In the 1860s George Black was the Chief Engineer of two of California’s original railroads, the California Pacific Railroad (CPRR) running from Vallejo to Sacramento and the North Pacific Coast (NPC) in Marin and Sonoma Counties. He also prepared the plans for Marin’s first railroad, the San Rafael and San Quentin (SR+SQ), the short line connecting the town with the ferry terminal.
Perhaps Black’s most noteworthy act regarded a project that he did not build. Rather than lead the construction of a new railroad, he resigned his position as Chief Engineer because he could not support what he considered to be the unjustified cost of the proposed rail line.
Black was born in Ireland in 1825 and arrived in San Francisco in 1859. He opened a Civil Engineering office at 141 Clay Street. He resided at the boarding house of Mrs. Sarah Ensoe on Bush near Montgomery Street. In 1864 he was listed as an officer in San Francisco’s Volunteer Fire Brigade – known as the Pacific Engine Company No.8. By 1865 he was able to move into his own home on Eddy Street between Divisadero and Broderick Streets.
He was appointed Engineer of the CPRR where, in 1868, he was instrumental in completing the line from Vallejo to Sacramento. This more prominent role may have encouraged him to have his civil engineering firm listed for the first time in capital letters in the 1868 San Francisco Directory. He also moved his office to 622 Clay Street in San Francisco.
In 1869, as specified in this advertisement from the Daily Alta, Black’s office prepared the plans for the SR+SQ. “To Railroad Contractors, THE SAN RAFAEL AND SAN QUENTIN RAILROAD CO. Invite bids for the construction of their Railroad from San Rafael to San Quentin, in Marin County. Tenders specifying amount in gold coin to be handed in to the Secretary at the office of the Company, in San Rafael, on or before July 31st, 1869. Plans, profiles and specifications of the work to be done can be seen at the office of George Black, Civil Engineer, No. 622 Clay Street, San Francisco.”
Black was also appointed as Chief Engineer for the NPC when that Marin County road was being formed. In November 1871 another engineer presented the stockholders of the NPC with a preliminary cost estimate for the line from Saucelito to the Walhalla [Gualala] River of $1.16 million or about $13,500 per mile. The line would pass through San Rafael on the way to west Marin and then north across the Russian River. At the time this cost seemed high for an 86 mile narrow 3-foot gauge railroad but it was accepted in light of the difficult terrain. The NPC was formally incorporated on December 16, 1871.
For much of 1871 the need for a railroad across Marin was widely discussed. As public enthusiasm grew, the railroad asked the Board of Supervisors to submit the question of financial aid to the voters. An election was held on January 29, 1872. The Marin County electorate approved public financing for a railroad from San Rafael to Tomales by a two to one vote, 482 to 228. Bonds to provide a subsidy of $5,000 per mile not to exceed a total of $160,000 were approved by the Supervisors in February.
In April a bill to grant the NPC aid was passed in Congress. By early 1872 the NPC had a congressional mandate, public financing assistance and generally enthusiastic local support. In light of such national and local support, a report from Chief Engineer Black was expected to confirm the feasibility of the railroad.
However Black, who had begun his more careful field survey of the line in February 1872, instead recommended against construction of the railroad and submitted his resignation to the Board of Directors.
In his report to the Board, the Chief Engineer detailed the findings of his survey work. He reported that the route from Sausalito to San Rafael would be through “very rough and unfavorable country.” West from San Rafael was White’s Hill that posed “almost an effectual barrier against construction of a railroad.” Many sections of the proposed road would necessarily be steep (greater than a 2% grade) with “a continual succession of the sharpest curves.” There would be a need for tunnels, high trestles and at least one long costly bridge. For the section north of the Russian River, Black had made no personal surveys but based on surveys by others he concluded, “I entertain no doubt but that if a railroad is at all practicable it can only be at an enormous outlay.”
After careful analysis of the cost and potential revenue for a road across Marin and into Sonoma County, Black concluded “I do not feel myself justified professionally in recommending the construction of the proposed road as likely ever to make an adequate or any return for the very large outlay which it will involve. The country through which it passes from its commencement at the little village of Saucelito on the Bay of San Francisco to its termination at the mouth of the Walhalla river, at a distance of 115 miles, is for the most part, a complete wilderness, unprovided with roads, and entirely unfit for cultivation.”
From his survey work Black developed a cost estimate for the 115 mile road of $2,640,000 or about $23,000 per mile. This cost was far greater than had been envisioned by the Board of Directors. They were taken aback and immediately began a search for an alternative route. They also asked for a larger public aid package. Neither a new route nor additional public funding was found to be attainable.
In the end, the recommendation of the Chief Engineer was rejected by the Directors and they went ahead with their costly construction program. The road opened from Sausalito to Tomales in January 1875.
George Black, the Chief Engineer who resigned rather than recommend a project he could not support, died about one year after his resignation. His funeral was held on August 17, 1873 at his late residence on Eddy Street in San Francisco, the house he had lived in since 1865. He was 48 years old.