Northern California's vast stands of giant redwood trees presented a problem - how to get them to market? Their immense size and weight did not allow for normal lumbering practices. The answer lay in the railroad. The first railroads on the western coast were built in 1854 and for the next century, railroads played a vital role in a thriving lumber industry.
The Northwestern Pacific Railroad (map), at its height, was an amalgamation of some sixty different companies. Its territory extended along the Pacific coast from San Francisco to California's Humboldt County, 100 miles shy of the Oregon State line. Some of the forerunners had built extensive and substantial operating lines. Others were short lines, such as the many logging lines in the Humboldt Bay region. Nearly a third consisted of companies which incorporated but never laid a foot of track. All of them contributed, in some fashion, to the rich heritage of the NWP.
Diversity was a key word in the history of Redwood Empire railroading. Gauges varied from the Sonoma Prismoidal, an early wooden monorail, to the broad-gauged logging lines, many built to accommodate their four-legged motive power. In between lay the two foot Sonoma Magnesite Railroad, the first-class narrow gauge North Pacific Coast and, of course, the more common standard gauge lines. Power was supplied by horses, mules, oxen, steam, electricity and internal combustion engines, both gas and diesel. State of the art electric interurban and a fleet of ferries completed a transportation network in the pre-World War II years that many claim was too far ahead of its time. Rarely is so much fascinating diversity found in the origins of one company.
The Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP) spans approximately 300 miles between Shellville, north of San Pablo Bay, and Arcata. From Healdsburg north, the rail line runs directly adjacent to the Russian River, then in Willits begins a 110 mile stretch along the Eel River. The NWP follows the Eel River until it meets with Humboldt Bay.
The Eel River canyon is located in a very unstable and seismically active area. The track is located near the river and is below the high water mark in many locations. Because of the high rainfall, up to 100 inches in some areas, floods are common in both the Eel and Russian Rivers, and track was frequently swept away during peak flows.
The line was opened by Northwestern Pacific in 1907 and was owned jointly by Southern Pacific and Atlantic & Santa Fe. Construction of the NWP was completed in 1914. Its problems started from the very beginning, when it was flooded and wiped out by landslides before it opened, and again when a giant landslide blocked the return of dignitaries to Eureka during the NWP's grand opening event.
|Golden Spike ceremonies and celebration for the completion of the Northwestern Pacific Rail Road,
October 23-25, 1914. Filmed in Willits, Cain Rock, Arcata and Eureka, California.
After merging with the Eureka & Klamath Railroad in 1914, Southern Pacific bought the Santa Fe's equal interest in the line in 1929 and owned it until the mid-1980's. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad, one of Northern California's historic entities, survived as a Southern Pacific wholly-owned subsidiary. Petaluma was the NWP's base of operations. "Sprint Trains" and their crews originated there, running both north and south on the line.
In 1983 Southern Pacific attempted to abandon the northern portion of the railroad, saying it was costing the company much more to repair and maintain the line than they could make. During administrative proceedings on the abandonment before the Interstate Commerce Commission, the president of Southern Pacific stated it was costing an average of a million dollars each month to maintain the line between Willits and Eureka, and that the company's losses totaled approximately $70 million. The Interstate Commerce Commission denied Southern Pacific's application for abandonment.
Bryan Wipple, a Eureka businessman, purchased the line in 1984, forming a new company, the Eureka Southern Railroad. Most of the traffic originated in Eureka and the surrounding area. Just two years later, Wipple filed for bankruptcy.
The Willits-to-Arcata portion of the line remained under a court-appointed trustee until 1992, when the State of California formed the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) to purchase and manage the NWP. In its first few months, the North Coast Railroad leased NWP diesels, recreating the days when the Northwestern Pacific still owned the line from Willits to Eureka. The NWP interchanged with the North Coast Railroad in Willits, forwarding the train to the Southern Pacific at Suisun City. Venerable SD-9 diesels built in the mid 1950s still powered through trains. Six days a week trains would travel the 156-mile line from Suisun City to Willits. Lumber was still the chief commodity hauled by the railroad, as it had been for years. For the last few years, trains that negotiated the scenic north end of the line were run only at night.
The NCRA has since purchased the entire line from Sonoma County to Arcata, but the track suffered extensive damage during the winters of 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1998. Major landslides and high water caused so much destruction that the entire line was officially closed by the Federal Railroad Authority in 1998.
Today, the railroad is still alive but the northern end is derelict. It will require a huge rebuilding effort and tremendous sums of money if it is ever to connect with the outside world again. Unfortunately, things do not look good. The NWP is well-loved and well-remembered.
Northern California railroad pictures are from past calendars by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society. Become a member!
The Alton & Pacific Railroad was a privately owned tourist attraction located on Highway 36 in nearby Alton. It no longer exists.
Heralded the "City of Fortuna", this steam locomotive, originally the Hammond Lumber Company Number 16, was once located near the entrance in Rohner Park. It is now being operated as an excursion train in Washington.
More information about this ALCO 2-8-2T.
Three trainmen were killed in January 1953 at the Scotia Bluff, the same location as the Eureka Southern picture to the left, when a landslide took their locomotive into the icy Eel River. (Bill Bish pictures)
Pictures and information on local railroad depots.