A.W Foster, owner of the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad (SF&NP), a predecessor of the NorthWestern Pacific (NWP) and the Battle of Sebastapool Avenue.
Without the NWP the line from Fort Bragg to Willits would not have made sense. The line from Willits to San Francisco provided a speedy way to bring passengers to Fort Bragg and the resorts along the Skunk Line such as the Noyo River Tavern as well as send products east. The early story of the NWP revolves around a man named A.W. Foster.
Brooktrails, which was formerly Northwestern was named for its patron, the Northwestern Lumber Company. The mill was locally known as the Diamond D because of the D surrounded by a diamond was stamped on all of the tools the company owned. The mill was owned by A.W. Foster. There was a hospital in Northwestern long before Charles Howard of Sea Biscuit fame built the one that is now in Willits and it had a rail line which was part of the NWP.
One of the pieces we have recently acquired access to was this fascinating article by Gaye LeBaron which was published on Sunday, March 7th, 1993 in the Press Democrat.
The title of the piece was, "This was a man who knew how to run a railroad." Read on - it's a great story.
"There is far more talk of trains than there are trains on the North Coast in these freeway-friendly times. Much of it is political talk. Is rail service growth-inducing? Can Joe Average be lured out from behind the wheel? And, the omnipresent rhetorical question: How could we have been so short-sighted in abandoning the rail service we once enjoyed?
Trains are a government problem now. If regular, dependable passenger service returns to Sonoma County and points north, it will be a government agency that makes it happen.
What a contrast this is with the way it was 100 years ago, in March of 1893, when a wheeling-dealing immigrant from Ireland, who lived in splendor in Marin County, bought the main line railroad from Tiburon to Ukiah and precipitated dramatic changes in our economy.
The man was Arthur W. Foster. And he knew how to run a railroad!
Foster and his partners, a Marin attorney named Sidney Smith, and Santa Rosa resident Andrew Markham bought the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad, which had been in bankruptcy for several years, in a court-ordered auction on the steps of the Marin County courthouse. The agreement was executed on March 25th, 1893.
Foster, who owned a San Francisco brokerage and was very rich before the age of 40, had established himself as one of Marin County's power elite. He had purchased Fairhills, the former Adolph Maillard mansion in San Rafael and lived in splendor with his wife Louisiana, and his nine children.
I am indebted to a new Santa Rosa resident, Michel Rousselin, who has published a book about Fairhills, which includes a biography of Foster. Rousselin makes a case for the importance of the Marin industrialist in the development of the North Coast.
After buying the SF&NP, Foster and Markham split with partner Smith, who had thrown in his lot with Eastern investors who sought control. Foster eluded a takeover by establishing California, Northwestern Railroad (CNW), to which he leased the SF&NP. He also purchased an interest in North Pacific Coast, later the North Shore, a narrow gauge which ran from Sausalito to Duncan Mills.
San Francisco & North Pacific engine 18, built by Rogers in 1889. SF&NP was a predecessor of NWP; this loco was later NWP 101. Engineer E. H. Reynolds stops his freight at Santa Rosa for a turn-of-the-century photo, ca. 1900.
Foster and Markham were both in the timber business, Markham owned a mill on the lower Russian River, not quite three miles downstream from Duncan Mills. Like so many "mill towns" there was a hotel, a store, and a regular community which bore his name. Foster owned the town of Northwestern, the site of today's Brooktrails north of Willits, which was built around his mill and millpond. By 1902 CNW tracks extended as far as Northwestern.
In addition to his Hopland Stock Ranch (now mostly Fetzer property plus the U.S. Experimental Agriculture Station) and the 10,500 acre sheep and cattle ranch at Sears Point, the Foster family owned Rio Campo, a 600 acre summer home park on the Russian River now known as Northwood. They entertained lavishly there, all the while selling their wealthy friends on the notion of the Russian River as a resort area.
Foster, according to Rousselin, sought to establish resorts on the river to replace the freight business lost when the area was logged out. He bought up large tracts of land and established a number of important resorts, Gilbert Kneiss, the railroad historian credits him with Mirabel, Rio Nido, Camp Vacation (which was an earlier name for Northwood) and Summer Home Park, although other historians might argue this expansiveness. He is also credited with being one of the founders of the Bank of Willits, where his son Bill, who also ran the Mendocino County lumbering operation, was president.
Foster was one of those aggressive businessmen who earn the title "tycoon". Not unlike the legendary Big Four who ran roughshod over the political system to build the Central Pacific and, subsequently, Southern Pacific, Foster was not a man of goodwill where competition was concerned.
His determination to "own" railroading on the North Coast can be found in the 1905 incidents on the outskirts of Santa Rosa that became known in railroad lore, collectively, as the "Santa Rosa Stand-off" or "The Battle of Sebastapool Avenue."
Foster was in a rate war of sorts with the newest rail line in the known as the Petaluma & Santa Rosa (P&SR), which was owned by a consortium of businessmen including Petaluma's John McNear and Santa Rosa Banker, Frank Brush. The P&SR had already made inroads into the CNW's poultry, eggs and fruit business when in 1904, it made application for a grade crossing over the CNW track near the Santa Rosa depot. The (P&SR) electric line's plans included a fleet of those interurban trolleys so popular at the turn of the century. They promised customers they could board in front of their south and west county ranches and ride all the way to the courthouse in the centre of Santa Rosa on the same electric car.
Foster declined permission for a grade crossing suggesting curtly that the new railroad could tunnel under or build an overpass over his tracks. Both options were, of course, far too expensive to be taken seriously.
Santa Rosa's merchants were outraged. Spurred on by Brush, 92 of them signed a document threatening to boycott the CNW unless Foster relented. Foster responded by ordering two of his steam locomotives rigged with special nozzles to shoot steam in any direction. Then he waited.
The P&SR manager, Alfred Bowen, acting in the same frontier spirit, ordered tracks built to the edge of the CNW line, had a grade crossing built in his shops and loaded on a flat car. He then sent crews to install it. The flat car arrived at the crossing site, which was south of the P&SR terminal (now a Chevy's restaurant) and began sawing through steam line's rails to slip in the crossing. Foster gave a signal and his engines, loaded for "war" came rolling opposite ends, spraying steam and boiling water. The P&SR workers ran for their lives.
For the next attempt, Bowen sent a trolley car. As it approached the track, crews of workers jumped out and built two barriers across the tracks to keep the steam engines at bay. Then, with a team of mules, they pulled the trolley across the main line, bumping over the tracks without a crossing to the P&SR tracks on the town side.
But that was only the first skirmish. To get to the street railway tracks, the trolley had to cross another CNW line, a spur track which served Grace Brothers Brewery. Foster went to court and got an injunction forbidding the trolley to cross. For two months, the trolley car sat idle between the tracks.
Foster's injunction expired on the first of March, 1905. The P&SR brought back the grade crossing and again, Foster was ready. He had gondolas full of dirt and men with shovels, covering the electric line's tracks with dirt. The steam engines came back. But the P&SR workers were determined. As soon as the tanks were empty they went back to work.
A crowd gathered, mostly to cheer the P&SR in what turned into a giant mud fight. Steam, dirt, rocks and insults were flying in all direction. When the P&SR parked wagons on the tracks to keep the steam engines back, the engines crashed through them, showering the crowd with splinters and wagon parts. Brush threw himself across the track in front of one of the engines. And, finally, police intervened. The CNW shovel brigade was ordered to cease and desist. On Foster's orders, they continued and many were hauled off to jail.
The battle waged all through the day, until a telegram arrived at 5 p.m. saying that a San Francisco court had ruled in favour of the P&SR. The electric line crews worked all night. Shortly before sunrise , the stranded trolley car rolled smoothly over the new grade crossing and all the way to the courthouse. Foster had suffered a rare defeat.
This was his last railroad battle. He had actually sold his California Northwestern rail empire in 1902 to Southern Pacific, but agreed to stay and run the company for two years. And he remained involved – in timber, in banking, in resort property and ranching – in Sonoma and Mendocino counties until he died in 1930 aged 80. His great wealth had pretty much vanished with the decline of lumber prices and the onset of the Depression. So had the awe he had inspired when he was at his entrepreneurial peak. The new automobile had given merchant and traveler a new independence. Men like Foster were the old way. The North Coast, negotiated to bridge the Golden Gate, was rushing toward the new age of transportation."