Northwestern Pacific Railroad’s (NWP) Marin County Interurban Electric Service
For nearly 40 years, electric-powered “interurban trains” connected Marin County. Think about it: A clean and green, electric-powered rail system with stations in Fairfax, San Rafael, Mill Valley and San Anselmo, all connecting to a terminal in Sausalito where commuters could take a ferry into San Francisco. Its only sound was a low moaning air whistle. As for the electric power that made this train silent? That came from the High Sierras via 150 miles of transmission line that was, at the time, the world’s longest.
The history of the electrics in Marin starts in 1871 with the North Pacific Coast Railroad (NPC), which was built to bring timber from the large reserves in Marin to San Francisco. The narrow gauge railroad, built as narrow gauge to save on cost, ran from Sausalito to San Anselmo and then east to San Rafael. The railroad opened in 1874 and by the end of that year, the line had been extended from San Anselmo through Fairfax all the way to Tomales Bay. The line to Tomales Bay required impressive engineering to get through White's Hill. In 1886, the line essentially was completed when it reached present day Cazadero.
With its lines from Sausalito to San Anselmo and San Rafael, the NPC had established itself a modest commuter business. In 1889, the San Francisco, Tamalpias and Bolinas Railroad built a line from a junction on the NPC and Mill Valley. The NPC leased their tracks for commuter and freight service even before the line opened. In 1896, Mill Valley became an even more important stop on the NPC when the Mill Valley & Mount Tamalpias Scenic Railway opened between the NPC's terminal and the top of the 2600 foot mountain (The railroad was called the crookedest railroad in the world with its 281 curves on only 8 1/2 miles of track. The "Mountain Railroad" as the locals called it was the Northern California equivalent of the wonderful Mount Lowe Railway in Los Angeles).
In 1902, John Martin and Eugene de Sabla, Jr., who were pioneers in the electric utility business and founders of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company bought the NPC with the vision to electrify it. Hydro-electric power was in abundance and electric trains would be more efficient for commuters than the steam trains. In 1902, the NPC was reorganized as the North Shore Railroad (NSR). High speed interurbans had never been built anywhere in the world to this point. Martin and de Sabla tried to make their dreams reality.
One of the challenges of building a high speed and high capacity interurban resided in powering the train. Historically, a locomotive pulled a train of unpowered cars. The longer the train, the longer the train takes to accelerate to high speeds. In many cities, rapid transit consisted of a steam engine pulling cars on elevated structures. In Chicago, the railroad went a step further to include an electrically powered passenger car pulling a train. That trains with one locomotive did not accelerate very quickly and that the locomotive had to be run around to the other side of the train at terminals did not make rapid transit of the time all that rapid. For a true rapid transit system, all of the train's cars needed to be powered and the motorman needed to be able to control the train at both ends. At one terminal, he would just walk to the other end of the train to begin travel in the other direction.
In 1897, Frank Julian Sprague invented "multiple unit control" for the South Side Elevated Railway in Chicago, a technology that quickly spread throughout the country. Multiple unit control did exactly what the NSR needed to do. With Sprague-General Electric control, trains of any length could be operated at high speeds and could be controlled at both ends.
However, with high speeds and high frequencies, the railroad soon realized the importance and problems with their current signals. Electric trains powered by direct current used the rails to return power to the substation or powerhouse. Thus, it would not be possible to use the traditional battery circuits for signals because the electric trains would interfere. In response to this problem, the NSR installed alternating current circuits for its signals. For the first time in history, it was possible to operate trains safely at high speeds. The technology that the NSR created allowed also for the creation of subways. In 1904, New York opened its first subway with the NSR's signal technology.
Rather than using traditional trolley pole, the North Shore Railroad opted to use an electric third rail. Instead of having overhead wire interfering with freight trains and unreliable trolley poles jumping the wire, the railroad laid an energized third rail alongside the track. A third rail "shoe" stuck out from the bottom of the train to rest on the third rail to power the train. This technology is still used today by the Southern Railway in England.
NWP at San Rafael's 4th St Station, 1910 Three rails to the left are for narrow-gauge steam and standard-gauge steam and electric The fourth rail, being stepped on by brave Conductor Orr, is electrified at 600 volts.
With all of this new technology available, the North Shore Railroad upgraded its narrow gauge tracks by essentially building an entirely new railroad between Sausalito and San Anselmo. The railroad was double tracked, and each track consisted of four rails: two standard gauge rails, an inner rail for narrow gauge trains and the electric third rail.
With minimal fanfare and the utmost of confidence, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad’s interurban electric cars began operating on August 16, 1903. So what went wrong? The railroad’s formula lacked one key ingredient: people. At the onset, Marin had but 16,000 residents, and by the mid-1930s the county’s population was only 41,000. In addition, by then most Marin households owned at least one automobile. “At best, no more than 20,000 fares — perhaps representing 10,000 people — were collected in a single day,” writes historian Harre W. Demoro in Electric Railway Pioneer (Interurban Press, 1983).
The death knell came on May 28, 1937, when cars, driven mostly by commuters, began traversing the Golden Gate Bridge into the city. Sadly, Marin County’s last interurban electric train ran on February 28, 1941.”
What did the trains look like? Here’s a few pics.
NWP interurban 386, arrived from Sausalito, unloads from the front platform special express shipments at Mill Valley Depot, October 1939. 386 was the last of 12 motors and 7 trailers bought new in 1930. It had only 11 years of service until abandonment in 1941, after which it was transformed to Pacific Electric as No. 4511.
Northwestern Pacific electric train at Ross Station on its northbound run to the ferry terminal at Sausalito. This is 1938 and the system had less than three years more to operate. The steel electric cars got their power from a "third rail" beside the tracks (under the board covers on both sides of the fence).
NWP electric passenger motor 383 at High School Station near Mill Valley, July 1937. St. Louis Car Co. 1930. Electric 3rd rail this side of car. Mill Valley Branch electric trains quit on 9/30/40 and the entire NWP interurban system serving San Rafael, San Anselmo and Manor was abandoned 2/28/41.
A Marin County tradition was the "Peanut" train, so-called because of the shrill whistle carried by Baggage Motor 370. The Peanut carried the daily newspapers from San Francisco to Marin readers. Here is the Peanut, captured by Jack Farley, about to end its run at San Rafael Union Station.
The Western Railroader devoted two issues to the Marin Electric Interurban Lines. The first was issue 178 published in August 1954 – Electric Interurban Lines of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. The second was issue Number 308 published in September 1965 – North Shore R.R. Marin County Electrification. Both these issues are included in full here and may beread by clicking on the covers shown right. A pdf version of issue #178 can be downloaded here and issue #308, here.
Below is a link to a video of the Marin Electric Trains: