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Sunday, September 14, 2003

Transportation always a hot topic

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

With today’s growing commuter traffic woes, the discussion about alternative transportation is on everybody’s mind. While a BART-like rail connection would be desirable, the cost to build is prohibitive.

Similar questions were on Solano residents a century ago, too. Transportation then meant getting goods, supplies and passengers moved by horse, water and steam powered rail systems. The first automobiles had not yet made much of an impact.

With the broader availability of electricity at the beginning of the 20th century, a new transportation method became available: electric interurban rail systems.

Trains fueled by electricity, provided through high traction-current voltages, offered an economical, quiet, fast and efficient means of transportation.

The greatest drawbacks to electrified operation were the high capital investment and the maintenance cost of the traction current wires, structures and power substations.

Like any large, expensive public project, it took years of planning and setbacks to achieve this form of mass transit.

Efforts were under way early to connect San Francisco and Sacramento with an electric railroad. By 1904, Colonel J. W. Hartzell promoted the construction of a line between Napa and Vallejo.

“Railroad Rumors,” proclaimed the Vacaville Reporter on July 29, 1905, reprinting an article from the Vallejo newspaper. “That Vallejo will be the tidewater terminal of a vast system of electric railroads which will span Solano, Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties, seems an assured fact. The great success of the Vallejo, Benicia and Napa Railroad Company’s line between this city and Napa has encouraged this company and others to plan extensive extensions. ...

“J. W. Hartzell, ... is now working with E. H. Rollin & Son, the well known bond house, to secure finances to build along the franchises which Hartzell holds from Vallejo to Suisun, Vacaville and Winters. The road will connect with the Vallejo, Benicia and Napa Valley Company near Napa, and make connection for San Francisco with the Monticello Steamship Company in this city.”

Another candidate, Sheriff James A. Keys applied in October 1905, for a franchise for an electric road, connecting Cordelia, Suisun, Fairfield, Lagoon and Pleasants Valley, Vacaville, Dixon and Winters. County supervisors hesitated, as some of his proposed line covered the Hartzell franchise.

In November, the Board of Supervisors extended the Hartzell franchise for another year. On December 16, the Vacaville Reporter had further information: “The gentlemen interested in the Hartzell electric road project are beginning to bestir themselves. Last Saturday Vallejo City Trustee J. F. Deininger of Vallejo, who is interested with J. W. Hartzell in the enterprise, arrived in town in an automobile accompanied by the representatives of a large English corporation, which rumor states, Colonel Hartzell is endeavoring to interest in the projected road.”

The article continued with the announcement of another candidate, J. W. Kavanaugh, who was trying to obtain a similar franchise. The Reporter concluded: “Evidently Vacaville is going to have another railroad from some source to be before long.”

By January 13, 1906, Hartzell was able to incorporate his company. “After four years of unceasing efforts, Colonel Hartzell, the veteran promoter of this city, has at last announced that there is no longer any doubt of the certainty of the construction of the 100 miles of electric interurban road that will have its terminal in this city and which will mean untold prosperity and improvements for the up-country sections of Solano County ...”

“The company was incorporated for $3,000,000, with the still unnamed English corporation financing the project, including preliminary survey work.” The Reporter was especially happy to announce that “the terminal offices of the company with the machine repair shops will be located in this city and that we will reap much of the benefit of the road.”

The electric road was proposed to enter the town south of Merchant Street, continue to Dobbins, where it forked into a northern branch along Dobbins to the northern boundary of the town; the other line continued down Merchant to Main Street, crossed Ulatis Creek, passed the schools to McClellan, north to Callen, then east on Callen and Sacramento to the eastern boundary of the town. Operation was thought to begin within two to three years.

On January 20, 1906, the newspaper announced that the company had been incorporated as the San Francisco, Vallejo & Vaca Valley R.R. and that “English capitalists, it is stated, are behind the project; furthermore, it is declared that all the money required to build and equip the road has been secured.”

Two weeks later, Mr. Goucher, who had previously been in charge of securing right of ways for the company, announced that the construction contract for the portion of the road between Winters and Vacaville had been given to a company of railroad builders for $280,000. Work would begin within 90 days. He expected the road to be finished by January 1, 1907.

He said that “the depot would be located on East Main street, on the property purchased from Thomas S. Wilson, just to the west of the Earl Fruit Company’s shed. A bulkhead will be constructed down next to the creek and the intervening space filled in, making ample room for the depot building. The freight houses and sidetracks will of course be located in some other part of town where more space can be obtained.”

At that same time, a mysterious party of surveyors appeared in town. Their leader, M. K. Miller, did not want to name the company for which he was surveying Vacaville streets. He, too, was instructed to run a line from Vacaville to Suisun and stated that “there was no doubt that a road would be built to Vacaville this year, and possibly more than one.” He thought that the different companies might combine to build one road. “But if they were unable to agree on a plan of consolidation it might result in a race to see which of them could first enter the town.”

The next Board of Supervisor meeting acknowledged that the San Francisco, Vallejo and Vaca Valley Electric Railway and Steamship Company had obtained Hartzwell’s and Sheriff James Keys’ franchises. “According to the law of the state this company is incorporating,” deposited $1000 in gold for each mile of road they proposed to build, and as the minimum was placed at eighty miles, the sum of $ 80,000 was required. Its offices were located in San Francisco. (Vacaville Reporter, February 1, 1906)

The mystery deepened with an article on March 24, 1906, headlined “Who Is Miller Working For?” The article speculated that M. K. Miller was a representative for Western Pacific, which was trying to build a railroad from Sacramento to San Francisco.

“The Reporter has been in possession of certain facts for some time (which) indicate that M. K. Miller and his party of surveyors were in the employ of the Western Pacific. ...

“The line run was as straight as possible, not turning aside for obstructions that would be avoided by an electric road. For example, it cuts right through T. H. Buckingham’s house. The direction is southwest as far as Cordelia, running through the lands of Buckingham, Steinmitz, Bronson, Lockie and others, and leaving Fairfield and Suisun to the east. Beyond Cordelia we have not heard what direction was taken.”

On March 31, 1906, an article once again promised that Solano’s Interurban Line planned by the San Francisco, Vallejo and Vaca Valley Electric Railroad Company would be under way soon. The work was set to begin in early April, and the writer hoped that work would start in Vacaville.

Then he alluded to another big project. “The Newsman is in possession of information which will be made public at the time when an application for a franchise will be made to the City Board of Trustees in the near future of another railroad project which will be of vast importance to Vallejo and which people will welcome with an open hand. The new road will use the gasoline motor cars and will be up-to-date in every particular. It will tap a new territory and will do much to build up this city.

“We are not at liberty at this time to announce the company’s plans, but will as soon as the new Board of Trustees is formally organized and gets down to business ...”

On April 18, 1906, the San Francisco Earthquake struck. For the next few months, everybody’s focus concentrated on the rescue efforts in San Francisco. My next column will continue the story of Vacaville’s electric interurban system.