Railroad Square is the historic heart of the downtown and is Santa Rosa’s “Old Town”. Railroad Square was honored with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 because of its preservation efforts for restoring and preserving the significant architectural buildings that represent the influence the railroad had on a community. When the first trains arrived in Railroad Square in the late 1870’s, the focus of the town turned to the hustle and bustle around the Depot.
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.
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).
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 know as the West End Preservation District.
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.
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.
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
Passenger and freight trains have not traveled the rails for many years, but with a voter approved sales tax measure passed in 2009, commuter and freight trains will once again ride the rails in the near future. The vacant land across the tracks will be filled with housing, restaurants, retail and a Food and Wine Center that will showcase local Sonoma County growers and farmers.
Santa Rosa is central to a wide variety of world renown destinations. See the extensive listing on the Attractions page.