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Marin history: When trains reigned

The downtown Novato train station in the 1930s. (Courtesy of Marin History Museum)

By Marin Independent Journal |

PUBLISHED: August 20, 2018 at 12:00 am | UPDATED: August 24, 2018 at 12:00 am

When trains reigned

With the recent decision by the Novato City Council to approve funding for the downtown SMART train depot, this photograph should interest many Marin residents. Though undated, it most likely was taken sometime around 1930 based on the make and condition of the car parked out front.

The Southern Pacific Railroad, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway jointly operated the railroad line, known then as the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP). The merger provided rail service from Marin County north to Eureka until 1929 when the Southern Pacific bought all rights to the service area from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. With the primitive and rugged road conditions of the era hampering motor vehicle traffic, Southern Pacific carried the majority of passengers and freight moving between San Francisco and Eureka well into the 1950s.


Timber and lumber products were the mainstay of Southern Pacific’s freight service. As road conditions improved and Americans embraced car culture, passenger trains along the line began to disappear, and by 1958 only a tri-weekly run from Willits to Eureka called the “Budd Car” was still in operation. Freight service along the NWP continued well into the 1970s but could not compete with the big-rig trucking industry while also having to maintain expensive repairs to the line that ran across canyons, over rivers and though tunnels. By the 1980s there was only occasional service operated by a number of smaller rail entities.

Though rail service will never again reign supreme, the opportunity to ride the train, catch up on some reading, do a little work, grab a quick nap or converse with fellow passengers, all while avoiding the daily grind and headache of traffic jams, will undoubtedly appeal to many Marin and Sonoma commuters.

History Watch is written by Scott Fletcher, a volunteer at the Marin History Museum, Images included in History Watch are available for purchase by calling 415-382-1182 or by email at

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