Sonoma on track as ‘historic train district’?

Sonomans are familiar with the little train-themed amusement park on the outskirts of the city, but the title of “Train Town” could take on a secondary meaning very soon.

On Nov. 15, at a meeting of Sonoma’s Design Review and Historical Preservation Commission, the group discussed plans to establish an official “Sonoma Historic Train District” within city limits.

What’s a historic train district?

As City Historian Robert Demler describes it, “It’s a geographic area – usually within a city, I suspect – that seeks to identify a traditional use, or a former use, of all structures related to a train service.”

In other words, it’s a way of recognizing that an area bears a significant train-related sense of history, and a strategy for pointing people to the various historic sites that tell that story.

Designating such a space in Sonoma, where railroads operated in a major way from about 1879 to 1942, would create a permanent recognition of the area as being historically train-significant. It would also provide a level of protection for all train-related sites, structures, objects and artifacts within that district, say local history buffs.

“Historic districts are very important in identifying portions of a town that reflect its history,” says Patricia Cullinan, of the Sonoma Historical Society. It was Cullinan who originally developed the proposal to establish a Sonoma Historic Train District, and presenting it to the DR&HP Commission is the first step in moving the process forward. According to Cullinan, with the Commission’s thumbs-up, the proposal would next go to City staff, which would agendize the proposal for City Council consideration.

Cullinan says the idea first got chugging several years ago when the City began considering tearing down the Maysonnave Cottage on First Street East.

“I wrote a letter to the city, asking for further evaluation of the building’s historical value,” she says. From that additional historical review, the awareness grew that the Cottage was one part of a larger railroad-oriented piece of Sonoma’s history.

“The area looks a lot like it did in the early 1900s,” Cullinan says. “It’s very exciting, and very important. Trains, to a large degree, truly did influence the character of our town.”

Demler agrees.

“The identification of the boundaries of this district would need to be established formally,” he says, “but essentially it is from First Street East to First Street West at the Depot Park expanse, and some surrounding areas.” The area would include such structures as the Maysonnave House, the Maysonnave Cottage, the Depot Museum, the Marcy House, the Depot Hotel Restaurant and possibly others.

“The railroad track was where the bike path is,” he points out. “The railroad track was down the middle of West Spain Street with a turnaround in the northwest corner of the Plaza.”

Creating a “train district” designation for Sonoma would serve dual purposes, says Demler: it would help protect such sites, and add to the historical “branding” the City could market to train enthusiasts.

“If it were advertised properly, train lovers would certainly be interested in visiting Sonoma,” Demler says. “But that group would certainly not compete the wine and food lovers who come to our town.”

Designation as a historic train district will require approval of the City Council. From the positive remarks made during the public comment portion of the Nov. 15 Historic Preservation Commission meeting, it seems the idea will have a lot of support from local historical groups.

Demler adds that the proposed Sonoma Historic Train District would pair well with a recently presented plan for tying Depot Park to the Sonoma Plaza, creating a public path through the grounds of the Maysonnave Cottage, down the passageway between the Sonoma Cheese Factory and Mary’s Pizza, and on to the Plaza. There is, he says, still a great deal of work to do before any of this can take place.

Says Demler, “A final determination of the historic train district’s boundaries can be decided on by the Commission and the City Council, only after fully identifying all existing railroad related structures throughout the city.”

Email David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.