Going Wiggy over Wig-Wags

The beautiful waterfront community of Richmond is blessed with many natural gifts, not least the most Bay waterfront of any other community. It also is home to the historic Wig-Wags, historic train markers that the railroad wants to replace as obsolete and the community is fighting to preserve

Pt. Richmond’s Wig-Wag Controversy

By Jim Mallory 
Published: July, 2002

Wig-wag. According to the Random House Webster’s Dictionary the term means “to signal by waving a flag or lantern according to a code.” But to the residents of Pt. Richmond the term represents a threat to their civic identity. They say the wig-wag railroad grade crossing signals at the historic community’s only railroad crossing are the symbol of a passing era, and they aren’t happy over a proposal to replace them with the more mundane red and white-striped gates and flashing lights most of the 7,700 grade crossings in California use.

The quaint Pt. Richmond warning devices were installed in the 1920s to warn pedestrians and cars of oncoming trains. They consist of 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. There is no known record of any train-car accidents at the crossing, although several impatient pedestrians have reportedly been injured crossing between cars while a train has been parked on the tracks.

Pt. Richmond residents see the folks at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad as the bad guys in this little drama, which outsiders might describe as a tempest in a teapot for a city facing a $5 million budget cut for the coming year. It’s highly unlikely that when railroad officials of the then-Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad asked the city of Richmond in 1993 if it was interested in pursuing a project to “improve” the grade crossing warning devices, they had any idea the furor their innocent inquiry would cause. At first they didn’t even bother to state the nature of the improvement.

But when the residents of Pt. Richmond found out about the plan, they were incensed and rose up against the mighty railroad. They were so angry about the possibility of losing their wig-wags that about 100 people protested one rainy day, carrying signs and chanting slogans like “Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Richmond wigwags gotta stay.” They even created a web site to fight the change and raise funds to fight the railroad. The web site encouraged people to join “The Movement to Save the Point Richmond Wig Wags!”

“The wig-wags and the Plunge are the two things that represent our personality and our identity,” resident David Dolberg told a local newspaper. “And the community is not going to sit still while they take away our identity.” The Plunge, Richmond’s indoor swimming pool built in the 1920s, closed last year and faces an uncertain future, since there are no funds currently available to make the necessary repairs to make the building structurally safe.

Pt. Richmond is a community within the incorporated city of Richmond, and it has strong historical ties with the railroad. Before Richmond was incorporated, Point Richmond served as the western terminus for the ATSF, and that, along with the construction of what is now the Chevron refinery, was the beginning of what is now the City of Richmond. The West Richmond Avenue crossing of the BNSF tracks marks the spot of the symbolic, and probably the physical, beginning of the City of Richmond. BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent told Bay Crossings the railroad still employs about 200 people in the Richmond area.

So far, the Point Richmond residents have managed to keep the wig-wags operating. The city placed the devices on the City Register of Historic Places in April, but that delay is only temporary, according to Richmond Vice Mayor Tom Butt, a Point Richmond resident.

“What we’re doing tonight really does nothing to save the wigwags,” Butt told the West County Times newspaper following the council meeting at which the signals were placed on the historic register.

In May the Richmond city council authorized the city attorney to file an application with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the agency that regulates railroads in the state, for a public hearing on the wig-wag removal, but so far that process seems stalled. During a January meeting in the office of California Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley), the CPUC agreed to delay upgrading the crossing signal and BNSF said it would consider holding off replacing the antique devices until the commission direction is clarified. “I believe the process for the quasi-legal proceeding is to have the application reviewed, assigned to a hearing officer, then calendared,” said City of Richmond Public Information Officer Angela Jones.

At an April 16 meeting BNSF suggested retaining the wig wags at a nearby location but in a display only status. The railroad offered to pay the cost of relocation necessary to preserve the wig-wag signals either at the crossing vicinity or, if necessary, to some other location the city might select. Funds to replace the wig-wags with crossing gates will come from the U.S. Department of Transportation through a program called Federal-Aid Section 130 Railroad/Highway Safety Program administered in California by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) through its Railroad/Highway At-Grade Crossing Program.

In northern California, there are only a few active wig-wags remaining except those in museums. In addition to the two in Point Richmond, a third is located on the mainline in Pittsburg, but it’s now completely blocked from view by a sound wall. The only other wig-wags left anywhere in the Bay Area are in Santa Cruz on former Southern Pacific lines. One is on the UP Santa Cruz branch, while the other two are on what is now part of the Santa Cruz Big Trees and Pacific tourist line. However, those are presently scheduled for removal.

Richmond has a long, although now waning, history with the railroad. The company that manufactured the famous Pullman sleeping cars, the Pullman Rail Car Company, had a repair shop in Richmond, and those buildings were also added to the city’s register of historic places. Three of the Pullman Rail Car Company buildings on Carlson Boulevard remain, as does the building that housed the former International Hotel nearby on South Street. The Pullman Rail Car Company played a significant role in the economic development of Richmond, and the International Hotel offered rooms to African-American Pullman porters. Pullman closed its Richmond shop in 1959.