At the turn of the 20th century several proposals were put forth to expand railroads serving Marin.
There were two operating railroads, the North Shore Railroad based in Sausalito and the California Northwestern Railroad, also known as the Donahue line, in Tiburon. But many other railroads were in various stages of development. Railroad companies were extending existing services, forming new corporations, bringing suit for eminent domain, conducting surveys or buying property.
A central theme of nearly all these railroad proposals was to connect the Bay Area with a route to the east with the intent to break the “monopoly” grip of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Marin County offered one of the remaining access points to San Francisco that was not under the control of the Southern Pacific. The SP, as the railroad was known, was viewed by some as a heartless callous corporate entity able to set unfair freight rates and passengers fares. “The Octopus,” as the SP was called by novelist Frank Norris, almost always got what it wanted.
Perhaps the most fascinating of these railroad proposals was made by Richard M. Hotaling in 1905 for the Bay Counties Railroad Company. Hotaling proposed to build an electric railroad with a terminal east of the codfish yard at Belvedere’s Peninsula Point. Creating a ferry terminal at Belvedere was said to have an advantage because it was closer to San Francisco than either of the established terminals at Tiburon or Sausalito. The primary objective of his proposal was to provide rail access to Lake County by connecting at Napa with Hotaling’s other enterprise, the Napa & Lakeport Railway Company. Hotaling also suggested the rail line could be extended to the Central Valley where it could connect with a transcontinental railroad.
Hotaling was a San Francisco millionaire, a beneficiary of the A. P. Hotaling whiskey fortune. He was best known as a playwright and actor and participated in the plays at Bohemian Grove. As a businessman he also managed the 1,600-acre Hotaling Ranch in Sleepy Hollow. In later years, differences with family members over ownership of the ranch ended in court with Hotaling generally on the wrong side of the outcome. Yet for quite some time he continued to be the principal promoter of a railroad from Belvedere to Napa and beyond. This proposed railroad was frequently referred to as the Hotaling Road.
That the Hotaling Road was a serious proposal was reinforced in 1906 when the Bay Counties Railroad filed condemnation suits against 56 property owners to gain the right-of-way needed to reach the Belvedere terminal. The company already owned 500 acres of Richardson Bay tide lands. These suits would secure an adjacent 300 acres as well as other properties.
The route of the Hotaling Road was described as running parallel to the existing California Northwestern between Belvedere and Napa. In Marin it would start at the southeast tip of Belvedere, run on tide lots along the south side of the Tiburon peninsula, then northerly across the Reed ranch where it would enter a 1,580-foot long tunnel and cross under the Donahue line at San Clemente. The remainder of the Marin route north would cross the marsh east of Greenbrae, follow a 3,200-foot tunnel across the San Quentin Peninsula at an elevation just above sea level to a crossing of the marsh east of San Rafael. The road would continue around McNear’s Point, bridge the lowlands near the new village of Santa Venetia, and then cross the marsh to the Petaluma Creek (River). The route would skirt the Bay from there to Napa. One account notes that, as planned, trains in east San Rafael would pass just 50 feet west of the barn on the Daily Ranch. The road was said to be six miles shorter to Napa as compared to the California Northwestern line.
By 1907 the entire right-of-way for the Hotaling Road was said to have been secured. Surveys and staking of the road were underway in Marin while the first stone bridge, over the Napa Creek, on Hotaling’s Napa & Lakeport Railway was under construction.
In 1908 Hotaling, with C. W. Conlisk the manager of the Hotaling estate as well as a principal stockholder, filed for incorporation of the California Company with plans to complete the Hotaling Road from Belvedere to Sacramento. Conlisk boasted that “the railroad will practically be a terminal company for a future additional transcontinental line to San Francisco.”
Several long distance railroads were at one time or another identified as possible partners for the Hotaling Road. These included: J. J. Hill’s Burlington (the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy) and Northern Pacific roads; Rockefeller’s St. Paul system, and Moffat’s Denver, Northwestern & Pacific. T. B. Walker, millionaire timber owner, said “When the time comes I believe that the Burlington will be extended to the Coast, entering California in the northern part of the State and coming down the Sacramento Valley to San Francisco.” The route most often mentioned for these eastern connections was located in far northeastern California through a pass north of and lower than the Western Pacific’s Beckworth Pass.
Though condemnation suits continued, critical steps toward realizing the Hotaling Road seem to have diminished after 1908. In 1909 Hotaling did send W. M. Rank to London to meet with English financiers but the trip appeared to have had little success.
One more attempt to build a rail line from Belvedere to Sacramento was reported in 1914 when the California Terminal Railway Company filed for incorporation with plans to build the Hotaling Road. C. W. Conlisk is again the principal investor along with W. M. Rank, both longtime associates of Hotaling. As was the case with all previous endeavors, the California Terminal Company is not able to lay even one foot of rail on the Hotaling Road.
Several events intervened to assure that Belvedere would never become the terminal of a transcontinental railroad. The disruption in the Bay Area caused by the 1906 earthquake combined with the tight money situation following the national bank panic of 1907 made funds for risky projects scarce.
The formation of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP) by two well-financed existing railroads further obstructed the situation. The Southern Pacific and Santa Fe agreed in 1906 to merge the North Coast and California Western with four other roads to form the NWP. The NWP had access to $35 million in stock and another $35 million in bond issues. With these funds it planned to retire all existing debts, finish the line to Eureka and extend it to Portland. The NWP connection to Eureka was completed in 1914 but the line to Portland was never carried out.
With the completion of the Santa Fe Railroad transcontinental rail connection into Richmond and the Western Pacific Railroad into Oakland, the oft used argument that a new rail line was needed to break the Southern Pacific monopoly on rail service to the Bay Area no longer carried much weight.
In the long run perhaps the most compelling reason for the failure of the Hotaling Road was simply a lack of demand for an electric railroad. Marin’s only operating electric railroad, the NWP interurban train service, was abandoned due to diminishing passenger demand in 1941. The private car became the king of travel in Marin and Belvedere was left to develop as we see it today.