A famed Northern California tourist train takes passengers on two different journeys, each a one-of-a-kind ride.
By Gerald C. Hammon, F275831
Admittedly there are a number of tourist railroads these days. But none of them, that I’m aware of, take you through 40 miles of wild, remote, and beautiful mountains as does the Skunk, a Northern California tourist railroad. The Skunk’s tracks twist and turn past towering stands of coastal redwood trees following the course of the rushing, cascading Noyo River before clawing their way up and over the crest of California’s coastal range. Along the way, the trains rumble across 30 bridges and plunge through two tunnels.
The train passes rustic wood shelters with station names painted on them, and homes whose only visible connection to the outside world are these tracks. Occasionally a rough dirt road comes into view. Otherwise, there is no way to visit this pristine wilderness unless you go on foot.
The Skunk name is a story in and of itself. The California Western Railroad originally was built in 1885 to transport logs to a lumber mill in Fort Bragg. In time, it also was used to transport finished lumber to a rail connection in Willits.
In the 1920s the railroad bought a bus-like motor car from the Mack Truck company to carry passengers and freight to the residents along the tracks. The vintage 1925 M-100 motor car still rides the rails. It’s self-propelled and is quite a sight. It was a success, but passengers noted that the exhaust from its gasoline engine, when combined with the fumes from the potbellied stove used to warm the car, created a pungent odor reminiscent of a certain black-and-white-striped critter. Some folks claimed they could smell the thing before they even heard its approach. Understandably, the motor car was labeled the Skunk.
By the 1940s tourists had begun to discover the Skunk and the stunning right-of-way between Fort Bragg and Willits. I was introduced to the Skunk by my parents back in the early 1950s when I was in my teens. By that time, the California Western Railroad had bought three more motor cars to take care of the growing number of passengers. Lumber was shipped out at night while the skunks clattered their way back and forth between Fort Bragg and Willits during the day. The newer motor cars were diesel-powered, and lacked the ambience of the original M-100, but the Skunk name stuck. The railroad itself began capitalizing on the name, using a skunk in a conductor’s attire in its logo.
When my wife and I returned in 1965, I was a father and our young son was the third generation of my family to ride the Skunk. This time, instead of a motor car, we clambered aboard one of several passenger cars pulled by a 1924 Baldwin steam locomotive. We came back again in 1976 to initiate our daughter into the Skunk fan club as we rode behind another steam engine. This was a mallet-type engine, basically two steam engines mounted on one boiler. If you looked closely, you could see that half the drive wheels were fastened to one set of pistons, while the other half were fastened to another. To watch it in action was to witness a swirling symphony of thrashing rods, blasts of steam, and puffs of dark smoke.
In 2005 we went again with our son and his daughter, the fourth generation of our family to share in the fun of riding the Skunk. It was the 120th anniversary of the railroad, and two of the motor cars were still in use. Unfortunately, years before, the original M-80 Mack motor car had been destroyed in a head-on collision with another railcar.
The 1924 Baldwin steam locomotive still attracts a crowd when Skunk workers pull it out of the shops in Fort Bragg and hook it onto the front of the passenger cars that will carry happy passengers to a stop at Northspur. Three diesel-electric GP 9 locomotives from the 1950s are also used as motive power. The Mallet engine that I was so fascinated with in 1976 is gone. One of the train crew from my last visit remembered that engine and said it was a bear to run and to maintain. No one who worked with the engine regretted seeing it go.
Another aspect of the trip hadn’t changed from the early days. The tracks still traverse an area that has virtually no roads. The train conductor told me they still drop fishermen and residents off and pick them up. Groceries and supplies are still delivered to people living along the railroad. And kids at the San Francisco Boys and Girls Club camp, located along the line, still think a passing train is a big event, just as they have since 1911.
A number of steam-powered tourist lines exist in the United States, but few can match the scenery along the route of the Skunk, or the variety of equipment used. Many tourist railroads have only one locomotive to rely upon. The Skunk Train has motor cars, early diesel electrics, and a steam locomotive, and passengers ride in vintage coaches and open-air cars. There is no assigned seating in the coaches, and open cars accommodate standing only.
You can board the Skunk from either Fort Bragg or Willits. The 40-mile trip, which takes 3½ to 4 hours, is available from Fort Bragg only. So are trips on the old 1924 steam engine. The Fort Bragg trip takes you all the way to Northspur, the halfway point between Willits and Fort Bragg. Schedules are set so that the trains arrive at Northspur about the same time, enabling you to continue on to the other end of the line.
In the spring and summer, some afternoon runs culminate in a barbecue at Northspur, where you can enjoy grilled tri-tip (beef), chicken, or ribs. Entertainment is provided by the Train Singer, who also rides on the train from Fort Bragg. Ask him to sing just about any railroad song you know, and I’ll bet he’ll be able to do it for you. All in all, it makes a pleasant outing. We did note that during the summer the mosquitoes liked Northspur, too.
Many motorhomers like the convenience of taking the Skunk ride that departs from Willits. The area is camper-friendly, and the ride “” a 90-minute trip to Wolf Tree and back “” takes up less of the day. Also, in spring and summer, the Willits depot features the historic motor car as its source of transportation three times a week.
The Skunk Train operates year-round from Fort Bragg, and the conductor on our last trip told me winter is a special time, particularly on the Skunk motor cars. They are quieter than the trains, and wildlife along the way aren’t spooked. And there is plenty of wildlife along the Noyo during the winter, I was told. This past winter runs were made on Saturday only in January and February, subject to the weather, of course.
The Skunk Train was almost lost to railroad fans when the Fort Bragg lumber mill closed. The California Western Railroad used the mill as its top source of income, so tourism was not enough. In 2003 the line shut down; however, the Sierra Railroad, a successful tourist train operator, bought the Skunk line and put it back in service in 2004.
The 2006 schedule for daily trips begins March 1, with at least one trip per day from each station. Trains have rest rooms and concessions on board. Contact the Sierra Railroad Skunk Train for more information.
In addition to the Skunk, California’s north coast offers abundant additional attractions to travelers of all ages. The coastal redwoods are among earth’s most magnificent trees. North of Willits, U.S. 101 passes through such stunning places as Richardson Grove; the Avenue of the Giants; and, north of Eureka, the Redwood state and national parks. Fort Bragg is on California’s ragged, scenic coast where vistas, beaches, and headlands form an unending feast for the eye. Mendocino, 10 miles south of Fort Bragg, is a picturesque town along stunning cliffs and crashing surf, a favorite of tourists. In either direction, State Route 1 twists and turns, climbs and plunges from river canyon to headlands far above the surf, making it a popular drive in either direction.
Make no mistake, however: the Skunk is one of the great attractions of California’s north coast. Don’t miss it.
220 S. Sierra Ave.
Oakdale, CA 95361