Local Conservation Group Saves Bay Area's Historical Skunk Train

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Local Conservation Group Saves Bay Area's Historical Skunk Train
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The Bay Area's historical Skunk Train railway line. (Photo courtesy of flickr.com/photos/cr01.)

The Skunk Train is a 128-year-old rail line spanning the distance between Fort Bragg and Willits in the coastal mountains of California. A tourist attraction since the 1970s, the Skunk Train allows riders to view the spectacular redwoods and enjoy a trip back in time. A recent tunnel collapse, however, put the train's future in jeopardy until a local preservation group stepped up to provide necessary funds.

The Mendocino Railway, the company that runs the Skunk Train, faced dire straits after a tunnel collapse limited the train's route. In April, a tunnel just a few miles from Fort Bragg collapsed, preventing travel to Willits. Repairs to the tunnel were estimated at $300,000, which the company did not have.

Skunk Train History

The original railway was constructed in 1885 as a means to haul lumber. It was connected to Willits in 1911, completing a 40-mile run through the coastal forests. In Willits, passengers at one time had the opportunity to connect to the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, which traveled all the way to Sausalito. The name "Skunk Train" originated in 1925, when single-car railbuses were purchased for passenger transport. Each car had a potbellied stove, which when lit, emitted fumes that supposedly smelled similar to a skunk.

Tunnel Collapse

The tunnel that recently collapsed, Tunnel No. 1, is 13 feet wide, 16 feet high, and 1,100 feet long. After the collapse, a crew worked feverishly to clear the pass, but it was determined the job was too big to be completed without additional assistance. The caved-in area is projected to be 50 feet wide, 40 feet long, and 30 feet high. The tunnel was lined with redwood beams and planks; however, stronger bracing will be required once cleared.

The Mendocino Railway didn't have the $300,000 needed to repair the tunnel. The company spent a great deal of their reserve funds to clear mudslides caused by heavy rains in 2006. A manhunt for a suspected killer in 2011 shut down the tracks and cost the company an estimated $200,000. That money has yet to be recouped from local law enforcement, which commandeered the tracks and trains for their search.

Consequences of Collapse

When the tunnel collapsed, all of the company's train equipment was on the Fort Bragg side of the track, leaving only a few short miles of track for trains to run. This shortened journey takes visitors for under an hour at greatly reduced rates, limiting the Mendocino Railway's revenue stream. Typically, the Skunk Train carries 40,000 passengers every year, many of whom stay in the Fort Bragg area and stimulate the local tourist industry.

Fundraising Efforts

Several campaigns began to raise the $300,000 needed to repair the collapsed tunnel. The Mendocino Railway offered yearlong "Save Our Skunk" passes for $300 and $750, as well as a lifelong pass offered at $1,885 in honor of the year the railroad was founded.

Luckily, a local conservation group has stepped up to provide the funds to get the Skunk Train running again. San Francisco's Save the Redwoods League purchased a $300,000 option from the Mendocino Railway, enough to fix the tunnel. The option allows Save the Redwoods to establish an easement across the 40-mile route, preserving both the redwoods in the area and public access.

The Mendocino Railway hopes to have the Skunk Train running its full route again by mid-July after tunnel repairs are complete.

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