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From a Wig-Wag to a Bank

Iconic wigwags survive after 80 years under Point Richmond's watchful eye

By Katherine Tam
West County Times

Updated: 12/28/2008 05:07:00 PM PST

To the casual observer, the black-and-white-striped stumps with the funky vertical mast at one of Point Richmond's main entrances are puzzling.

But neighborhood residents and history buffs know the story. In fact, they turned out in droves to save the iconic duo synonymous with Point Richmond and they say that if they have to they'll do it again.

The wigwags, as they are formally called, date to the 1920s when Richmond was the western terminus for the Santa Fe Railroad and cargo was transported from train to ferry at the shore destined for San Francisco. It marks where the railroad crossed Richmond's first street.

"If you had to pick a place for the beginning of Richmond, it would be right there," said Councilman Tom Butt, who lives in the Point.

The wigwags' vertical arms rock back and forth to alert pedestrians and drivers when a train approaches the Richmond Avenue intersection. A red light flashes, and a clanging noise sounds.

Wigwags were a common train-crossing signal back then but gradually were replaced with modern crossing arms at railroad intersections across the country. Within the past decade, wigwags in Martinez, Pittsburg, Emeryville and Oakland were removed or, in one case, knocked over by a truck.

Point Richmond's pair is among the handful still standing in Northern California, and believed to be the last ones intact and in place in the Bay Area.

Locals in this proud historic neighborhood are fiercely protective of what defines their hamlet. They raised more than $210,000 to help the city rehabilitate the 82-year-old indoor swimming pool nicknamed "The Plunge," the largest and oldest such facility in the Bay Area. When the cargo ship Cosco Busan struck the Bay Bridge last year and spilled more than 50,000 gallons of oil, they helped federal and state officials gain access to the shore, helped survey the shore and volunteered for cleanup.

The wigwags are no different. At deWitt Gallery and Framing a block away, the "beloved wigwags" grace cards for sale near the door. Gallery owner Jim deWitt has created at least three paintings of the antique crossing signals.

"That's Point Richmond," DeWitt said as he perused the pieces.

"Their whimsical, they're a unique thing. It's a piece of history," said Marsha Tomassi, who has lived in the Point since 1982. So when the notion of removing the iconic wigwags surfaced in 2002, locals mobilized.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe sought to replace the wigwags with modern crossing arms that railroad officials argued are safer. The wigwags would be relocated nearby for display or to a museum, they said.

Point Richmond residents wanted the 80-year-old devices to stay exactly where they were. To them, the railroad's assertion that wigwags pose a safety hazard didn't pass muster. After all, as former Mayor Rosemary Corbin argued, trains move through the Point at no more than 5 mph, and cars have never collided with a train there.

Fliers supporting the wigwags were posted around town, and rallies were held. DeWitt created special, enhanced prints of his 1993 painting "Wigwags in Point Richmond," selling 21 and donating $560 in proceeds to the Wigwag Legal Defense Fund, his daughter Pam said.

Tomassi bought one of the prints, which still hangs near the entryway in her home.

The City Council declared the wigwags a local historic landmark and urged the California Public Utilities Commission to save them. In 2003, an administrative law judge for the commission backed the city and ordered the wigwags to stay. The railroad successfully appealed.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe also took the matter to court and won, a decision the city appealed, Butt said. In 2004, the parties reached a settlement in which the railroad company agreed to install new railroad gates but leave the wigwags in place. The wigwags would not be operational, except on special occasions.

In addition, Burlington Northern Santa Fe agreed to sell to the city for less than market value an adjacent piece of vacant land, where a fast-food chain restaurant was rumored to be built, Butt said. The land sale paved the way for the city to move the old Santa Fe railway building, which was renovated into a home for Mechanics Bank in 2007.

"Something seemingly so insignificant and small can sort of ignite a chain of events that really changed the face of Point Richmond," Butt said. "Without those wigwags, it wouldn't have happened."