© Jack Mason Museum
Early NPCRR locomotive and tender west of Lagunitas, where much damage was done to the canyon.
In choosing to run its rails through Lagunitas Canyon and along Tomales Bay, the directors of the North Pacific Coast Railroad must have foreseen some of the progress it would bring to the area’s population, the goods it would deliver to a booming Bay Area, and the potential profits it would create; but they probably did not think of the environmental impacts of heavy construction and subsequent industry and settlement—negative impacts on the land was just a part of business as usual—nor that the railroad would drain the coffers of many of its investors, as it eventually did.
From the beginning of construction in West Marin, there were complaints of the toll taken on the place. As construction crews at Camp Five of the Paper Mill Division, under the supervision of Capt. John A. Hallman, headed into the redwoods of Lagunitas Canyon, they faced heavy grading challenges. “Some very superior building rock is being revealed by the graders through the redwoods on Paper Mill Creek,” reported the Marin County Journal in October of 1873: however, in the same edition was this:
The picnic grounds on the Paper Mill Creek, that cool, umbrageous spot where Guthrie always stopped to water his steeds, and which was one of the most beautiful and attractive places in the county, has been completely obliterated by the remorseless railroad. The grand old trees are laid low, the pleasant drive is there no more; a high bank of dirt is the main thing seen. Not a vestige of the quiet, cool and beautiful retreat is left. So beauty gives way to utility in this age of steam.
In places, rock-and-dirt fill lined the banks of the creek, and cuts on the hillside produced serious erosion during and after construction. Superseded by the railroad, the Olema–San Rafael road had to be rebuilt across the creek in many areas. This resulted in road cuts and traffic on both sides of the creek from Lagunitas all the way to Olema (Point Reyes) Station. Not everyone complained: “The Olema road, though in bad condition, we cannot complain of,” wrote someone in the Journal, “because the necessities of the railroad have cut it up, and we are willing to make temporary sacrifice of a highway for a railroad.”
Samuel P. Taylor fought with the railroad company over land taken for the realigned county road. At one point he had his men fell large redwoods to block the road, and threatened to prevent the county from using the road if he wasn’t properly compensated for loss of land and fencing. The argument landed in court, and Taylor won damages. Nonetheless, he didn’t hesitate to profit from the venture: he had sixty men felling his redwoods to make rail bed ties, getting twenty-five cents per tie. (Taylor’s mill used rags for papermaking, so his trees had until then been safe from the logger.)
The railroad crews continued cutting and filling down twenty miles or more of San Geronimo and Lagunitas creeks, causing irreversible effects. By September of 1874 the line had been completed to the head of Tomales Bay, at Murphy’s (Railroad) Point.
Disaster came during an unprecedented early winter storm that dropped a reported fourteen inches of rain, causing extensive damage. The Pacific Rural Press reported that “the heavy storms so retarded the construction, and in some places damaged the new earthwork, that it is impossible now to be ready for traffic before January 1st.”
On the Tomales Bay shore, crews had been laboring on the Marshall Division, headed by Mr. Bugbee, who had famously conquered White’s Hill during the previous year’s construction. The Marshall and Paper Mill divisions worked toward each other, but by August of 1874 there was still much work to be done, according to the Journal:
Gangs of men are working this way [east] from the Tomales end; and the forces are now only about six miles apart. The first work done on the Tomales end was commenced at Marshal’s [sic] Landing, leaving the five miles from that point to Ocean Roar untouched, which is under contract to Mr. Bugbee. Two gangs of men were put on at Millers’s Point on Tuesday, and within a few days there will be from 200 to 300 at work between Murphy’s and Miller’s Points. There is a piece of trestle work to build from Murphy’s to the Ross ranch nearly 3,000 feet in length.
The last sentence referred to a long bridge crossing a deep cove between what was later called Railroad Point and Bivalve; though later filled with dirt, it remains one of the most impressive remnants of the railroad line.
The irregular, windblown and tide-beaten eastern shoreline of Tomales Bay proved to be a challenge to the surveyors and civil engineers. Crews cut down cliffs to produce fill sections and built long trestles to cross the many estuaries (these were later filled, often with materials quarried from Indian mounds). The natural shoreline of the bay was changed forever, with rock and timber bulkheads holding back the tide and coves cut off from the bay. Filling down to the beach exposed the new work to coastal erosion. “Wherever the railroad is exposed to the action of the waves,” reported the Pacific Rural Press in December of 1874, “the face of the embankment has been riprapped and secured in the most substantial manner.” The railbed also dislocated the local road in some places, such as between Ocean Roar and Hamlet, where the road had previously followed the bay shore and had to be moved, a great expense, up into the hills, where it remains.
Materials not available locally were delivered to the construction sites by schooners, and after the south part of the line was completed, by rail. The sailing schooners Osceola and Costa Sacramento and the steamers Monterey and Belle made regular runs between Sausalito, San Francisco and other supply ports to points on Tomales Bay, which likely required the construction of wharves. After enough railbed had been finished, the Monterey brought the first locomotive to Ocean Roar, where it was put into service on the northern section of construction. The delivery was of great interest to the local residents. “For many of the people,” wrote Tomales historian Bray Dickinson, “this was their first sight of a locomotive.”
This article is an excerpt from Dewey Livingston’s upcoming book on the history of Point Reyes and Tomales Bay.