Coming to Sonoma by water
The Embarcadero, Schellville and Wingo (From the Spring 2011 issue of SONOMA)
The paddlewheel steamer Sonoma docked at the Embarcadero on Sonoma Creek.
The early history of Sonoma was written on water, and much of its commerce was carried on boats.
When Father Jose Altimira, the Franciscan priest who founded the northernmost California mission, was looking for an appropriate place to put the new Mission San Francisco de Solano, his choice was guided by proximity to an available port. Visitors scanning the Sonoma horizon today can be excused for wondering what the good father was thinking. A port in Sonoma? Where?
In fact, Altimira's sensible survey identified a spot just downstream on the tidewaters of Sonoma Creek that became known as the Embarcadero and that later served as the home port for a sizable, paddle-wheel steamship, the Sonoma, that appears, in photos, to be a good 150 feet long. That port lies some four miles north of San Pablo Bay, up the serpentine slough that gathers the waters of both Sonoma Creek and the Napa River.
The year was 1823, and that meant most supplies for the mission came from ships on the bay, crossing from the San Francisco Mission and Presidio in the settlement of Yerba Buena on the south side of the Golden Gate. A bridge over the gate was more than a century away, roads were primitive and at times impassable, there was yet no railroad nearby, so in every real sense, the road to Sonoma was water.
And it was beside the water that much of Sonoma's early development grew. The need to unload goods and equipment led to construction of the Embarcadero, a simple dock near the current site of the Larson Family Winery on Millerick Road.
The first steamship transportation across the bay from Yerba Buena was the Sitka, a 37-foot sidewheeler purchased by the American military from the Russians in Alaska, which first docked at the Embarcadero in the fall of 1847. It must have been a strange sight, looking across the tules and the marsh grass at a seagoing ship seeming to sail across the land.
Between 1860 and 1875, bargain prices for the marshy land through which the slough flowed to San Pablo Bay attracted several buyers. Among them was Theodore Schell, a purser for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, who purchased 1,400 acres in 1860. For a time, the Embarcadero was given the wildly optimistic name "St. Louis" by the would-be developers of a subdivision that was never actually created, although references to St. Louis in property descriptions bedeviled title searchers for more than a century.
Some owners of acreage bordering the slough south of the Embarcadero built their own landings to receive shipments or passengers. The largest of these independent landings was a substantial dock named Norfolk, and while it lacked a satisfactory road inland, it and other private docks downstream proved useful when exceptionally low tides at the Embarcadero made it difficult for larger boats, like steamers and sailing sloops, to reach land.
Two German seafaring brothers, Peter and John Stofen, began hauling commodities from San Francisco in 1863. To facilitate their business, the Stofens built their own landing at the Embarcadero. The enterprising brothers then brought in a partner with financing and in 1874 launched the Sonoma, a stern-wheel steamship larger than any of the several boats that had serviced the Sonoma trade since 1848. The Stofens also built a "Captain's House" beside their landing, and the structure stands today, beautifully restored, just across from the Larson Family Winery tasting room and available for weekend rental.
From the Embarcadero and other landings freight was hauled into town by teams of horses or oxen, while passengers were carried in carts and stagecoaches over bumpy, pot-holed roads that were slippery mud in winter and dusty trails in summer.
Meanwhile, the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, spurring construction of several short-line railroads throughout the state, and a rail route from Sausalito to Santa Rosa, by way of Petaluma Valley, was soon built by the enterprising Peter Donahue and his San Francisco Iron Works. In 1876, a promoter named Joseph Kohn obtained the right-of-way for an experimental monorail from Norfolk Landing into Schellville. Called the "Crew Prismoidal System," the train's cars ran on a wooden triangular rail. A three-and-a-half mile trial run, loaded with a cheering crowd of Sonoma gentry, was a success, but when the monorail came to a road crossing near Schell's home, the raised wooden line threatened to block the road and was forced to stop. Kohn attempted to substitute a normal narrow gauge track but ran out money.
The prismoidal track eventually disappeared, but not Norfolk, which was renamed Wingo, became a station on a spur of what was later the Northwest Pacific Railroad and morphed into an incrementally decaying collection of railroad sheds, barns for storage and equipment, docks, and housing for various people, including the tender of a hand-operated swing bridge over the slough which dominates the skyline to this day. It was all linked together by a network of boardwalks and now looks like the set of a ghost town lost in a swamp.
The issue of competing railroads was ultimately resolved when Peter Donahue bought up rival routes and won approval for rights-of-way that eventually allowed him to lay track straight into the heart of Sonoma. When Donahue's first train pulled into the Sonoma Plaza on December 29, 1879, it put an end to the water route as the principal means to reach downtown Sonoma.
The railroad gave names to its stations that still stick: Schellville, which stretched eastward from the Embarcadero and the phantom St. Louis just south of the current junction of Broadway and Highway 121 to Eighth Street East; and Wingo, for the previously named Norfolk Landing, at just seven feet above sea level.
Wingo remains more or less a "ghost" station, although at this writing it has a few reclusive inhabitants, and is mainly suitable for fishing, duck hunting and boating. The legendary Sonoma Valley harmonica player, the late Norton Buffalo, once shot a music video there with sidekick Roy Rogers, in a setting reminiscent of the dueling banjo scene in the movie, Deliverance.
At the close of the 19th century the first of the Millerick family purchased the property east of the Broadway extension, the gateway to Sonoma, encompassing the Embarcadero and the landing where the steamship Sonoma was docked. A photo of the Sonoma graces a wall of the Captain's House, revealing a stretch of Sonoma Creek a good 200 feet wide.
For years the Millericks hosted the famed Millerick Circle M Ranch Rodeo on their land just east of the slough, drawing crowds by the thousands and some of the West's best horses. Visit the tasting room of the Larson Family Winery and you'll find the walls covered with historic rodeo photos and a glorious mural by Rod Knutson depicting people strolling, teams of horses and, in the background, the startling image of a beautiful paddlewheel steamboat seemingly docked in a field, Sonoma Creek flowing invisibly beneath it.
From the Spring 2011 issue of SONOMA
Sonoma by water