Skunk Train Open in Willits!
Come ride the SKUNK in its natural habitat. Forty miles of railroad run through majestic redwood forests, scenic mountain meadows, and over 30 trestles bridging the pristine mountain waters of Northern California. Packages are available! Please call us 800-459-9911 and we will custom design one for you!
This 3.5- to 4-hour round trip on our vintage rail cruiser departs Willits and begins the steep ascent (3.5% grade) to the summit of our line at 1,740 feet. Traveling through Tunnel No. 2, the trip descends into the Noyo River Canyon. In one spot, the vintage rail cruiser travels 8.5 miles to cover a straight-line distance of less than one mile in a serpentine of switchbacks.
Regardless of your departure point, the view from their restored rail cars is pretty much unchanged from the late 1800s. Departing from Willits and traveling to Northspur, your train will climb the Eastern slope of the California Coast Range, cutting through it at Tunnel No. 2 (Summit) before descending into the Noyo River Canyon. This is the mountainous part of our railroad line, in which 8.5 miles of track cover a straight-line distance of less than one mile.
History of the Skunk Train
Built as a logging railroad in 1885 by Charles R. Johnson, the “Redwood Route™” was a logical vehicle for moving massive redwood logs to Mendocino coast sawmills from the rugged backcountry. The train played a vital role during this t ime in transporting families and workers who set up the various logging camps along the route and in doing so, became an entirely different type of line. It played an important part not only in the area's industrial life, but also in its social and cultural activities. No other logging railroad in America has made the deep impression on American life that was created by the line from Fort Bragg – first by the natural beauty of its route and later, by the distinctiveness of its equipment.
The History of the Skunk Railroad by Louis Hough
This article appeared in the July 24, 2003 edition of the Mendocino Beacon.
Back in 1884 C.R. Johnson who with Cal Stewart and James Hunter owned a mill up in Kibesillah, announced the start of a new mill down next to Soldier Harbor, where Fort Bragg had been abandoned in 1867. On November 16, 1865 he turned on the new band saw, thus officially starting up operations of the new Fort Bragg Lumber Co.
By that time some track had already been laid for his other new business, the Fort Bragg Railroad Co, , which included the Pudding Creek Railroad, purchased from Alexander McPherson and Henry Wetherbee. The tracks ran from the mill to Pudding Creek and followed it east into the woods; on it in 1886 the newly purchased 26-ton steam locomotive “Sequoia”, a 2-4-2 started hauling logs started hauling logs to the mill.
By 1887 there was nearly seven miles of track. A second locomotive was purchased, along with a San Francisco cable car which was converted into a passenger car. “C.R.” was unique in that he wanted his railroad not only to support the lumber business, but also to have it serve social and cultural needs – right away it started carrying loggers with their wives or girlfriends on Sunday picnics.
By 1893 Johnson bought large timber tracts along the Noyo River from the firm of White & Plummer, merging these assets and the Fort Bragg Lumber Co. into the new Union Lumber Co. To get the logs from this newly purchased land to the mill, a 1,122 foot long tunnel had to be dug through a rocky slope between Pudding Creek and the Noyo River; it was completed in 1893, built entirely by Chinese laborers.
By 1893 the railroad extended along Pudding Creek and the Noyo River for 10 miles; its main purpose was to move logs to the mill, but it was also far enough inland so that travelers could ride the passenger car to the end of the line, catch a buckboard stage to Willits, another stage to Ukiah, the railway to Sausalito, and then ferry to San Francisco.
By 1904 regular service was extended to Alpine, 18.1 miles inland. The route was of course just one long series of curves (see pictures and map) and bridges (one trestle was a perfect “S” curve - see picture). It was necessary to use A-Frame bridge construction (the top of the “A” was above the tracks; i.e., the weight of the tracks right over the river was supported from above and thus there were no supports in the water below the bridge to be wiped outby logs that often came crashing down-stream with the winter rains).
In 1905 Johnson further expanded the business, buying a controlling interest in Mendocino Lumber Co., and 50 per cent interest of the Glen Blair Lumber Co. The railroad company was re-capitalized and before long was named the California Western Railroad. The goal of the new company was to reach Willits, to meet the Northwestern Pacific Railroad coming north from Ukiah.
The land rises to 1,740 feet as you get closer to Willits; at one point it was necessary to lay eight and one-half miles of track to move forward just one and ne-half miles, and an upgrade of 3.3 degrees was required while most railroads do not exceed one degree.
By 1910 there were 27.8 miles of track and only five miles to go (but it would take another 12.2 miles of track). Another tunnel, this one 795 feet long had to be dug and blasted out of the rock; it was accomplished over seven months by Nelson & Co. out of San Francisco – two 12-hour shifts at each end, with 20 men on each shift.
The great day marking completion finally took place on December 19, 1911, after 26 years after the railroad was started. To be invited to ride on the inaugural roundtrip was an honor akin to knighthood. One hundred and fifty lucky passengers left Fort Bragg amid wild cheering of nearly the entire town (2,500 people then - see picture); they were pulled by #5 (see picture) over the curves, the bridges and the tunnels on to Willits, 40 miles away (but only 22 miles as the crow flies). Most of that town’s 1.200 citizens were there, the band playing was playing and everyone was hollering – quite an occasion. (see picture).
The roundtrip fare was originally $3 – a great bargain when compared to the stage fares. By mid-1912 more than 400 visitors a day were arriving.
“Smells Like a Skunk!”
The nickname “Skunk” originated in 1925, when motorcars were introduced (today sometimes referred to as railbuses or railcruisers). These single unit, self-propelled motorcars had gasoline-powered engines for power and pot-bellied stoves burning crude oil to keep the passengers warm. The combination of the fumes created a very pungent odor, and the old timers living along the line said these motorcars were like skunks, “You could smell them before you could see them.”
Are pets allowed on the train?
Dogs are the only pets permitted on board. They do ask that you be considerate of your canine though – they simply may not like trains. Please bring whatever they need to be comfortable (food, water, dishes, a leash, etc.).
Starting in 2013, there will be a charge for canine passengers.
Is the train handicap accessible?
Yes – but there are limitations, given that their railcars were built in the very early 1900s. They strive to make every guest feel comfortable and will do our very best to accommodate your visit.
Can we bring food on the train?
All of their trains have a concession on board where you can purchase snacks and beverages. All morning departures (Christmas Trains excluded) make a stop at Northspur where you can purchase lunch, so they do discourage your bringing food on the train. The food is prepared and served by a concessionaire to the railroad. In the event someone in your party has dietary restrictions then by all means bring whatever is necessary. Of course, parents traveling with babies and children requiring special food and beverage items are also allowed.
Can we bring alcohol on the train?
Absolutely not. There is a wonderful selection of wine from beautiful Mendocino County – which by the way is America’s Greenest Wine Growing Region – and local beers, including their very own Skunk Beer (bottled for them by Anderson Valley Brewing Company), plus a full bar on board the train.
Do the trains leave on time?
Without question they try to maintain their schedule. If you miss a train they will issue you a gift certificate for a future ride or book you on the next available departure. They will not, however, issue a refund because you’ve missed the scheduled departure.
How should we dress?
Comfortable and casual layered clothing is suggested to keep warm in the chilly months. If you plan on riding the Open Air Observation Car then we suggest dark clothing, because sometimes lighter clothing can get soot spots on it.