FAIRFIELD — Adam Webber is a man on the move and the bike-and-pedestrian path winding through the narrow Linear Park is a common place to find him.
He lives near the Linear Park, so the park is a natural setting for part of his daily routine. He’s lost 96 pounds since last April by putting his 17-month-old son into a jogging stroller and hitting the pavement.
“It started by walking a mile a day and we’re up to running 6 miles or walking 12 miles a day,” Webber said.
Now he’s looking at running a half-marathon and the Linear Park trail suits him fine.
“I need a flat surface with minimal traffic to keep going, especially with the jogging stroller,” Webber said. “Having a long, straight trail is totally awesome.”
The Linear Park is perhaps the area’s strangest park. It is an 80-foot-wide swathe of open space running in a straight line for 7 miles through the heart of Fairfield. Only the westernmost mile has landscaping, but the city someday wants almost the entire length to be lush and green.
Webber grew up near the landscaped portion of the Linear Park and remembers when the trees, grass, occasional playground and other features went in a quarter-century ago. But he didn’t know the previous history of this right of way.
Neither he nor anyone else would have wanted to have been walking down this open space corridor in 1914. If they had, they might have found themselves dodging the train.
The story of the Linear Park is also the story of the Northern Electric railroad.
Electric trains were the rage in the early 1900s. The automobile had yet to become a transportation mainstay. The Northern Electric Co. put in railroad lines from Chico to Sacramento and Sacramento to Woodland, then turned to central Solano County.
Workers started installing the local tracks in around 1912. The central Solano County line went from Suisun Valley to Vacaville along the path of today’s Linear Park, with a branch extending into Fairfield and Suisun City. It didn’t continue on to the wider world, though Northern Electric had originally intended it as a link between Vallejo and Sacramento.
An electric third rail powered the trains for much of their journeys in rural areas. Within towns, where such a rail in the middle of a crowded street would be dangerous, the trains got power from an overhead line.
In August 1913, the Suisun City-based Solano Republican anticipated the day when the electric trains would start running.
“Iron poles for the overhead wires have been firmly cemented in the ground from the wharf near Pierce warehouse to the west limits of Fairfield, where the third rail commences,” this predecessor to the Daily Republic wrote.
Suisun City was central Solano County’s big town in those days. The electric train carried not only passengers, but the crops of Suisun Valley to the Suisun City waterfront for shipment to market. Tracks and overhead lines went right down Main Street.
“The Northern Electric and Suisun’s deep waterfront will give a great impetus to traffic coming this way and merchants should begin at once to reap the benefits,” the Solano Republican reported in December 1913.
Passenger service began May 17, 1914.
In a 1989 interview with the Daily Republic, Lewis Pierce III recalled seeing the electric train in the 1920s. The train went to his father’s packing house on Rockville Road near Willotta to pick up fruit.
“It used to go to the Pierce warehouse,” he said. “The warehouse got burned up in a fire caused by some people working on the railroad.”
The late Ben Oliver also recalled the Northern Electric in a 1989 interview.
“It looked like an oversized street car . . . . There was not much as far as noise. There was no racket like a steam engine. It was a pretty quiet outfit,” he said.
But electric trains couldn’t compete with the growing popularity of autos. Passenger service along the local line ended in 1926. At some point, the tracks got removed.
Even when the train was only the memory, the right of way remained. It created a kind of growth force field, with subdivisions sprouting up on either side but the 80-foot-wide swath of open space intact through the decades.
Fairfield in 1972 got a federal grant to buy the abandoned railroad right of way with the idea of creating a Linear Park. Then-City Manager B. Gale Wilson said the city could create “a unique trails system.”
Work started in 1988 and 1989 with a burst of energy.
The city built the mile-long section with landscaping from Oliver Road at Interstate 80 to Pennsylvania Avenue for a cost of $1.9 million. It built a 4-mile-long bike path from I-80 to Solano Community College for $1 million.
In subsequent years, the city extended the trail eastward to Dover Avenue, but without landscaping. It built entry features at Pennsylvania Avenue and at North Texas Street.
That’s been about it. Much of the right of way is dirt and weeds. The Linear Park in these areas remains more promise than park.
Part of the problem has been getting money to put in the landscaping. But Community Development Director Erin Beavers said the bigger problem is getting money for the ongoing maintenance of the park segments once they get built.
The Linear Park should continue development in coming years, but not in linear fashion. Beavers said the next section to be constructed should be in eastern Fairfield, as developers build new subdivisions between Clay Bank Road and Peabody Road. A developer fee will pay for construction of this section of park and a maintenance district for its care.
That won’t be the eastern end of the park. City plans call for the park to continue on the other side of Peabody Road into the city’s planned train station community targeted for up to 6,000 residences and businesses. The park will stop being linear here, though – the train right of way curves north along a route where the rails once headed toward Vacaville.
Fairfield’s Train Station Specific Plan calls the Linear Park a “central component” of Fairfield’s next big growth frontier. The Linear Park is to connect all the neighborhoods to key destinations, activities and services, such as the planned Main Street-style Town Square to the Lake Park.
Linear Park in this part of town will have a different look, too – and for an important reason.
The existing sections of the Linear Park have backyard fences on both sides in many places, creating a tunnel effect. People in various neighborhoods have complained of trespassers jumping the fences into their yards. Homeowners near the cemetery as far back as 1997 put barbed wire along the top of their fences.
Various crimes have occurred along the Linear Park right of way over the years. They’ve ranged from purse snatchings and other robberies to assaults. For example, a man had a probable cause court hearing in December 2013 on several robbery charges, among them pointing a gun at a man’s head along the Linear Park bicycle trail and taking his bike and watch.
The Linear Park is a wonderful area for recreation, Police Chief Walt Tibbet said. Sadly, he said, some people also use it for crime.
But new sections of the Linear Park where no adjacent housing development has yet occurred are to have a different atmosphere, a more open feel. Beavers said front yards could face the park, not fences.
“Hopefully that will address a lot of the issues of ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ you have in the central portions,” Beavers said.
So Fairfield’s Linear Park dream continues. But there would be no right of way and no Linear Park without the Northern Electric railroad a century ago.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.