Eel River rail line tough to build, and tough to kill

By GAYE LeBARON
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT 

Published: Saturday, April 30, 2011 at 3:00 a.m.

 

The rail line through the Eel River Canyon hasn’t carried a train for 13 years.

“Oh, we’ll all go out to meet her when she comes…We’ll be shoutin’ ‘Hallelujah!’ when she comes.”

Or, perhaps, the variation on the old campfire chestnut “Comin’ Round the Mountain,” should be “IF she comes.”

The latest stanza in the stuttering history of the railroad through the Eel River Canyon — Willits to South Fork in southern Humboldt County — was last month’s proposal to scrap the whole notion of trains and turn the right-of-way into a hiking trail.

The proposal to allow trails along the moribund rail line was denied by the board of the North Coast Rail Authority, a state agency that controls the route fom Eureka to Napa County. The idea came and went so fast that there wasn’t even time to spend money on a study. Now THAT’S a record!

What it proves is, first, that there is still hope, however faint, that freight — and maybe excursion service — north of Willits are still viable options, something more than a pipe dream.

Judging from the emphatic “No!” the Eel River Trails Association heard, the NCRA is not ready to give up on the rebirth of a rail line that has been problematic for nearly 100 years.

The 95-mile Willits-to-South Fork section of the railroad is a portion of one of two operating divisions of the NCRA. The Russian River Division (Napa County to Willits) gets the most ink, what with SMART’s plans for commuter trains and Northwestern Pacific’s overdue freight service on the new and improved tracks from Lombard (a link with major rail lines just south of Napa) to Windsor.

THE EEL RIVER DIVISION, Willits to Eureka, is quite another story. It’s been 13 years since freight trains have rumbled through the canyon. And this isn’t the first long pause, not by any measure.

The Northwest Pacific Railroad, which in 2006 contracted to haul freight (and, someday, operate excursion trains) on the NCRA tracks, is a new railroad with an old name.

The original Northwestern Pacific, a joint venture of the western giants Southern Pacific and Santa Fe, built the tracks we’re talking about early in the 20th century.

It was, by all accounts, a bold move.

Built at the behest of Eureka businessmen who saw it as a way to promote growth despite impassable roads and dwindling ocean traffic, the project began in 1907 and took seven years to complete.

The canyon was — and still is — rugged and remote. Some places were difficult to reach, even with pack mules. Crews averaged just 24 miles per year. (That figure becomes meaningful when compared to the mile-a-day pace of track-laying from Santa Rosa to Healdsburg 30 years earlier.)

There are 30 tunnels in 95 miles — the most impressive at Island Mountain in southern Humboldt, nearly a mile long.

When it was completed and the obligatory golden spike was driven in 1914, the adventure would enter rail history as the most expensive, per mile, section built up to that time.

Maintenance would also prove an expensive venture. Example: On the day the golden spike event was scheduled at Cain Rock between Alderpoint and Island Mountain, the ceremonial First Train to Eureka was delayed 12 hours by a landslide.

BUT, OH IT WAS — and still is — a beautiful ride. Winding along the north fork of the Eel, passengers could look into the clear waters and count the salmon or trout, chase an occasional bear down the tracks, spot a mountain lion in the timber, or a band of elk at a watering hole.

Until the Redwood Highway was opened in the mid-1920s, it was the accepted mode of travel for southbound passengers. It carried Humboldt’s lumber, ferried troops during World War II and — until the very last gasp of passenger service, the Budd car, was discontinued in 1971 — it had its loyal clientele.

Freight trains hung on for several years more, but the going got tougher after the winters of 1960 and ’64 brought tunnel cave-ins and enough slides to build another mountain.

When fire destroyed the Island Mountain tunnel in the fall of 1979, Southern Pacific (which had taken over as sole owner of NWP in 1929), asked permission to abandon the line.

REPORTS OF ITS DEATH were, however, premature. A new company, Eureka Southern, formed to haul freight and run excursion trains.

Forestville train buff and collector Neil Ferguson supplied the passenger cars he called the Northcoast Daylight, leftovers from SP’s distinctive orange fleet that whizzed up and down the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles as the Daylight and the Starlight. (These are the abandoned cars at Willits and Asti that are currently being offered for sale.)

Alas, the rains came again and the earth moved and the tunnels were blocked, and it became clear that even the newly established NCRA (1989) was not ready to take on the canyon.

Which is not to say it won’t ever happen. Allan Hemphill, a Sonoma County vintner who has been chasing those phantom trains up and down the tracks through four counties for three decades, is a believer.

Hemphill, who refurbished an elegant dining car to entertain wine buyers in eastern cities (and a sleeping car for staff to travel in) when he was president of Chateau St. Jean Winery, has been talking train talk to county, state and federal officials since the 1980s.

“Those were the days, remember, when they were talking about ripping up the rails and turning the right-of-way into a bus highway,” he says.

When the NCRA was established, Hemphill, with Healdsburg’s Bob Anderson and two Sonoma Valley advocates, Bob Stone and Charlie Cooke, lobbied hard to convince Sonoma County to join in, which happened in 1993 — clearing the tracks, you might say, for the advent of SMART.

It’s nigh impossible to convince Hemphill and his fellow NCRA board members that the Eel River route is not salvageable. But they know how long and hard it will be. It, once again, depends on the tenacity of those Eureka businessmen.

Eureka still has high hopes of becoming a deep-water port, a movement that was knocked back by the recession but is still very much alive up there, Hemphill says.

Water and rail are the keys to establishing an industrial center around Humboldt Bay.

“And we say to them,” Hemphill says, “God bless you. Show us you have a need for us and we’ll try to find a way.”

As any rail proponent is quick towill tell you, a loaded freight car takes four big rigs off the highway and a gallon of diesel can move a ton of freight over 400 miles.

As gas goes up in price, so do the chances that “she’ll be comin’ round the mountain,” someday.

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