The Speeders of August

Speeders in Santa Rosa, 2007

Speeders in Santa Rosa, 2007

Ten years ago, my wife Mary and I spent an enjoyable afternoon traveling on a short stretch of what at that time was the disused North Western Pacific Railroad line in Santa Rosa. The small “Speeder” in which we rode the rails is the dark green vehicle shown in the photo above.

At that time, a group of enthusiasts used to bring their rail speeders to Santa Rosa annually, to ride the derelict line one day per year. The event took place at Santa Rosa’s North Western Pacific Railroad Depot, which, amazingly, has survived from its construction in 1904 (just before the major earthquake of 1906) to this day, as shown below.

Santa Rosa NWP Depot, 2007

Santa Rosa NWP Depot, 2007

The depot building also featured in the 1943 Alfred Hitchcock movie Shadow of a Doubt, which I described in a previous post.

Although the last regular passenger service on the line ended in 1958, freight service continued after that, and the counties bought the track and right-of-way during the 1990s (via the North Coast Railroad Authority). In contrast to the fate of many railway lines abandoned and lost forever as part of the “Beeching Cuts” in Britain, this fortunate act saved the railroad’s right-of-way for its modern renaissance.

That day in 2007, the Speeder owners were offering free rides to the public, so Mary and I hopped aboard. As shown in the picture above, we chose a green Speeder that had custom bodywork to make it resemble a San Francisco cable car. Given that the Speeders have only 4 wheels, the ride is quite bumpy, but it was a fun experience, and one that we will never get the opportunity to try again, at least on that line.

Below is a short video viewed from the Speeder as we were riding in it:

Railroad Renaissance

The good news is that this line is no longer disused, because it now forms part of the SMART line from San Rafael to Santa Rosa Airport. Test trains are already running on the line, and full passenger service is expected to start some time this summer.

The bad news about that is that, because the line is now occupied, we’ll never again be able to ride a Speeder on it as we did ten years ago!

Moggies Cartoon: Independence Day

Moggies: Independence Day

Moggies: Independence Day

This was the first “Moggies” cartoon that I created for display at the Sonoma County Fair. It seems like an appropriate time of year to post this episode!

I already posted the other two Moggies cartoons (Pure Water and Royal Blood). As you’ll have noticed, this first example was not in color. When I began producing comic illustrations about 30 years ago (long before this cartoon, of course), monochrome artwork was still very common, due to limitations of the printing processes. Now, however, there’s rarely a need to print only in monochrome, even in newspapers.


Sunsets & Air Pollution


Sunset from Oliver's Mount, Scarborough, July 1977

Sunset from Oliver’s Mount, Scarborough, July 1977

I took the sunset photograph above from the summit of Oliver’s Mount, Scarborough, at 8.45pm on Saturday, 16th July 1977. I know those details because they happen to be in a notebook that I still have. The image now forms the header for my professional blog.

The photograph has an unusual “oil painting like” appearance, with muted and brownish tones. This has led some to suggest that perhaps I “photoshopped” the original image to achieve that effect. That’s not the case; this is a scan of the color transparency exactly as it came out of the camera. As I’ll explain below, I believe that some of the extraordinary weather effects that I photographed in those days were actually caused by air pollution.

Wine Country Sunsets

I was prompted to think once again about my old sunset photographs by last night’s sunset here in Santa Rosa. We had had a very hot day, but there was a breeze, and sufficient clouds around to provide some spectacular effects at sunset, as shown below.

Sunset Clouds, Santa Rosa, June 2017

Sunset Clouds, Santa Rosa, June 2017

While nobody would dispute the claim that California’s weather is generally pleasanter than Britain’s, one problem with that is the lack of visual weather effects in California. As someone once put it, “We don’t have weather in California”.

I suspect also that another problem is that the air in California now is much cleaner than it was in Britain in the 1970s, and dirty air makes for spectacular sunsets! The fact that I was able to photograph so many interesting sunsets from Oliver’s Mount was thanks to a combination of Britain’s weather and the mount’s location.

Pilgrimages to Oliver’s Mount

Oliver’s Mount is so called because of a legend that, during the English Civil War in the 1640s, Oliver Cromwell situated cannon on the mount to bombard Scarborough Castle, which was in Royalist hands. This seems highly unlikely, because the cannon of the time did not have sufficient range to fire over such distances, and were far too inaccurate to have hit the castle with any certainty. In any case, there’s no evidence that Cromwell ever visited Scarborough during the Civil War.

When we lived in West Street, Scarborough, during the 1970s, Oliver’s Mount was only about a mile from our house. Although there’s a road to the top of the mount, I discovered that I could reach the summit much more quickly by climbing up directly through the woodland on the hillside. As a result, I visited the war memorial on the summit quite regularly, particularly during the summer. Any air pollution outdoors was definitely healthier than the level indoors, created by my chain-smoking father!

The view to the North-East from the top of the mount looks over Scarborough’s South Bay and Castle headland, and my father and I both photographed that view several times over the years. The image below shows the lights having just come on at sunset, in August 1977.

Scarborough Sunset, August 1977

Scarborough Sunset from Oliver’s Mount, August 1977

The view westwards from the same spot looked inland, towards the Pennines, and the conurbations of West Yorkshire and Manchester. The air in those industrial areas was of poor quality at the time, with much coal burning still occurring, and many chemical works still belching out their waste. I suspect that the low sun shining through all that dirty air was what created some of the spectacular refraction effects that I saw during those sunsets some 40 years ago.

I’ll be exhibiting some of the other “Oliver’s Mount Sunset” photos in future blog posts.

New World Birds & Old World Birds

Old World Dove Meets New World Dove

Old World Dove Meets New World Dove

The image above is actually a combination of two separate photographs taken within a few seconds, because the birds involved wouldn’t oblige by moving closer to each other! What’s remarkable about the image is that it shows, in the same location, an Old World dove alongside its nearest New World equivalent. It’s an extremely unusual example of two such species being in the same place at the same time.

One of the inconveniencies of emigrating to a new continent, as I did about 30 years ago, was that I discovered that my knowledge of natural history had suddenly become inadequate, and at least partially irrelevant.

Start Learning All Over Again!

Growing up, I’d learned to recognize and name most British bird species, but now I found myself faced with an complete new set of bird species, almost none of which were the same as those that had become familiar to me in the “old country”.

I noticed quite quickly that there were many cases where a particular ecological niche that was occupied by one species in Britain was occupied by a different species in California (a type of Convergent Evolution). Sometimes, the two species are closely related and even look very similar, but there are other cases where the relationship is more distant and the species obviously differ in appearance.

In the photo above, on the left is an Old World Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto), while on the right is an American Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura). Although they are different species, their behavior and lifestyle are highly reminiscent of each other. Their calls even sound very similar.

In many cases, the reason for the presence of the Old World species in the New World is because of deliberate or accidental introduction of the Old World species by humans. This explains the presence of Eurasian Collared Doves in North America; about 50 of them escaped from captivity in the Bahamas in 1974, then jumped to Florida, and from there across the rest of the continent.

There are many other examples of species that are either closely related or which occupy the same ecological niche. For example, in California the Brewers Blackbird occupies the same niche as the Eurasian Starling (although, since I moved to California 30 years ago, Starlings have invaded and partially displaced the Brewers Blackbird–but I didn’t bring them with me, honestly!), the American Coot is very similar to the Eurasian Coot, and the American Great Blue Heron is similar to the Eurasian/African Grey Heron.


Great Blue Heron in the Napa River

Early Confusion

In fact, I should already have been warned of this problem before I was five years old! My grandparents bought me an American picture book called Bunny Hopwell’s First Spring (which is not only still available, but also now in a Kindle version!). It was quite common for them to buy me American books because those were often on sale at “remaindered” prices at our local supermarket.

At one point in the Bunny Hopwell book, there was a picture that claimed to depict a conversation between a rabbit and a “robin”. Now, Robins were a common sight in our large back garden, so I immediately objected that the image “looked nothing like a robin”. My grandfather had to explain to me that this was a picture of an American Robin, which indeed did not look like our local robins. Apart from the fact that they’re both birds, the only other common feature of the two species is that they have red breasts (which is why the American species was so called).

American Robin

American Robin

I was most disgusted by the book’s apparent inaccuracy, and wondered why Americans couldn’t figure out what a robin looked like. (My pedantry does seem a little misplaced, though, since I was willing to accept the idea of animals and birds talking to each other without complaint!)

While visiting England in 2012, I was able to photograph a robin in a field near Brockley Hill, London. The photograph, shown below, eventually formed the basis for our Christmas card design that year.


Eurasian Robin at Brockley Hill, London

Even more potentially confusing is that, while the American Robin is not closely related to the Eurasian Robin, it is very closely related to the Eurasian Blackbird. Growing up in England, the constant song of Blackbirds, interspersed with their chink-chink-chink alarm calls, was a familiar sound. The calls of American Robins are almost indistinguishably similar.

Sometimes They Are The Same

Having said all that, there are some cases where the same species does occur naturally in the Old World and the New World, or at least where any human introduction of the species into an environment is lost in the mists of prehistory.

A good example of this is the Barn Owl (Tyto alba). The same species occurs all over the world, although there are differing subspecies on different continents.

When I came to design the logo for my professional web site and my fledgling publishing business (“if you’ll pardon the pun”), I decided to include owls as part of the design, and not just any owls, but specifically barn owls. I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but the choice of a species with worldwide presence now seems appropriate!


Teklibri Owl Logo

Santa Rosa: Shadow of a Courthouse

The Reunified Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa

The Reunified Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa

Yesterday, I was in downtown Santa Rosa, and visited Old Courthouse Square, for the first time since the completion of its “reunification”. Despite controversy over the cost of the project, the result seems to have been successful, as shown above. The new space seems much more open and welcoming than the previous divided “parks”, and more effectively isolates pedestrians and other park users from the traffic. Santa Rosa has had an unfortunate history of short-sighted town planning decisions, so let’s hope that this turns out to be one of the better ones.

This part of Santa Rosa is perhaps most famous for having featured prominently in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 movie Shadow of a Doubt. Thanks to its restricted wartime budget, the movie made extensive use of real locations in Santa Rosa instead of studio sets. The result is a unique glimpse into day-to-day life in the city all that time ago.

The still below from the movie shows the exterior of the Til Two Bar, which would have been on the far left in my photo above.


Shadow of a Doubt: The Til Two Bar, Santa Rosa

In the background of the movie still, you can see the Empire Building (then known as the Bank of America Building), which exists today and is prominent in my photo.

The central courthouse building that appeared in the movie was demolished during the 1960s, but in my heading photo above, the cruciform area of grass marks the plan of its predecessor, the original City courthouse, which collapsed in the 1906 earthquake. After the replacement courthouse was demolished, the square was split by a road driven through to connect Sonoma Avenue to Mendocino Avenue, but which turned out not to have been a wise decision.

My next photo, below, shows a close-up of one of the monuments that have just been placed around the grassed area in the square. They look great at the moment, but I wonder how well they will withstand the weather and the vandals?

Luther Burbank Monument, Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa

Luther Burbank Monument, Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa

From the north side of the square, looking down Mendocino Avenue, the Rosenberg Building is still prominent, as shown below. This used to be the location of Santa Rosa’s Woolworths store, and is still a retail location now.


The Rosenberg Building, Mendocino Avenue, Santa Rosa

Finally, wandering a bit farther down Fourth Street, the former Rosenberg’s Department Store is occupied by Barnes & Noble, as shown below. Santa Rosa made another bad town planning decision when they approved the building’s demolition in 1994, but, fortunately, instead of demolishing it, the bookseller did an amazing job of restoring this Streamline Moderne (Art Deco) building.


Rosenberg’s Department Store, now Barnes & Noble, Santa Rosa

P.S. June 7th: this new article in the Bohemian provides more details of the square.

The Balloons Come Down

Balloons in the Park

Balloons in the Park

We’re accustomed to seeing hot-air balloons passing over our house, but they usually don’t land next to it! This morning, just as I was getting dressed, two balloons came down, presumably due to an emergency. These photos were taken from our bedroom window.

The first balloon to land was the one on the right, which touched down on the empty lot on the other side of Sebastopol Road. The second one then followed it and landed in the church parking lot.

The operators then deflated both balloons and brought up their trucks to cart away the hardware. Unfortunately, the deflated balloon is obscured by the tree below.

Deflated balloon in the Park

Deflated balloon in the Park

Needless to say, our cats were intrigued by the unusual sounds. As shown below, Ginger was “on patrol” by the bedroom window, in case his help was needed.

Ginger on Balloon Patrol

Ginger on Balloon Patrol

Stopping by at Melitta Station


Wisterias blooming at Melitta Station

Wisterias blooming at Melitta Station

This weekend, I stopped by briefly at Melitta Station, which is a quiet and pretty location by the side of Santa Rosa Creek, to the east of Santa Rosa. If I’d been hoping to catch a train from the station, I’d have had a long wait, because there haven’t been any trains through here since the 1930s. Over a hundred years ago, this was a busy railroad depot, with sufficient population to warrant its own Post Office.

Even among those who live in California, there is a tendency to assume that any non-English “European-sounding” name must be of Spanish origin. However, in the Santa Rosa area there was a significant settlement of Italian migrants, and Melitta is a name of Italian origin.

The Southern Pacific Railroad built a branch from Napa Junction to Santa Rosa through here in 1888. There were significant stone quarries on the South side of Santa Rosa Creek, so a railroad depot was established to transport stone from these quarries. A tramway ran from the quarries down to the railroad depot. Basalt paving stones were sent from here all over California, covering many streets in San Francisco.

Eventually, the quarries were worked out, and in 1934 the Southern Pacific abandoned the railroad. The rails were lifted in 1942 and taken to Oakland for reuse in the docks. Melitta declined to the point that the Post Office and store closed, and all that’s really left of the settlement now is the Melitta Station Inn, which now offers Bed & Breakfast. The owners are apparently British, so they presumably know something about converted railway stations and English breakfasts!

Melitta Station Inn

Melitta Station Inn

In the photo above, looking West, the railroad trackbed was to the left (now Montgomery Drive), and Melita Road is on the right. (The name of the road has a different spelling.) Melitta Station Inn sits in the fork of the junction. However, the railroad always stayed on the opposite side of the creek, so it did not cross the creek or Melita Road, as the modern alignment suggests.

Santa Rosa Creek at Melitta Station

Santa Rosa Creek at Melitta Station

Had the Sonoma Freeway ever been built, this junction would have changed beyond recognition, because the freeway was planned to rejoin the existing Highway 12 near this point. It seems now that all plans to construct that freeway have been abandoned, so Melitta Station looks set to continue its tranquil existence.