by Joe Thompson
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by Joe Thompson unless otherwise credited. All rights reserved.
We visited the California Western Railroad (Skunk Train) in July, 2006.
On Friday we had a leisurely drive through Sonoma and Mendocino Counties to Fort Bragg. We explored Fort Bragg and spent the evening at the Harbor Lite Lodge, which overlooks the harbor at the mouth of the Noyo River.
The California Western Railroad was built in 1885 to haul timber from the redwood groves in the mountains to the sawmills in the coastal town of Fort Bragg. The timber left Fort Bragg for San Francisco and other points by ship. The line was extended across the mountains to Willits and a connection with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad in 1911.
Many employees of the lumber company which owned the railroad and the groves were able to lease plots of land where they built cabins. Some of these cabins still exist, occupied by the descendants of the lessees, and generally accessible only by the railroad.
By the 1920's, the California Western, like many other railroads, found that the passenger business was growing unprofitable. In late 1925, the company purchased the M-80, a demonstrator railbus built by the Mack Company. M-80 was able to haul passengers with a two-man crew. M-80's fume-spewing gasoline engine earned it the nickname "Skunk". California Western didn't mind the smell or the nickname, and acquired more rail buses. By the 1940's, the Skunk had become a major tourist attraction. It became so successful that the company began operating steam trains with coaches in 1966 and has done it with interruptions ever since.
We arrived at Fort Bragg depot on a gray Saturday morning in July. We had booked our tickets on the internet. This was fortunate because the train, three coaches, an open car, and a concession car, was full. When I checked in at the ticket window, I received a "boarding pass."
We waited on the platform. I watched anxiously as Mikado 45 nosed out of the train shed. It stopped for a drink of water, then backed onto the waiting train.
I watched with interest as a van with railroad wheels backed out into the throat of the yard, and then a small crane. They were clearing the way for a speeder with a small cart full of supplies to traverse a loop around the water tower.
The train was scheduled to leave at 10am, but we sat for 10 minutes before the conductor announced that a family that wanted to ride the train had gone to the Willits depot by mistake. The train left about 10:20, with the family aboard.
The train passed through Fort Bragg with many grade crossings. After passing a cemetery, we ran along Pudding Creek, which had served as a mill pond for a lumber mill. Piling that had supported tracks from which logs were dumped are still visible. The spieler ordered everyone off of the open car before we passed through a long tunnel. After the tunnel, we ran along the banks of the Noyo River. The spieler talked about the isolated camps along the way. We stopped at one to let some people off. We later stopped at the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco's Camp Mendocino to let some people on for a short ride to North Spur.
Northspur is a rustic spot about half way to Willits. The steam locomotive turned on a wye, but I couldn't get a good view of it. One party had a small dog who looked in wonder at a large tree.
The speeder arrived at Northspur while we laid over.
On the trip back, Greg Schindel, the Train Singer, entertained the passengers. He asked us to name a railroad song, but the only ones I could think of were "The Baggage Coach Ahead", "The Wreck of the Old 97", and "Casey Jones the Union Scab". None of those seemed appropriate. A group of young people on the open car particularly enjoyed him, clapping and singing along.
The afternoon train to Northspur was hauled by GP9 Number 65.
Sunday we drove home by way of Willits. We stopped to visit the depot.
We continued down 101. It was sad to see the rusting tracks of the Northwestern Pacific, which had been one of my favorite railroads. We stopped in Santa Rosa to visit the Charles Schulz Museum. We had lunch at the Warm Puppy Cafe and enjoyed the museum.
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Copyright 2006 by Joe Thompson. All rights reserved.
Last updated 31-Aug-2006