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Couple of Articles about Petaluma’s historic trestle
Wednesday 23 Jan 2008, 11:58
Filed under: Railroad, SMART | Tags: , ,

Both are from Petaluma ARGUS-COURIER STAFF. The trestle is about 500 feet long, and too unsafe to allow people on it. There are efforts to run a trolley on it. The trestle is a spur off the main line, owned by SMART.

View Larger Map is my rough idea of here it would go.

New life for old downtown trestle?
Advocates for preserving riverside railway, buoyed by new study, hope this is the year decaying structure’s fate is finally resolved
Published: Wednesday, Jan 23, 2008

This wooden railroad trestle along the downtown riverfront has slipped into disrepair over the years.
Chris Samson
This wooden railroad trestle along the downtown riverfront has slipped into disrepair over the years.
Zoom Photo

Called “Petaluma’s most identifiable landmark,” the wooden railroad trestle that spans 500 feet of downtown riverfront property is slowly slipping away.

Fires have burned holes in the horizontal planks above. Rain seeps into the exposed tops of timber pilings and small marine creatures known as “the termites of the sea” bore their way into the wood wherever the tide reaches.

Little wonder, then, that it’s been closed off for years, with no significant use in more than a decade.

But it’s not too late to change the trestle’s fate, it turns out.

A recently completed “historic structure report” on the 85-year-old trestle concludes salvation is possible, even for a private group’s long-planned trolley service across the aging span.

“It’s no longer a myth,” Petaluma Trolley’s Chris Stevick said. “The trestle can be saved.”

To do so will require upwards of $2 million, remedial treatment to stop the decay from getting worse and an answer to the question: Whose job is it?

Still owned by railroad

Although the city of Petaluma ordered the historic structure report, it’s the local railroad agency that owns the trestle.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District, formed in 2004, inherited the Water Street tracks and trestle when it took over railroad operations in the North Bay.

The district has plans to run commuter trains on the former Northwestern Pacific Railroad tracks from Cloverdale to Larkspur, but the Water Street spur that juts off from the mainline at Payran Street isn’t included.

The North Coast Railroad Authority, which plans to run freight trains in Sonoma County beginning this summer, won’t use the Water Street tracks either.

Although repairing the trestle wouldn’t interfere with those agencies’ rail plans, the question of which entity would take the lead on fixing the trestle is still unresolved.

“They own the facility; they should be able to repair the facility,” City Manager Mike Bierman said of SMART. “We need to talk with them and find out what they plan to do, if anything.”

If SMART were to offer the trestle to the city, “We would not buy it — they would have to give it to us,” Bierman said. “At that point, it’s a matter of whether the city makes it a priority.”

The estimated cost of repairing the trestle — $2 million for use as a pedestrian walkway, $2.8 million to shore it up for trolley service — isn’t anticipated in the city’s five-year capital improvements plan.

“That’s a lot of money,” Bierman said. “That’s a decision the council’s going to have to make.”

The council has asked Bierman to send SMART a letter seeking information about the rail agency’s plans for the trestle.

SMART spokesman Chris Coursey said the agency would like to see the trestle restored and will talk with the city as part of making a decision about its future.

Part of Petaluma history

In the meantime, advocates for the trestle’s preservation are hoping to push for grants and private fund-raising to offset the cost of repair.

“It is primed for federal restoration grants,” Stevick said of the trestle.

Historian Marianne Hurley noted the recent report said the trestle appears eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

“As such, it’s of even greater importance to the city,” Hurley said. “It’s a historical resource and we cannot let it just fall away.”

Built in 1922, the trestle bridged the southern end of Water Street with the beginning of First Street, near the Petaluma Yacht Club today.

Trains ran all the way down First Street to H Street, site of Foundry Wharf today, serving warehouses and mills along the waterfront.

It was part of the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad, which brought people and farm products from as far as Forestville to Petaluma steamers sailing for San Francisco.

Railroad enthusiasts say the riverside trestle doubled as a wharf so that goods could be offloaded directly to barges and schooners docked below.

“It is both a trestle and a pier,” said Allen Tacy, a Petaluma author and historian. “I do not know of another structure in the country that’s both a trestle and a pier.”

“Petaluma is where the river to the south meets the rail from the north, and the trestle dramatically illustrates that union,” Stevick said.

Restoring it would bring back a riverside gathering spot popularized during the Petaluma River festivals of the ’80s and ’90s, and eliminate a fenced-off blight in the middle of other downtown revitalization, supporters said.

“It would be the balcony for all the river events, fairs and festivals,” Stevick said. “One thing that will help maintain the economic vitality of the downtown is tourism, and the trolley and trestle would be excellent draws.”

To drum up excitement over its plans, the trolley group is hoping to unveil a restored cable car on Water Street during the city’s sesquicentennial celebration this year.

The trestle today

“The current condition of the trestle is ‘poor,’” said Diane Ramirez of the city’s public works department, who presented the historic structure report to the City Council this month.

“It is not at an immediate risk of failure, but it is deteriorating at an ever-increasing rate,” Ramirez said.

Consultants hired by the city found that the deteriorating redwood pilings posed the biggest problem.

The past 85 years’ worth of tides washing in and out of the Turning Basin brought marine borers that invaded the pilings at the water’s edge, weakening the load-carrying capacity of some of the pilings.

Most are considered in good, fair or poor condition. Others, considered “beyond poor,” have lost up to three inches from their diameter and have to be replaced if the trestle is to be used again.

But the tops of some of the pilings are also weakening, the report found.

Put in place without metal flashing or crossbeams that completely covered the exposed end grain of the pilings, some of the timbers have begun decaying from the top.

Even the horizontal redwood “stringers” that stretch lengthwise from crossbeam to crossbeam, supporting the trestle deck and railroad tracks, have begun to deteriorate, the report found.

Though it’s possible to repair the trestle for either pedestrian-only or trolley use, more of the existing timber and “historic fabric” will need to go if the structure will ever support rail cars again, the report determined.

As a pedestrian-only walkway, “most of the piles could likely be retained, but they would have to be wrapped with newer material,” the report said.

In either case, a full engineering analysis of the trestle needs to be completed first, researchers said.

And more immediate steps to slow the pace of decay could include protective caps on the top of exposed pilings and plastic or concrete “jackets” around the pilings at the water’s edge, the report said.

The city said the report would be kept on file as background for any eventual restoration of the trestle.

Supporters of its rebirth hope that day comes sooner rather than later.

“You can’t buy this kind of history,” Stevick said of the trestle, “but you most certainly can lose it.”

(Contact Corey Young at


Old rail trestle should be saved
Published: Wednesday, Jan 23, 2008

The old wooden railroad trestle that spans a 500-foot stretch of the downtown waterfront was once a vibrant and functional part of Petaluma’s commercial and recreational life. But it has gradually fallen into despair and become an eyesore that is unsafe to even walk upon today.

Just north of the trestle, the city spent $7.8 million two years ago to transform Water Street into a “waterfront promenade.” To the south, the $100 million Theatre District project is the jewel of the city’s downtown redevelopment. But the trestle remains a blight on the otherwise rejuvenated downtown area.

Built in 1922, the trestle links the south end of Water Street with the foot of First Street. It was originally part of the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad, which brought people and farm goods from the north to Petaluma, where they were transferred to steamers and barges bound for San Francisco.

For years after rail service stopped, the trestle and the adjacent wooden dock next to the Great Petaluma Mill could handle foot traffic for such events as river festivals and arrivals of boats. But not anymore.

In recent years, the trestle has become so dilapidated that it is dangerous to pedestrians and has been fenced off to prevent potential injury. There are holes in the wooden planks and the timber pilings that support the structure are deteriorating. It’s just a matter of time before the structure collapses.

But a recently completed report on the trestle concludes that it can be saved — at a cost of more than $2 million. The question is, who’s responsible to pay for its repair?

The Water Street railroad tracks and trestle are owned by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District. The district has no plans for those tracks or the trestle as part of its goal of bringing commuter train service back to the North Bay. But it also may not have any interest in spending money to repair the trestle.

If SMART has no interest in repairing the trestle, it should turn over ownership to the city. The city has more at stake in getting the structure refurbished — even if it doesn’t have the funds to do so right now. It would cost $2 million just to repair it for use as a pedestrian walkway, $2.8 million to make it sturdy enough for trolley service.

While redevelopment funds could be used to help pay for the restoration, the project could also be aided by a combination of private funding and grants. Because of its historical significance (it may be the only structure of its kind in the country that serves as both a trestle and a pier), it may be eligible for federal restoration grants.

It’s interesting to note that the railroad tracks were left intact along Water and First streets when the cobblestones, or pavers, were put in those streets as part of the downtown redevelopment work a couple of years ago. If the trestle were fully restored, it would make possible a trolley service that would run along the waterfront and possibly up to the factory outlets at the north end of town.

The trestle is a piece of local history that has been allowed to deteriorate for far too long. It’s encouraging that the recent report concluded that it can be saved. The city should resolve the ownership issue with SMART and then work with local groups to seek grants and private funding to supplement public funds so that repairs can move forward.

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