The California Western Railroad, "The Skunk Train"
The so-called "Skunk Train" is the nickname given to the excursion service hosted on the original California Western Railroad (reporting mark, CWR), an historic short line connecting Fort Bragg with Willits, California. Since the early 1880s the little line has hosted both freight and passenger service. Alas, the former has since been discontinued due to lack of traffic and the traveling public is now its only means of revenue. In addition, it is currently isolated from the national railroad network due to a connection being out-of-service. It is hoped that the CWR will not only have this connection restored but also once again host freight trains at some point in the near future.
Many of the Golden State's small, early railroads were constructed for the purpose of moving some type of agriculture or natural resource. This was the case with the California Western Railroad, originally organized in 1885 by the Fort Bragg Redwood Company, owned by Charles Johnson, as the Fort Bragg Railroad to move redwood logs from a tract of forest at Glenela (Glen Blair) 6.6 miles to a sawmill at Fort Bragg. Several changes of the operation took place in the early 20th century; first, in 1904 passenger service was initiated and a year later on July 1, 1905 it was renamed the California Western Railroad & Navigation Company (CWR&NC). A few years later on December 11, 1911 the CWR&NC completed a connection with the national rail network by opening to Willits (a distance of exactly 40.0 miles) and interchanging there with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad.
The NWP, itself, carries a long history tracing back to 1907 when it was originally formed as a joint operation between the Southern Pacific and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe to provide rail service from roughly Schellville to Eureka along California's northern Pacific Coast. Comprised by merging several smaller lines (which used different gauges, or the width between the rails, ranging from 3-foot to the standard 4 feet, 8 1/12 inches) the NWP totaled more than 270 miles in length and offered the region's only rail service. As time passed the Santa Fe dropped its interest and the SP acquired full ownership in 1929. The NWP was operated as a wholly-owned subsidiary of SP until sections were sold off in the 1980s and the entire route was out of the Class I's hands by the early 1990s.
The California Western Railroad received its official name on December 19, 1947 when the CWR&NC's title was shortened. Interestingly, even by that date the system already held its nickname as "The Skunk Train." Passenger service was never a particularly brisk business with few towns of notable size located along its system. As a result, small trains, sometimes mixed with freight, usually did the job. Beginning in the 1920s the railroad began operating small, gasoline-powered railcars. They were more than capable of hanlding the light business generated on the route. However, with their gasoline engines and small, pot-bellied stoves which burned crude oil to keep passengers warm the resulting stench given off outside had less than pleasant odor.
The Skunk Train/California Western Railroad Locomotive Roster
California Western 2-8-2 #45 (Operational. Originally built as Owen-Oregon Lumber Company #3, a 1924 product of the Baldwin Locomotive Works.)
California Western 2-6-6-2 #46 (Restored planned. Originally built as Weyerhaeuser Timber Company 2-6-6-2T #110 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in June of 1937. The Mallet was rebuilt as a 2-6-6-2 between 1968 - 1970 for operation on the Skunk Train until 1981.)
California Western GP9m #64 (Operational. Originally built by Elecro-Motive as Texas & North Orleans [Southern Pacific] GP9 #244 in 1954.)
California Western GP9m #65 (Operational. Originally built by Elecro-Motive as Texas & North Orleans [Southern Pacific] GP9 #245 in 1954.)
California Western GP9m #66 (Operational. Originally built by Elecro-Motive as Chesapeake & Ohio GP9 #6145 in 1956.)
California Western Motorcar #M-100 (Operational. Originally built by the Edwards Rail Car Company in 1925 for the Moorhead & North Forks Railroad.)
California Western Motorcar #M-300 (Operational. Originally built by American Car & Foundry as Seaboard Air Line #2026 in 1935.)
Folks living along the line often said that, "You could smell them before you could see them," and thus, the name "Skunk Train" was born. Over the years the California Western came under different ownership until it was eventually acquired by the large Georgia-Pacific conglomerate. Since the mid-1960s it was managed, albeit not owned, by the Kyle Railways based in Arizona. Some two decades later Kyle purchased the railroad outright in June of 1987. Nearly ten years later it was again sold when a group of Mendocino Coast businessmen and today the Skunk Train remains a division of the Mendocino Coast Railway.
Since the Northwestern Pacific's main line northward through Willits remains out of service the railroad currently does not have a connection to the outside world. However, there is hope the route will be returned to service by 2020. In the meantime folks can enjoy riding the Skunk Train's 40 mile line, both steam and diesel powered, passing through small communities along the way such as Pudding Creek, South Fork, Northspur, Burbeck, and others. There are two notable tunnels on the line including the 1,122-foot Tunnel #1 located a few miles past Fort Bragg and Glen Blair Junction. In addition, another short bore, Tunnel #2 located near Willits that is 795 feet in length.
Thanks to the region's relatively mild climate, situated not far from the coast, the Skunk Train hosts public excursions throughout the year although they do run a reduced schedule during the cooler months in January and February. In addition to regular excursions they offer special trips, particularly during the holidays such as the Easter Egg Express, Christmas Train, Mother's Day Brunch, and the Halloween Express. If a connection is reestablished the California Western also hopes to restart freight service if enough business can be garnered. For more information regarding scheduling, pricing, and riding their trains please visit the Skunk Train website.