Railroads were essential to the settlement and founding of Richmond in 1905 and remain a major part of the city’s identity more than a century later.
The Point Richmond district, which became the western terminus of the Santa Fe Railroad, will honor its rail heritage on Sunday, July 28, with a festival celebrating the restoration of two historic train crossing signals known as wig wags that have been part of the community for more than a century.
The signals, still in place but out of use for 18 years, will be reactivated following remarks by Mayor Tom Butt during the free Wig Wags Forever festival from 1 to 5 p.m. on the grounds of the Point Richmond branch of Mechanics Bank at 4 W. Richmond Ave. Music, exhibits and family activities will follow.
The wig wags are back in working order and clanging again thanks to years of effort by a dedicated neighborhood group that worked for the better part of two decades to avert their removal and see that they were preserved as a cherished part of the city’s early downtown district.
Wig wags are largely confined to transportation museums now. There are few left in their natural habitat, but they were once a common presence at railroad crossings in California and the sight and sound of them in operation would warm any railroad fan’s heart.
“Point Richmond is the only place in the country where wig wags are allowed to remain in place after modern automated railroad crossing gates were installed,” a news release from festival organizers states. But it almost didn’t turn out that way.
“The whole thing started about 2001, when BNSF Railway (the successor to the Santa Fe Railroad) said it was going to remove them once they installed new crossing arms,” said Karen Buchanan, a member of the festival committee and a board member of both the Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Richmond Museum Association.
“There was a whole hue and cry and a Save the Wig Wags protest,” where speakers included then-Mayor Irma Anderson and longtime community activist Lucretia Edwards, Buchanan said.
The Point Richmond History Association started a wig wag fund, but there was an obstacle. City leaders, while sympathetic to the preservation effort, concluded the signals were within the railroad’s 25-foot right of way, meaning “any work would mean having to hire a BNSF flagman at union wages,” Buchanan said.
It wasn’t until years later that Point Richmond resident Victor Morales actually measured the distance from the center of the tracks to the signal and found it was 30 feet — outside of the railroad’s right of way.
The Richmond Museum of History joined the effort as its nonprofit sponsor, and the museum’s workers’ compensation insurance was used to hire Dan Furtado, a San Francisco resident and railroad/wig wag enthusiast who knows the mechanics of the devices, to handle their restoration.
Cost of the renovation was $2,000, which was raised by the community. The final touches of the work are being done now and the signals will wave, flash and clang again on July 28.
Entertainment at the festival will include traditional railroad songs and other old-time favorites sung by a barbershop quartet, and a ragtime artist performing the long forgotten songs “Wig Wag Rag” (1911) and “Richmond Rag” (1908).
There will also be railroad- and history-related exhibitors and vendors, including the nearby Golden State Model Railroad Museum, food and beverage booths, and special activities for children.
Art depicting railroad crossings as interpreted by local artists such as Elizabeth Tarr, Jim DeWitt and; national artists such as Edward Hopper; and international artists such as French painters Fernand Léger and Camille Pissarro will be featured. Thematic wig wag posters created by Tarr will also be on sale.
The site of the festival is the former Santa Fe trainmaster’s building, restored and now used as a Mechanics Bank branch.
“We want to make this an annual event and start a new tradition for Point Richmond,” Buchanan said