Tiburon Railroad & Ferry Depot Museum

Before Tiburon was a luxury residential town it was a railroad town. In 1884 Peter Donahue extended the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad down to Tiburon by means of a series of tunnels and trestles. It had terminated in the town of Donahue on the Petaluma River. When Donahue’s rival, the North Pacific Coast Railroad, laid track over the Strawberry Peninsula and across a 4000 foot trestle to terminate in Sausalito, Donahue had to move his Marin terminal much closer to San Francisco as well.

Donahue not only extended his railroad to Tiburon, but he brought much of the town of Donahue with him on barges. He relocated some very large buildings in what is now Downtown Tiburon. Massive explosions brought down the rock cliffs to fill the Bay and tidelands and create the land for the railroad yards. The resulting yards contained a round house which could service 11 locomotives at the same time. Additionally, there were machine shops and foundries which could build complete locomotives, both passenger and freight cars, and some of the largest ferries ever built on the Bay.

Next to the passenger terminal was the depot building which had the telegraph office and express station on the ground floor and the station masters residence on the upper floor. Passengers could transfer to the ferry docked on the other side of the depot building or originate a rail or ferry trip here. This was the only dual-use depot west of the Hudson River, as far as is known.

The main line from Tiburon ran north through San Rafael, Novato and Santa Rosa all the way to Ukiah with several branches to places like Napa and Sebastapol. The 350,000 tons of freight carried in 1906 included agricultural products (Grain, fruit, vegetables, hay), live stock, gravel, lumber and charcoal, agricultural implements, and liquor and beer. In addition they carried 1,269,631 passengers

The rolling stock consisted of 25 locomotives, 72 passenger and baggage cars, and 534 freight cars. Most of these were built in the Tiburon shops. The three ferry boats they operated in 1906 were the 996 passenger Ukiah, the 900 passenger Tiburon, and the 522 passenger Jas M Donahue. They carried passengers on the upper decks and freight cars on the lower. In 1918 the Ukiah was re-built as the Eureka with the lower deck converted to carry automobiles. It is now in the San Francisco Maritime National Museum.

Rather than transfer freight destined for San Francisco from the rail-cars to barges and then off again at its destination, a ramp at the Tiburon yards allowed the loaded cars to be pushed directly onto barges without having to re-handle the cargo. To adjust for tides this ramp was raised or lowered by a huge structure known as a “gallows frame.” This was a significant saving in freight cost and helped make Tiburon a popular shipping point.

In 1907, Peter Donahue’s railroad was merged, along with five other lines, into the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. By 1929 the NWP had been acquired by the Southern Pacific Railroad but continued to operate under its own name. Direct passenger service to San Francisco ended in 1909 when a shuttle service to Sausalito was instituted. The last train left Tiburon in 1967, but by then most of buildings in the 44 acre rail yard had been demolished. Vandalism and age brought destruction to all but the depot building which housed legal offices.

As the Point Tiburon project was constructed in the old rail yards the depot, now called The Donahue Building was deeded to the Town of Tiburon along with the waterfront from the ferry landing to the Elephant Rock fishing pier. The town leased the building to the Landmarks Society for 99 years to restore and preserve this last remnant of a once thriving railroad presence.

The ground floor houses a museum of models, photographs, and artifacts of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. A working model of the railroad yard, cerca 1909, complete with ferry boats and barges, is being built by volunteer railroad buffs. The upstairs has been restored to depict living conditions typical of railroad workers of the 1920s. The only parts of the gallows frame that were salvaged are the huge wheels which acted as pulleys. They are to be located at the Donahue Building.

From April to October the Donahue Building is open to visitors from 1 to 4 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Private parties and group tours may be arranged through the Landmarks Society, please visit http://www.landmarks-society.org or call 415-435-1853 for further information.


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