The Bay Area’s Age of Rail: Marin’s Interurban

Southbound at the Ross Station. Image from Model Railway Ramblings.

Southbound at the Ross Station. Image from Model Railway Ramblings.

Age of Rail will be an irregular series of maps and videos that explore the train service around the Bay Area around the height of the railroad age, before the car became the primary means of long-distance travel.

In 1941, the last ferry and the last train ran on the NWP Interurban rail line, and Marin was handed over to battle for its life against the car-centric development unleashed by the Golden Gate Bridge. Marinites, unlike most of the country, won that battle, and we maintained the transit-oriented development passed down from the age of rail.

Most of us, though, don’t even know what travelling the Interurban was like. It was an electrified railway, running every 30 minutes from most points and every 15 minutes from San Rafael to San Francisco during rush hour. Rail cars drew power from a third rail like BART does today, so it functioned like surface-running mass transit. Unlike BART, steam-powered freight trains from West Marin and Sonoma regularly used the lines.

That’s the technology, but we have little more than grainy maps and schedules (PDF) from the 1920s and 1930s to tell us how to get from here to there. While those are handy, they hide the structure and sinews of the system. This was intentional. Most transportation maps of the day didn’t try to convey the pattern of service, only the geography of service. The schedules, too, assume some level of familiarity with the system. The purpose of contemporary transit mapping is to combine not just where a system goes, but how and, to a lesser extent, when.

I’ve created two maps that do just that for the Interurban. The first is in an “old” style. Old printing techniques could only print two or three colors. Given that the Interurban shut down in 1941, I thought a map inspired by that era made sense.

One color does make it hard to tell apart individual lines. Click to enlarge.

One color does make it hard to tell apart individual lines. Click to enlarge.

The second map is the same thing, but in a “new” style. With contemporary printing techniques, we can print as many colors as we like. The advantage is that individual lines can be individually colored, snapping into focus what lines go where.

The colorful lines really make service stand out. Click to enlarge.

The colorful lines really make service stand out. Click to enlarge.

As you can see, it was quite a comprehensive system, at least for Central and Southern Marin. Some of the overlapping lines, such as from Sausalito to Almonte, actually departed simultaneously as part of the same train and split off at each junction. Two cars, for example, would run to San Anselmo as one train, but the front would proceed to San Rafael while the rear would proceed to Manor.

If you’re wondering about Sonoma and Northern Marin, they were served by locomotive-powered intercity rail, more akin to Amtrak or Caltrain than BART.

If you have a schedule and map you’d like to see converted to a contemporary map, let us know in the comments.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

3 comments to The Bay Area’s Age of Rail: Marin’s Interurban

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  • Bob Davis

    One of the NWP interurban cars is preserved in running condition at Orange Empire Ry. Museum in Perris CA (southeast of Riverside). After the NWP electric operation closed in 1941, it was sold to Pacific Electric, where it became car 4509 in 1942. Helping with the World War II traffic upsurge, it stayed on at PE and was modernized in 1947, becoming PE 314. PE workers modified the car so it would run in trains with a larger group of similar cars from the SP Oakland-Alameda-Berkeley electrification, which also closed in 1941. Around 1960, it was sold to a group of LA area railfans, who moved it to what was then Orange Empire Trolley Museum. Although it needs body work, and is normally stored out of public view, the car does run, having been a museum piece for much longer than its revenue service period.

  • jimboylan

    If you backdate the map to 1930, there were also railroad train connections at Mill Valley for Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods.