Haystack, or Haystack Landing, is just south of Petaluma. Despite its humble name, it was once an important transportation hub. Getting from San Francisco to Petaluma in the 1850s required crossing the bay and traveling 18 miles up the Petaluma River.

Navigating was tricky; with all the river’s twists and turns, the pilot had to make about eighty course changes. Early on, canals were dug as shortcuts between the channel’s nearly circular meanders.

In the 1850s, John Rudesill bought property downstream from the most convoluted stretch. His place, complete with a wharf and connecting stage service to points north, was briefly called Rudesill’s Landing. After the property changed hands, it was renamed “Haystack.”

Around the same time, “Ferryboat King” Charles Minturn launched steamboat service to Petaluma. The owner of steamers connecting San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento, he had a vision of knitting together ferries and trains into a transportation system.

Thus Sonoma County’s first railroad, the Petaluma & Haystack Railroad, was born in 1864. Passengers boarded the train in Petaluma, rode two miles to Haystack, and caught the steamer for San Francisco.

Two years later, disaster struck. The engineer let the boiler pressure get too high and the locomotive blew up, killing four people. In the aftermath, the P&H converted to a less explosive power source. Mules pulled the train for nine years until the railway shut down altogether.

Why “Haystack?” Tracing the name’s origin is as hard as, well . . . finding a needle in one. Possibly it referred to the hay regularly shipped from there. For many years, the North Bay served as the Bay Area’s Middle East, supplying fuel for horse-drawn transportation. And out on those wide tidal flats, even a haystack can serve as a landmark; something for a pilot to steer by.

Arthur Dawson is a Glen Ellen-based historical ecologist and author of “The Stories Behind Sonoma Valley Place Names.” You can reach him at baseline@vom.com.


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