Old railroad tunnel gets new life

February 6, 2009 7:25:05 PM PST
An old railroad tunnel in Marin County is getting new life that will include trails for bicycles and hikers.

An example of history lost, and then found.

"I think people have had dreams of doing this for decades,"

Unless you're looking right at it, you may have missed the renovation project in Marin County. It's the Cal Park Hill Tunnel, a relic from 1884. The original construction is so ancient that inside old growth redwood still lines much of the 1,100-foot bore.

"All these sets were put together by hand and stood by hand," says engineer Mike Cox.

The tunnel had been abandoned for 30 years. After closing, it burned and then partially collapsed. But times change. Now the county has approved $25 million for a bike and pedestrian trails. And when the North Bay builds its SMART train, that will roll through there, too. It wouldn't be the first.

When somebody asks about railroads in Marin County, all tracks lead to Fred Codoni. If you saw the recent exhibit at the Marin History Museum, then you might also know that most of it was his stuff. His photo collection is legendary.

"I just scanned No. 5,200," says Codoni.

Most Marin County residents never think about their railroad heritage, but it's all around them. As late as mid-century, 80 miles of track ran through towns and mountains. You can still find traces of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, if you know where to look.

In San Anselmo for instance, there's Center Avenue. If you've ever passed through there, you may have notice that it's elevated. Two tracks used to run right through there.

Trains once ran through the are at 50 miles an hour. So how long would a trip from San Anselmo to San Francisco take?

"Fifty-five minutes... and it was was guaranteed because you didn't have to worry about traffic," says Codoni.

The trains ran through towns and future suburbs with a regularity we would envy today.

"Big, heavy steel cars that held 103 people," says Codoni.

Many of them terminated in Sausalito where ferries took commuters to San Francisco. But that was before commuters abandoned trains for cars and the Northwestern Pacific went out of business.

"Passenger service was privately owned and when it started to lose money, the owners just abandoned it," says Codoni.

But in San Rafael, the tracks and crossings remain in places. What used to be the old B Street Station has become a barber shop and tourist attraction, for those who know.

"Yeah, that sign up there, the Northwestern Pacific, they always take pictures of that," says barber Tino Wilson.

So in a time when Americans look for cleaner, more efficient transportation, what went away is coming around again. In Marin County, this old tunnel has become a symbol of it. When it's finished, a little more than one year from now, it will serve as a bridge of sorts between future and past.

"If you forget about history you're doomed to repeat it. We're repeating history, but that's a good thing in this case," says Codoni.