Tom Butt for Richmond City Council The Tom Butt E-Forum About Tom Butt Platform Endorsements of Richmond Councilmember Tom Butt Accomplishments Contribute to Tom Butt for Richmond City Council Contact Tom Butt Tom Butt Archives
E-Mail Forum
Community Outrage Grows Over Proposal To Remove Historic Wigwags
January 27, 2002
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.

Wigwag War
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 grandfather clock.

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 freight.

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 bells.

"Point Richmond is one of the few places in the area with a shared community and a shared personality," said David Dolberg, a neighborhood resident.

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 heritage."

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 Monday.

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 1920.

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 rdelvecchio@sfchronicle.com .

West County Times, January 25, 2002
Residents fear it's last call for wigwags
Point Richmond officials say historic train signals are ineffective and dangerous

Burlington Northern Santa Fe: www.bnsf.com

Point Richmond Online: www.pointrichmond.com

Wigwag information: www.trainweb.org/dansrailpix

By Peter Felsenfeld


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 self-definition.

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 gates.

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 clang.

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 alone.

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 Monday afternoon.

"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 pfelsenfeld@cctimes.com .