Sausalito Proposed as the Western Transcontinental Rail Terminal

by Robert L. Harrison

Sausalito as it appeared in about 1874. In the distance, one can see the railroad trestle which crossed Richardson Bay to Strawberry. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

The second half of the 19th Century was a time of great railroad planning and building. The Transcontinental Railroad, approved in 1862 by President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, linked Sacramento with Omaha at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869.

The full transcontinental route was attained on September 6, 1869 when the tracks from Sacramento were extended to Alameda with a ferry connection to San Francisco. Two months later the rails were completed to the Oakland Pier. The original route from Sacramento used an indirect alignment with steep grades via Stockton, Livermore and Niles Canyon (Hayward). The Niles Canyon route measured about 140 miles from Sacramento to San Francisco. Considerable speculation followed on where a permanent Bay Area terminal for trans-continental trains should be located as well as which route should be taken to get there. The plan was to find a connection with lower grades and better alignment.

A direct or “air line” route from Sacramento to the Bay Area was described in the December 17, 1870 Contra Costa Gazette, “The engineering corps of the Central Pacific Railroad Company [is] engaged in surveying the shortest practical route from Sacramento to San Francisco…and are now running a line of survey along the face of the cliffs on the south side of the Straits of Carquinez, after passing which, a tolerable straight line may be taken for Goat Island [Yerba Buena Island]…the whole distance between Sacramento and San Francisco will be eighty-six miles, all upon a water-level grade, which will admit of high speed with comparatively little wear and tear.”

The Daily Alta California in a July 19, 1871 Financial and Commercial column included both Goat Island and Sausalito as its preference for a national railroad terminal: “…the people want Goat Island for a great depot of trans-continental traffic. They also want the point of the Saucelito [spelling per the 1870s] Peninsular for another…there must be three great termini — Saucelito, Goat Island and San Francisco.” Goat Island was described by the Daily Alta as an excellent terminus for the trans-continental railroad: “If Goat Island should ultimately be appropriated, leveled and docked out, a magnificent and effective depot would be obtained….”

The July 19th Daily Alta California was not the first newspaper to mention Sausalito as a major railroad terminal. An earlier July 1871 opinion piece in the Saucelito Herald was titled, “Saucelito and New York, the Railroad Termini of the Union.” The Herald explained, “…inspecting the maps and coast survey instructions, the conviction is forced that the only ultimate terminus of this vast system [national railroad network] is Saucelito, with its sheltered bay, its deep water and its landing facilities…. The fact is gradually forcing itself upon the practical minds that govern railroads…until one of them extends its rails to Saucelito, and victory will then be decided, and the whole peninsular, at the head of which stands Tamalpais, will become the western terminus of the National railroad network.”

The North Pacific Coast Railroad’s Sausalito terminal, circa 1894. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Neither Goat Island nor Sausalito became the western terminus of the national railroad network. In 1879 an alignment similar to the “air line” route was built from Sacramento to Benicia where a large ferry transported locomotives, rail cars and passengers across the Carquinez Straight to Port Costa. The ferry operated until 1930 replaced then by a railroad bridge. The rails continued from Port Costa to the Oakland Mole and Pier. Since 1869, Oakland and later Emeryville, have served as terminals for passenger trains from the east.

Sausalito did become the site of a railroad terminal, albeit on a much smaller scale than the advocates of the trans-continental railroad terminal had hoped. The North Pacific Coast Railroad (NPC) established the village as its terminal to connect the towns of Marin and the lumber regions of Sonoma County with San Francisco, via train and ferry. The NPC was incorporated in December 1871 and one month later gained local financial support when Marin County voters approved a $160,000 ($3.5 million in 2020 dollars) bond measure.

Tickets for the North Pacific Coast Railroad and Saucelito Ferry, issued by the NPCRR, circa 1880. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

A groundbreaking ceremony took place in Sausalito on April 12, 1873. Work crews immediately began construction of the route across Richardson Bay to Strawberry, through the Ross Valley and to West Marin. San Rafael gained a connection to the NPC via a spur from Junction (San Anselmo). The town of Tomales was the system’s initial northern terminus. The first train left Sausalito for Tomales in January 1875.

A North Pacific Coast Railroad locomotive is shown on a siding at the Sausalito terminus, circa 1900. © Jack Mason Museum

Despite not becoming the western terminus of the national rail network, the NPC and subsequent railroad companies brought prosperity to Sausalito. A railroad continued to operate in Sausalito for nearly 100 years.

Originally published at



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Anne T. Kent California Room

Anne T. Kent California Room


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