Following are articles that appeared in the
January 25 West County Times and the January 26 San Francisco Chronicle
about saving the 80-year old railroad wig wags framing the entrance to
the Point Richmond Historic District These wig wags also were featured
on Channel 4 Friday night.
Hundreds of Richmond residents are expected to attend the rally at 12:30
PM Monday, January 28, near the wig wags at the Richmond Avenue grade
crossing. The Richmond City Council has already passed a resolution
supporting retention of the wig wags. I hope that you will be able to
attend the rally Monday to lend your support and to gauge the strength
of community support for saving these historic wig wags.
Point Richmond residents fight to save artifacts from the low-tech era
San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 2002
Rick DelVecchio, Chronicle Staff Writer
You may have seen them in a museum or an old movie: the antique
mechanical flagmen whose rocking heads warn motorists to stop at
railroad crossings, their bells clanging with the unhurried rhythm of a
They're wigwags, relics from the age of the Model T that have become an
endangered species, with only 100 sets left in the United States and
only two in the Bay Area, railroad buffs say.
One of them has become the object of a tug-of-war in the historic East
Bay community of Point Richmond, where residents are fighting to save
their treasured antiques from a safety upgrade by the Burlington
Northern Santa Fe Railway.
The silver-painted wigwags, one of 38 such sets of signals left at
California's 7,700 grade crossings -- including one in Pittsburg -- sit
squat atop pedestals on Richmond Avenue. They go off all day and night
-- each time a locomotive from the railroad's nearby storage yard is
about to enter the crossing as it assembles a string of eastbound
Some residents say the wigwags should be saved because they are
artifacts in a historic setting and the crossing is safe, with the
trains typically moving through at very slow speeds. They are urging the
city to stop the railroad from replacing them with crossing gates and
"Point Richmond is one of the few places in the area with a shared
community and a shared personality," said David Dolberg, a neighborhood
Point Richmond's small, well-worn commercial district is full of
mom-and- pop stores and historic buildings like the Richmond Plunge, and
the wigwags are of the same era and spirit, Dolberg said. He argued that
the wigwags are significant because they mark the spot where the
Industrial Revolution ended at the Pacific Ocean.
Cycling at a loping pace, like a breath or a stride, the wigwags recall
a quieter, slower time. To Dolberg, their spacious, gonglike tones are
plaintive and soothing -- "like the lowing of a cow."
The wigwag war has been going on for years, and the railroad considered
it settled three years ago when it received a decision from the
California Public Utilities Commission that the crossing should be
equipped with gates.
The city of Richmond had participated in a study of the crossing with
the railroad and the commission, but then residents rose up and called
for the wigwags' protection.
On Tuesday night, the City Council will take up a proposal from the
Richmond Library/Museum for a resolution placing a moratorium on the
demolition of the wigwags and the installation of crossing gates.
"They want to see if the wigwags can be listed on the city's register of
historic sites," said Angela Jones, a city spokeswoman. That would be a
first step toward federal historic protection.
"The wigwag is something that's unique to the character of Point
Richmond and therefore the city of Richmond," she said. "Given the fact
that the railroad believes the crossing needs to be upgraded, we need to
take that into consideration, but the city has a right to protect its
Jones added, however, that safety is an ''equal, if not greater,
consideration" in the debate.
Meanwhile, the railroad has temporarily halted work on the $250,000
crossing upgrade and has scheduled a meeting with city officials next
week. And wigwag crusaders plan a demonstration at the crossing on
Federal records show that five accidents have occurred at the crossing
since 1977, the latest in 1996 involving a pedestrian. No one was
injured in any of the accidents, and vehicle damage totaled $4,600.
Dolberg said the record of no serious accidents indicates that the
crossing is not unsafe and that the wigwags are adequate warning
devices. The speed of trains through the crossing has slowed over the
years, and Dolberg said speed bumps or stop signs could be added to
improve safety without affecting the wigwags.
But railroad experts at the California State Railroad Museum said there
is a good case to replace the wigwags.
"It's a neat little crossing installation, but it's no longer state of
the art," said Richard Noonan, assistant general manager for the
museum's excursion railroad. He added that the latest crossing safety
technology involves research into gates equipped with cargo nets to snag
oblivious or impatient motorists.
The railroad maintains that the authority it must obey is not the city
but the state commission, which regulates rail crossing safety and urges
railroad owners to keep pace with technology. In a June 2000 letter to
then-Mayor Rosemary Corbin, the commission said replacing the wigwags
"appears to clearly be in the best interests of safety."
A month later, a railroad executive wrote Corbin offering to donate the
artifacts to the city.
"We've said all along that when this wigwag comes out we'll donate it to
the city so people from all over can see it in a safe environment," said
railroad spokeswoman Lena Kent.
Dolberg retorted: "It's sort of like the Taliban saying, 'We've got an
American soldier, we're going to execute him and send his body home.' "
Kent said the Richmond wigwags will slowly run down and die because
spare parts are impossible to find. But Dolberg said the motorless
devices are simple and there are plenty of railroad buffs around with
the expertise to keep them in working order.
Wigwags were first developed in Southern California in 1907 to replace
human flagmen. Credited to Albert C. Hunt, an inventor hired by the
Pacific Electric Railway, they became commonplace, especially in the
West, and appeared frequently in the background of early Hollywood
movies made on location. The most recent were installed in 1940.
Point Richmond's wigwags are of a fairly rare variety, each with a flat
plate of a head on top an armature that swings between electromagnets.
According to one trade magazine article, this model was outdated in
But Dolberg hopes the wigwags' familiar gong will echo against the
nearby hills for decades to come.
On a still night, he said, "it's like comfort food for the ears."
E-mail Rick DelVecchio at
West County Times, January 25, 2002
Residents fear it's last call for wigwags
Point Richmond officials say historic train signals are ineffective and
Burlington Northern Santa Fe: www.bnsf.com
Point Richmond Online:
By Peter Felsenfeld
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
RICHMOND -- After ignoring the bucolic neighborhood for decades, the
inevitable claw of progress has grasped Point Richmond and placed its
residents under siege.
Neighbors grudgingly accepted their fate last year when Starbucks leased
property and began building the hamlet's first chain store; that was bad
enough. But locals aren't about to let anybody mess with their wigwags.
The two unique train crossing signals, which border the area's
historical district, have become an emblem of community pride and
The landmarks hearken to the early 20th century, when Richmond served as
the western terminus for the Santa Fe Railroad and cargo was transported
from train to ferry at the point's shores and shipped to San Francisco.
In the Bay Area, only Pittsburg still boasts an antique, working wigwag.
The warning devices can also be found in Santa Cruz, Ukiah and Eureka.
The state Public Utilities Commission has deemed Richmond's wigwags
antiquated and ineffective warning devices, and the Burlington Northern
Santa Fe Railroad intends to replace them with modern automatic crossing
Residents argue trains rarely travel more than 5 mph through Point
Richmond, no one has ever been injured, and the old signals are
essential to the neighborhood's character.
"It's enough to make you want to pull your hair out," said former
Richmond Mayor Rosemary Corbin, a Point Richmond resident. "Trains just
poke through here and so does the traffic. Those new gates aren't wanted
or needed; why don't they just leave Point Richmond alone?"
The squat, onomatopoeically named devices were installed in the 1920s to
warn pedestrians and cars of oncoming trains with an arm that rocks back
and forth like an old-fashioned metronome and a horn that sounds a muted
The wigwag foundations form black-and-white-striped oval medians on each
side of the railroad tracks outside The Plunge swimming pool.
Having been notified of the impending changes, the City Council adopted
a resolution two years ago urging the railroad to leave the wigwags
The issue seemed to fade until Richmond's public services director, Rich
McCoy, learned last week that the railroad was starting construction.
McCoy issued a stop-work order Jan. 19, claiming the company required
city permission to proceed. But Thursday afternoon, a construction crew
-- guarded by a railroad-hired security guard -- was busy laying cables
under Railroad Avenue and preparing to install the automatic arms.
Lena Kent, a railroad spokeswoman, said the community was
underestimating the risks inherent in slow-moving trains and aging
warning equipment. A recent Federal Railroad Administration report
stated there were 200 crashes nationally last year involving trains
traveling between 2 mph and 9 mph, Kent said.
In addition, the railroad plans to donate the wigwags to the community
for public display, Kent said.
"We would like to put them in a museum so everyone can enjoy them
safely," Kent said. "We feel the wigwags are at an end of their useful
working life, and it's very hard to find parts for them."
However, Point Richmond residents have vowed to fight against the forced
retirement of their symbol, even threatening civil disobedience.
Locals have hired lawyers to explore incorporating the wigwags in the
area's protected historical district, and a rally has been scheduled for
"We don't want the dead carcass of the wigwags; we want them in place
and operating," said resident David Dolberg. "When you hear those
wigwags sounding, it sounds like home."
Peter Felsenfeld covers Richmond. Reach him at 510-262-2725 or