California Western Railroad: The Skunk Train

For my second road trip of the summer, I chose my base camp: Fort Bragg on the Mendocino County Coast. I knew that one adventure I wanted to experience was a ride on the Famous California Western Railroad, also known as the Skunk Train.

The Skunk Train runs from Ft. Bragg to Willits, a train journey of 40 miles. A round trip of seven hours. The former logging railroad crossed 30 bridges and trestles and travels through two long tunnels.

The Skunk at Ft. Bragg. The water tower is for No. 45, a Mikado steam locomotive. Our train (No. 65) was pulled by a former Southern Pacific GP9 diesel built in 1955 by EMD.

The Skunk is a poor reflection of its former self because of the April 11, 2013 partial collapse of the 1,200 foot Tunnel No. 1. The tunnel was built in 1893 and it is in an area known for hill slides. This means that the Skunk Train only runs from Ft. Bragg to Glen Blair Junction, a distance of 3.5 miles. It seems like just when the train gets going, it stops 30 minutes later.

The railroad has also been without an operable steam locomotive. The 2-8-2 No. 45, was built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1924. The locomotive is currently being restored and may be once again under steam in the upcoming year.

The end of the line, for now. Plans are underway to open the line in about a year. In the background is the western portal of collapsed Tunnel No. 1.

It is a pleasant ride on the “Pudding Creek Express”, although “express” is hyperbole of the highest order! I chose to get out and explore the area and then catch the second train back to Ft. Bragg. There are a few hiking trails and I hoped to get in a few sketches before the train returned, so I had time to sketch and paint and had extra time to let the paint dry!

I started by sketching the caved in western portal of Tunnel No. 1. The tracks were covered in dirt and rocks filled the entrance. Vegetation was growing up, almost threatening to cover the portal. A train has not passed through here in almost eight years. A maintenance worker told me that they hoped to have the tunnel open in about a year. I’m not sure they could move a mountain but I’m sure that have the funds and the manpower to clear a tunnel.

Motor car M-100 at Willits, facing west towards Ft. Bragg.

On the following day, on a flight of fancy, I decided to drive to Willits to see the eastern end of the line. From Coastal Ft. Bragg to Willits was about an hour with temperature difference of about 30 degrees! I pulled up to the beautiful redwood station in time to see the eastern Skunk pull into the station. The Willits train is a two hour,16 mile, round trip. This trips travels to the highest point on the line (1,740 feet) and travels past the “”Wolf Tree”, a large coast redwood.

The line at Willits is isolated from the Ft. Bragg side of the railroad because of the collapse of Tunnel No. 1 so what ever motive power and cars are what ever was here, prior to April 11, 2013.

On the Ft. Bragg side of the line sits the Motor car M-300 (sketched in the featured sketch). These gas powered cars where used for passenger service in 1925. These motor cars gave the railroad it’s name, because the locals named the cars “skunks” because, “you can smell ’em before you can see ’em.”

The M-100, which is on a siding in Willits, was built by the Edwards Rail Car Company in 1925. It is still operable and used when ridership is down instead of using a diesel with passenger cars.

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