:
We need an electric railroad to run from Santa Rosa to Lake county and we need it badly. It is a much easier matter to tell you why we need this road than to try to tell you why the devil is in hogs, or why there should be any devil at all. We can explain this matter to your enquiring minds more satisfactorily than we can tell you why Bryan is in Lincoln, Roosevelt in France or why the thieving Sugar Trust escapes punishment so easily.
We all know that this electric road should be built. We know that it would further the welfare of the county to have it and over a question that is so clear to our minds, we arenot going to divide and quarrel.
We must look after the interests of our county. We must encourage the promoters of this great scheme. Santa Rosa is destined to become a great railroad center. Thousands of people are headed this way. When they arrive, we must prove to them that it will be to their interest to remain…
…But that Santa Rosa and Clear Lake electric line! We must “boost” that. We need it in our business–we need it all the time. With a station every mile or two, the farmers will be able to ship their produce into town in large or small quantities , and at almost any time of day.
WES MAYFIELD.– Santa Rosa Republican, May 6, 1910CONTRACT AWARDED FOR GRADING OF SANTA ROSA AND CLEAR LAKE ROADWork Begins on December 1st and Must Be Completed in Twenty MonthsGREAT INTEREST IN A BIG PROJECTYears of Quiet But Energetic Work Has Achieved Results–Passenger Steamers on Clear Lake
…For nearly five years the gentlemen at the head of the undertaking have been quietly, yet none the less energetically working to bring about the consummation of this railroad into Lake county. Their plans were well defined at the time of the disaster of April, 1906, and but for that set back the road would doubtless have been in operation for some time….
…the electric railroad from Santa Rosa to Clear Lake will be a “scenic railroad.” Every one familiar with the route will agree as to this. Through valley and canyon and over hill it will run until its termination on the shores of Clear Lake is reached. It will be the first railroad of any kind to enter Lake county–“the Switzerland of America,” famed far and wide for its unparalleled scenery and climate, eagerly sought after each year by thousands of tourists and pleasure seekers.Route of Proposed Road
The route of the new railroad runs from Santa Rosa to Kellogg, and thence skirting St. Helena mountain, it will go to Middletown, and then on to Clear Lake. In Santa Rosa the terminus will be on Wilson street between Fourth and Fifth streets, and consequently it will connect for passengers from both the Northwestern Pacific and Petaluma & Santa Rosa railroad depots. It will run up Fifth street to North street to the Southern Pacific depot. From the depot it will pass the Odd Fellows’ cemetery, and will proceed along the line of the Healdsburg road, and then on by Mark West to Kellogg, passing the Knight’s Valley ranch where it is expected the California Trades ^ Training School will be located.
The Lake county terminus will be at deep water on Clear Lake. The plan is to put two large passenger boats on the Lake to connect with every resort frontong on or in touch with the lake.
[..]– Press Democrat, November 15, 1910COMMITTEE REPORT FAVORS LAKE CO. RAILWAY PROJECTChamber Commerce Representatives Review the Situation
…The local directors have agreed to sell for cash 15 per cent or $528.75 per mile of this stock, thus requiring the sale of about $30,000 worth of stock in Santa Rosa, along the route and in Lake county. Nearly $5,000 worth of stock has been subscribed, we are told, by residents of Middletown. Nearly $5,000 more will be taken at Lower Lake, and nearly $5,000 has already been subscribed in Santa Rosa…
In making Santa Rosa the terminal the city becomes a railroad center of considerable importance. It is estimated that over 50,000 visitors will pass through Santa Rosa in and out annually on their way to and from the various resorts. We believe the road will be a lasting benefit for the community and will be worthy of the attempt to secure same, and should receive the support of all our people…
[..]– Press Democrat, March 23, 1911PROGRESS OF THE CLEAR-LAKE ROADNorthwestern Pacific Makes an Effort to Discourage it by Offering to Expedite Another Line
Subscriptions are steadily coming in to the capital stock of the Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad Company, the survey has been finished from Santa Rosa to Middletown in Lake county, and five miles of grading work has been completed in the most difficult part of the road. “The road will be finished before winter,” is the declaration of the men who are pushing the work.
The customary and expected effort to discourage and forestall the enterprise came to light with the publication in San Francisco Wednesday of the account of a conference held in San Francisco between the officers of the Northwestern Pacific and a delegation of business men who had been invited to the city for the purpose of the interview. According to this story, the Northwestern Pacific offers to expedite the building of a line from Lakeport to connect with and feed the Northwestern Pacific main line at Hopland. The road is to be twenty-two miles long, is to cost $200,000 and is to be financed by popular subscription at $100 a share. It is to be a standard-gauge gasoline motor road with a maximum grade of five percent.
The Northwestern Pacific agreed to furnish rails at cost price, and to bond the road at five per cent, to refrain from control of the line and to give ample time for redemption of the bonds. [? illegible microfilm ?] and published ever time it has appeared that the people of Santa Rosa and the people of Lakeport were doing something to connect the two towns by rail. Nothing has ever come of any of them.
Naturally, a direct and independent line from Santa Rosa to Lakeport would not bring as much business to the Northwestern Pacific as would a feeder line to tap the Northwestern at Hopland. Obviously, the direct line to Santa Rosa will bring more business to Santa Rosa than would the “feeder” line to Hopland. That explains, of course, why the Northwestern would prefer a “feeder,” and it also explains, equally of course, why Santa Rosa’s interests are with the independent line. Also, it explains why the Northwestern revives again this old, old propsition at a time when its revival might have a chilling influence upon the new enterprise.
But the new enterprise is not affected by the chill.
“We’ll have our road in operation before there is a tie laid on the feeder,” said one of the men engaged in the building of the Santa Rosa & Clear Lake road, when asked about it by a Press Democrat reporter Wednesday.– Press Democrat, March 30, 1911
ACTUAL WORK TO BEGIN ON S. R. & CLEAR LAKE R. R.Money Deposited in Local Banks to Start WorkJ. W. Barrows Resigns Position With Western Pacific to Take Charge of Building for New Line–Will Make Headquarters in Santa Rosa
Work on the new Santa Rosa & Clear Lake Railroad, which has been temporarily discontinued, is to be resumed at once. Milton Nathan of the Nathan, Brownscomb Construction Company was in this city yesterday and deposited $5,000 in cash with two of the local banks to start construction work and announced that there was plenty more on hand which would be forthcoming as soon as it was needed…
[..]– Press Democrat, July 16, 1911