In 1873 the forests of Sonoma and Marin Counties were lush and verdant. Giant redwoods grew to enormous heights and age in the Russian River Valley and filled the watersheds of Dutch Bill and Austin Creeks. Mount Tamalpais hosted stands of huge redwoods.
But 1873 was a fateful year. Austin Moore (who later owned the Kings River Lumber Company that decimated the Sierra sequoias) and mill owner Samuel P. Taylor joined forces with banker and former U.S. Senator and Governor of California, Milton Slocum Latham and potato farmer Warren Dutton to form the North Pacific Coast Railroad. By 1875 tracks had been laid to Tomales through what is now Samuel P. Taylor State Park. By 1877 the line extended to Duncans Mills and by 1889 to Cazadero. Forest destruction followed in its wake. Sawmills buzzed and ripped all along the rail line: at Bodega, Camp Meeker, Tyrone, Moscow and Cazadero. Korbel (then a sawmill) provided ties for the rail lines.
Then in 1906, the San Andreas Fault ruptured and left San Francisco in flames. Shortly after, the Cityʼs rebuilding campaign began importing massive amounts of redwood from the north coast. In the rush to meet the demand, there was little thought for environmental damage and the forests were severely over-cut changing the mix of species (more brush, fewer conifers) and setting up the conditions for several catastrophic fires. One burned from Guerneville to the sea!
Eventually and ironically the presence of rail transportation and the depletion of trees led the railroads to promote the tourist industry to make up for falling revenues. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad which absorbed the NPCRR publicized its “Triangle Trip” from San Francisco to Monte Rio, Monte Rio to Fulton, then Fulton back to San Francisco. The railroad owned the ferry boats needed to make the connections. Even Samuel P. Taylor opened a resort called Camp Taylor. The growth of the tourist industry has, in turn, provided an economic incentive to preserve forest lands.
Railroads soon lost their subsidies as the money was transferred to auto roads and oil production. We didn’t see what was coming: huge numbers of autos, air and water pollution, mega-parking lots, highway carnage, sprawl development, gridlock and, finally, global climate change.
With the groundbreaking for the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit on February 24 the old rail line from Larkfield to Cloverdale is back in business. This time the train may actually help the forests. The SMART commuter train will provide an alternative to lugging around those steel cages with wheels we all use for transport, thereby reducing greenhouses gases that contribute to global climate change. Trains are part of the solution to climate change, the single greatest threat to forests. But this can only help if we all resolve to use SMART rather than our polluting cars. So, save a tree, ride a train!