Northwestern Pacific Railroad

Interurban service from San Francisco that reached as far as Fairfax and San Rafael. There was an incline railway at the end of the Fairfax line for tourists.

The Northwestern Pacific Mainline in Marin County

I have recently discovered that the NWP is one of the coolest railroads around.

The Northwestern Pacific's Electric System [system map]

The major work, "Electric Railway Pioneer" by Harre Demoro, truly describes the Northwestern Pacific's electric trains. Not only did the NWP pioneer electric block signals that would be used on the New York Subways, but in the 1930s, when the line was doomed, new substations and cars were acquired to improve service. The ambition of the NWP was quite remarkable. They wanted their services to work and did not give up.

NWP Interurban Timetable, Oct. 1, 1939

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 along side the track. A third rail "shoe" stuck out from the bottom of the train to rest on the third rail to power the train.

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. Alas, in 1903, the electric trains were up and running in Marin!

-- Information from Electric Railway Pioneer (Interurban Special 84) - Harre W. Demoro (1983)

Mill Valley and Mount Tamalpias Scenic Railway [thumbnails]

This railway connected with the Northwestern Pacific at the Depot in Mill Valley to carry tourists to the top of Mount Tamalpias. The railroad had eight miles of track and gained 2500 feet of elevation to get to the top of the mountain. On the mountain was a hotel with spectacular views of the Bay Area.

Here is a very interesting map of the terminal of the railroad in Mill Valley.

Here is another image of the trains in Mill Valley.

Learn more on the Marin Library's Website.

Mill Valley Library's Digital Photo Exhibit.

Mt. Tam Railway Timetable.


Electric Railway Pioneer (Interurban Special 84) - Harre W. Demoro (1983)


Marin History Museum - Learn all about Marin at this great museum!
Historic NWP Photos

From the Marin Public Library:
Marin in the 1920s
Pre-electric Railroading in Marin (North Pacific Coast Railroad)