Historic Railroad Square is Santa Rosa’s old town and historic heart. Buildings originally used as warehouses, canneries, macaroni factories, breweries and other rail supporting enterprises are now retrofitted as specialty shops, restaurants, and office space. The exposed brick walls and cement floors speak to an earlier time and add special ambiance and historic character to the district.
Railroad Square was honored with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 because of its efforts restoring and preserving the architectural buildings that represent the influence the railroad had on a community. Movie directors have found the square compelling, as several films including Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Cheaper by the Dozen with Steve Martin were filmed around the train depot.
You’re within minutes of world-class wineries and at the center of a burgeoning craft beer industry. Sonoma County is renowned for its rich agriculture and farm-to-table food. Luther Burbank considered Sonoma County “the chosen spot of all this earth as far as nature is concerned.” Go cycling through the rural roads or on the local trails, hike amongst the redwoods, paddle down the Russian River or head to the Pacific coast. Stay in luxurious accommodations, dine at a variety of international restaurants, shop in our specialty shops, grab a cup of coffee, a glass of wine or a beer, and catch a show.
Many of the early arrivals were Italians drawn to Sonoma County for its beauty and climate that was similar to the “old country”. They came to find jobs, work on the railroad and farm. The area around the Depot soon became known as “Little Italy”. Among the early settlers were 4 talented Italian stonemasons who were responsible for building the impressive basalt buildings that are now the architectural centerpieces of Railroad Square. The Hotel La Rose, the Western Hotel, and the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Depot were built between 1903 and 1907. The A’Roma Roasters building, formally the REA (Railway Express Agency building) was constructed around 1915.
Those were the golden years in Railroad Square because it was the agricultural hub of the County. At that time Sonoma County was the 11th in the nation for agricultural production and all the produce and goods grown passed through Santa Rosa by train. Canneries, packing houses and food processing plants bordered the rail yard and employed hundreds of Italian families who made their homes west of the tracks in the vibrant residential neighborhood now known as the West End Preservation District.
Buildings originally used as warehouses, canneries, macaroni factories, breweries and other rail supporting enterprises are now retrofitted as successful specialty shops, restaurants, and office space. The exposed brick walls and cement floors speak to an earlier time and add the special ambiance and historic character to the district.
Santa Rosa is a community that totally re-invented itself after the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake. More damage occurred in Santa Rosa, per capita, than in San Francisco. In Railroad Square, only 7 buildings survived the destruction, including the 1903 Train Depot, the Western Hotel and several brick warehouses. Rapidly rebuilding after the earthquake, businesses and buildings in Railroad Square were designed to serve the needs of the railroad community. Many hotels were built as well as drinking establishments, wholesale businesses, grocery stores and small factories. The population at the time was around 6000 (Santa Rosa boasts over 160,000 residents, 2009).
In the early 1900’s, more than 10 trains a day left the station traveling between San Francisco and Eureka. With the advent of highways and automobiles and the impacts of the Great Depression, rail use diminished and for many decades Railroad Square languished as a less than desirable area.
But over the years there has been a renaissance in Railroad Square, with new shops and restaurants opening and special events like The Great West End & Railroad Square Handcar Regatta & Exposition of Mechanical & Artistic Wonders that have brought new and exciting energy to this charming historic district. As well as the Railroad Square Music Festival, a free district-wide celebration of music and community that has entertained thousands for the last 5 years.
It took the efforts of determined volunteer business and property owners and the help of the City of Santa Rosa to maintain the architectural integrity of Railroad Square and to maintain the sense of place that Santa Rosa residents and visitors find so appealing. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad Train Depot was beautifully restored by the City and is now the Santa Rosa Convention and Visitors Bureau and the California Welcome Center. Even movie directors found Railroad Square compelling and several films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and most recently Cheaper by the Dozen with Steve Martin, were filmed around the Depot.
Rail Service Resumes
Railroad Square is excited to announce the return of the passenger train. Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) is a voter-approved passenger rail and bicycle-pedestrian pathway project connecting Marin and Sonoma counties, with the main Santa Rosa station located in Railroad Square. Many Marin residents taking advantage of this new transportation to come to Railroad Square for holiday shopping, weekend antiquing, and other fun activities. Ultimately SMART will serve a 70-mile corridor from Larkspur to Cloverdale, with a first phase from San Rafael to Santa Rosa and then on to Windsor by 2020.
Historic Highlights 1870-2020
1854: Santa Rosa became County Seat and incorporated in 1857, Population @ 400
1870: first train from Petaluma to Santa Rosa. Cost $300,000 and built by Chinese laborers. The SF-No. Pacific Railway, as it was called, was responsible for the future development of Sonoma County and brought the outside world to Santa Rosa
1872: first wood frame Depot was built for stationmaster and family who lived upstairs. Burned down in 1903 in a devastating fire.
1904: Depot rebuilt with basalt stones by Italian stonemasons. Took 6 months and cost $6700.00. Depot Park was also laid out at that time, purportedly with advice from Luther Burbank (Bunya- Bunya tree and palm planted and exist today)& Depot became the hub for all activity relating to shipping, freight, transportation, news, visitors and local commerce
1906: Devastating Earthquake. Depot and Western Hotel, 6th Street Playhouse and Carlile Macy buildings as well as New College/old flour mill were among the few survivors. 20 blocks of downtown Santa Rosa were destroyed. The earthquake has been described as “unplanned urban renewal” and the City rebounded rapidly. Population @ 6700.
1906: Chamber of Commerce was founded as booster group to promote Santa Rosa as a “plucky little town’ (re Gaye) as well as downplay the damage. More deaths / capita than in San Francisco.
1906-1915: time of rebuilding and growth as a vital commercial district. The former 1915 Cannery building, now just a skeleton of its former self, was the #5 cannery after #1 Ghirardelli. Around the turn of the century, the Mark McDonald Southern Pacific Railroad was established on North Street and the SR-Petaluma Electric Railroad’s Depot was located where Chevy’s is now.
1920’s: these were the Golden Years in RRSQ with thousands of passengers and freight arriving daily as Sonoma County became #8 in the nation in agricultural production. Many rail supporting enterprises sprung up in RRSQ.
1925: The iconic water tower was built.
1953: Grace Brothers Brewery closed along with its famous noon and 5 PM whistle.
1958: The great Depression, advent of the automobile and trucking put an end to rail service and the last passenger train stopped service. The Depot housed the railroad offices until 1982 when it was boarded up and thereafter Railroad Square became a haven for transients, neglected and boarded up buildings and with no overnight customers for the 3-4 hotels that were located around the tracks….
1970’s: Santa Rosa’s Civic Arts Commission, following the 1969 earthquake, took a look at what was called lower 4th or Old Town. Gaye LeBaron was on the committee and (rumor has it) coined the name Railroad Square. With help from a $5000 donation from Henry Trione, a funded study was done to envision what could be done to revitalize the run-down area. As a result of the initial study and with cooperation from the property and business owners and the City, Railroad Square started re-defining what the area could become and realized that the historic fabric was most important in the revitalization process.
1975: Railroad Square property and business owners joined together and formed the Historic Railroad Square Association, a 501©3 not-for-profit corporation. This entity allowed for a cohesive organization that would work with the City to revitalize the district. The mission of the Railroad Square Association is to save, preserve and promote the historic district. The Association remains an all-volunteer organization, dependent on membership dues and donations.
1979: The Association and the City applied for and received a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, an honor reflecting the most concentrated grouping of stone buildings in Sonoma County. Out of the total of 35 structures, 18 were designated architecturally significant, but the 4 basalt buildings (Depot, REA (A’Romas) building, Hotel La Rose and Western Hotel, as well as Depot Park, were singled out as the most significant. The historic district encompasses south to 3rd St, west to the creek and north to 6th Street, then south to 5th Street at Wilson to 5th Street and east to the freeway.
1980’s: The City and HRRSQA worked together on a zoning document known as “The Railroad Square Plan” which guided development and historic restoration efforts until supplanted by the Downtown Station Area Plan in 2007. The RRSQ Plan followed the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines. An enormous benefit to property owners at that time was the availability of tax credits for restoration work done and that greatly contributed to the revitalization of the district.
1992: A Renaissance was beginning. The City designated Railroad Square as one of the first Preservation Districts added another layer of historic protection.
1993: City purchased the Depot and started plans to restore the abandoned building. Story goes that it was in such horrible shape that the City had to call in a hazmat crew to fumigate before any contractor would go in to bid on the job.
1996: The Depot was restored, taking great care to follow the guidelines. In 1999, after a $700,000 project, the Depot opened as the Santa Rosa Visitors Center and later one of 11 California Welcome Centers in the state.
2000: Following the death of Charles Schulz, Santa Rosa’s hometown hero, the worldwide & community raised funds to install a one of a kind bronze statue of Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Although Schulz approved the location in Railroad Square, what he did not know was that the artist added a rose held by Snoopy as a tribute to the creative cartoonist.
2000: After years of neglect, the water tower was restored by the property and business owners with help from City Vision. Completing this project was a real morale boost to the district. The water tower was finally taken down because of underground-contaminated& tank that had to be removed. (But it will rise again!)
2002: The long-awaited Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel and Conference Center was completed, adding the third hotel (Courtyard by Marriott and Hotel La Rose) to the district.
2006: City Vision, a downtown revitalization non-profit spearheaded the development of the vacant land west of the tracks with a proposal for the Sonoma County Food & Wine Center, a project that would be part of a larger mixed-use housing and retail development. This project was to include the Santa Rosa Junior College Culinary School, but the recession put a stop to the plans. The developers backed out of the project and the land is currently neglected and an eyesore. There are eventual plans to develop the property with the same concept. SMART has not yet signed a contract with a new developer.
SMART: Finally!The Railroad Square Association continues to work to promote and enhance the historic district with the goal of preserving the historic sense of place (real, comfortable, charming and human scale) and creates a commercial vitality that defined the area over 100 years ago!
1870: first train arrives
1906: Earthquake – unplanned urban renewal
1920’s: for all Sonoma County with thousands of passengers and freight coming and going
1970’s: Civic Arts Committee study with forward thinkers like Alan Milner
1970’s: The building of the freeway that cut RRSQ off from downtown ultimately saved it from the transgressions of ‘urban renewal’ and the modernist forces that tore down much of history including the old courthouse… NOT joining the Downtown Development Association enforced our independent spirit
1975: formation of the Historic Railroad Square Association to save, preserve and promote the historic district as an all-volunteer non-profit organization
1979: listing on the National Register of Historic Places, key to preserving the area.
1980: zoning ordinance the Railroad Square Plan to direct development and restoration of the district and City enforcement of the 9820-earthquake ordinance forced upgrades in the district. Federal Tax Credits in the 1980’s provided investment incentives (Investment Tax Credits)
1996: restoration of the Depot and the Santa Rosa Visitors Center to RRSQ
2000: restoration of the iconic Water Tower
2001: Charlie Brown and Snoopy bronze tribute statues installed in RRSQ at request of Charles Schulz and family after his death in 2000.
2002: Hyatt Vineyard Creek and Conference Center opens.
2006: City Vision and Sonoma County Food & Wine Center proposal to develop rail property on west side of tracks. Remediation of the toxic soils on rail property
2009: SMART funded by a joint Sonoma Marin county tax for a 72 mile commute and excursion train between both counties.
2017:147 years later – commute rail starts up in June!
2019: Hyatt Vineyard Creek adds 90+ rooms
2020: AC Marriott Hotel, corner of 4th and Davis Streets, opens with 114 rooms
Compiled from memory by Dee Richardson, 2017
*Dates may not be totally accurate*