Following the tracks of History

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Through out the world there are little signs of forgotten life- a barn that is slowly returning to the earth, a shard of pottery washed clean on the banks of a river, orchards that have been swallowed up by forests… They are countless and lost, until someone stumbles upon something that makes them wonder what came before… Sometimes these bits are so decrepit or over grown that we may wander through them without ever realizing that there is anything out of the ordinary, that they are something from outside of nature.

Once upon a time a train ran near where I live. It was a small train, built mostly to haul lumber, produce, and dairy. It also gave passage to a small but steady stream of passengers. It took many years to build, slowly stretching its way farther and farther north, connecting, the shores across from the young, teeming city of San Francisco with the lightly settled hills and forests that supplied it with its country needs. Not many years after it was finished being built however the automobile gained steam, roads were built more quickly and easily, and the need for the train began to fade away. The engines were sold, and the tracks taken up for other projects.

One thing was not erased however- the bed that they built up and carved away that the tracks might run straight and level. We have many classic and picturesque barns out here where I live, but it is the bed of these tracks that calls to me. I’ll be driving along, or hiking through a field near where the trains used to run, and I will spy something about the shape of the land, that cries out to me that it is not quite natural, and I will inspect a little more closely, and I will realize that I have found another stretch of the narrow gauge railroads bed. I’ll follow it a ways, until it is lost to erosion or is too choked up by poison oak for me to risk passage. The signs are there however, if I only remember to look for them.

What are your favorite finds of forgotten history? A barn? A few fence posts standing alone on a hillside, without sheep or wire to give them purpose anymore? Perhaps you too have a train, that is merely a ghost now… There is a small bridge near where I live, that can only be seen during drought years, when the waters of a local reservoir fall far enough, hinting at the course where the road used to run… Where do you see history?

Straight and raised well above high tide, is the berm that was built for the train to run along

1930 saw the end of this era in western Marin and Sonoma counties, when the railroad running through this rural area was dismantled. Allowing timber and tourists alike to travel between Sausalito and the Russian River, little remains to hint at its path, except some buildings in the towns along its route, and the names of places like Point Reyes Station. Some of the towns have even disappeared. If a person feels inclined to drive along the east shore of Tomales Bay however, there are a few subtle clues as to what once was. Some of the shoreline is mounded high above the water, and it appears unnaturally straight and level. This “levy” is the bed of the old narrow gauge railroad. It’s easy to spot, once you look for it. Just pick a turnout between Point Reyes and Tomales, almost any of them, and have a look. Then imagine yourself chugging along through the placid waters of yesteryear.

In some places some of the old timbers from short stretches of bridge are still visible, where the train had to cross tidal sloughs and creeks

How marvelous it would have been to ride this train that ran along the water's edge. Straight and true, without the curves of the modern road, it would have been much easier on those that get car sick

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
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4 Responses to Following the tracks of History

  1. Donna says:

    The photo of the berm is stunning.

  2. Pat Bean says:

    Your blog earned my Bean’s Pat on my blog today.

  3. From Moments to Memories says:

    Beautiful as usual! I am partial to barns and abandoned buildings myself!

  4. Haunting and lovely. This is my home turf, too, grew up in Marin & now live in SF. I really appreciate the poetry of abandoned places, and find it fascinating how nature reclaims the areas after most human traces have disappeared.

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