Steam to the Redwoods
October 12th to 15th, 2001

Don Winter

Central Coast Chapter, NRHS, and Pacific Coast Chapter, R&LHS are running an excursion on the California Western railroad, using steam power from Fort Bragg to Willits, and return, on Sunday, October 14th. They have also offered a package covering bus transportation there and back from San Jose, along with the Saturday night hotel stay. We have elected to get between Los Angeles and San Jose using Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, making this a four-day weekend for us.

Friday, October 12th, 2001

We’re only going to be gone less than four days, so we drive to downtown Los Angeles and park in the MTA garage. Amtrak now has the conductor providing boarding passes for sleeping car passengers. These are applicable to us, since we’ve chosen to use a standard sleeper room as “parlor” space for the daytime journey to and from San Jose, giving us a private space, along with access to the Pacific Parlor Car and included meals in the diner along with priority access to the diner. After receiving our boarding pass, about 9:30 am, we have plenty of time to walk out to platform 10, get settled in our room (room 3 in car 1432, 32104), and walk the train to record the consist, before our 10 am departure. Train 772 is in the adjacent platform 9 at the same time.

 

[Train 14 consist]

P42                  128
f59                   465
Baggage           1159
Transition         39021
Sleeper             32072  Arkansas
Sleeper             32104  Oklahoma
Sleeper             32103  Ohio
Pacific Parlor    39974
Diner                38062
Lounge             33027
Coach              34102
Coach              34504
Coach              34114
Coach              34117

Train 14, 10-12-2001

Schedule

Actual

Los Angeles

10:00am

10:08am

Glendale

10:18

10:20/24

Simi Valley

11:08

11:08

Oxnard

11:42

11:37/42

Santa Barbara

12:46pm

12:34/53 pm

San Luis Obispo

3:43

3:19/43

Paso Robles

4:46

4:46/52

Salinas

6:36

6:44/51

San Jose (arr.)

8:27

8:13

Coast Starlight Route Description

As we turn north along the west side of the Los Angeles River, a UP freight with SD70Ms 4669, 4040 and 4183 heads south across the river. A southbound Metrolink train passes as we cross the LA River where Dayton Tower used to be. The tower itself is now alongside San Fernando Road, adjacent to the entrance to the former SP loco. facilities. The latter has active engines around two turntables and on the fuel rack, with four long strings of locos on deadlines.

There are finally buildings being constructed on the former Lockheed properties at and west of Burbank Junction, which had been undergoing environmental cleanup for so long. After crossing the San Fernando Valley, we pass train 776 at Hasson and a southbound UP freight between Simi Valley and Moorpark. Between Moorpark and Camarillo, we see strawberries being planted in the fields alongside the line. One field has had the rows covered in sheets of plastic, the next has had holes punched in the plastic sheets, and a third has strawberry plants themselves being planted through the holes in the sheets.

The route we traverse on this trip is exactly the same as the southernmost portion of the route we used to get to Klamath Falls on our Shasta trip, back in July. One change that has occurred since then is that the CTC has now been extended from beyond Oxnard all the way to Seacliff, with the residual Direct Traffic Control blocks from there to San Luis Obispo.

We’re eating lunch when the train reaches the ocean at Ventura and passes the end of CTC at Seacliff. At Seacliff, we pass UP 6617 on an eastbound (southbound) freight. There is a coastal foghorn blowing as we pass along the coast here. Connecting passengers and baggage from today’s late running train 1 are transferred to our train at Santa Barbara. There is a 10 mph slow order west of Goleta, where preparations are being made to add a new side tack and cut in a new power switch. There are also workers laying additional bundles of fiber optic cable alongside the track, along here. According to an announcement from the conductor, the landward terminal of the oil pipelines from the platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel is “where they take the water out of the oil”.

Where there was fog along the shore at Seacliff, there are now no clouds along the shore at Point Conception. Callender has the same kind of interesting freight cars at the plant as there had been in July.

The train is running on time today, so we get our (extended) outside time at San Luis Obispo before the start of the wine and cheese service in the Pacific Parlor Car. Train 11 (P42 119) is running late, so we meet at the Chorro siding, above the horseshoe curve rather than in SLO itself. We pass UP 9550 southbound at San Ardo and UP 4008 southbound at Soledad. By the time we reach Salinas, darkness is descending. We have 7 pm dinner reservations, which are called just after we leave Salinas. We’re finished with dinner as the train passes through Tamien, so we hurry back to our room to collect our things ready for detraining. On our early arrival into San Jose, we take a taxi to our motel on North First Street, and soon go to bed.

Saturday, October 13th, 2001

The bus for Ft. Bragg leaves from San Jose Diridon station at 11:45 am. This means we need to leave the hotel just before 11 am, so we have time to sleep in and have breakfast (required since there’s no lunch stop) before checking out. There’s a Sperry Rail Service high-rail track diagnostic truck in the hotel parking lot, so we inspect this thoroughly (including photos) as we walk to Denny’s for breakfast. We’re at the station with more than half an hour to spare, and there’s no sign of our bus yet, so we have time to inspect the restored station buildings (this is the first time we’ve been in them since the restoration) before our bus shows up for boarding.

When the bus arrives at the bus-loading platform, we walk over and board the bus, putting our suitcase in the bin below. There are only about a dozen people here, in addition to the bus driver (Ken Anderson), but that seems to be the right number. Art Lloyd, who is the host for this bus, makes one last check around the station area, and we leave at 11:51 am. We head south to I-280, then west to the Oregon Expressway which we take ton El Camino Real in Sunnyvale, then head north to the Elks Club in Palo Alto, where another 16 or 17 people board, including Cathy and Gary Bauer, whom we recognize from previous excursions. Then (12:25 pm) we head to the Bayshore Freeway and turn north.

As we pass the San Francisco Airport area, we see the a-building Caltrain/BART interchange station at Millbrae, then the BART connectors into the airport itself. We turn west on I-380, then north on I-280 and exit at 19th Avenue to head for the Golden Gate Bridge. On 19th Avenue, we encounter the first of several San Francisco Municipal Railway (“Muni”) light rail lines (which have been in continuous operations since they were streetcar lines), then pass others at Taraval and Judah streets. After passing through Golden Gate Park, we drop down through the Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the conversations in the bus as we pass through this area is on the difficulty of using the garages under the houses (but directly on the street edge) along 19th Avenue, when the traffic is as bad as it is this afternoon. My unspoken thought is that, if I lived in this neighborhood, it would be because I didn’t need a car to get me to and from work, transportation hubs or cultural attractions. Of course, the issue of getting groceries home from whatever grocery store exists still remains!

It becomes obvious as we head north on the bus that this is one of the clearest days not only we, but also many of our fellow passengers, who live in the area, have ever experienced. From the Peninsula, once can clearly see the mountains behind the east bay. From the Golden Gate Bridge and the road just north of it, the entire bay area can be seen, through the bay bridge and down the east bay to Hayward and Fremont, northeast all the way across San Pablo Bay to the vicinity of Vallejo, and to Mount Diablo behind the first set of mountains to the east, all crystal clear with not a hint of haze.

North of the Golden Gate, the traffic is still heavy, and still slowing our progress considerably, all the way through San Rafael, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, and Santa Rosa. North of Santa Rosa, the traffic eases and we can finally travel at road speed. Along here, the embargoed Northwestern Pacific railroad track closely follows the highway alignment. This track has not been in general use for several years, since the FRA imposed its embargo due to track and infrastructure conditions. At Cloverdale, we see the depot along the NWP, built in conjunction with its excursion operations in the 1990s.

At Cloverdale (3:08 pm), we turn off US 101 onto CA 128 to head for the coast. Soon after crossing the main highway, this route makes a sharp junction to the right. Ken does not notice in time, and makes a sharp brake application, sending a couple of passengers to the floor of the aisle. One woman sustains a cut on her forehead that will require five stitches after we get to Ft. Bragg. Another woman, sitting across from us, gets quite motion-sick as we go around the repeated sharp bends and other twists and turns involved in climbing from the Russian River valley to the top of the coastal mountains.

We stop for 15 minutes at Booneville (3:57-4:13) to allow passengers to make a pit stop and acquire something cold to drink. Soon after that, we drop down alongside a river bordered by coastal redwood forests and reach the Mendocino Coast (4:52), full of inlets requiring spectacular bridges by CA 1 and rocky outcrops down in the ocean with waves crashing over them. The river we had been following from Booneville does not actually reach the ocean at this state of the tide, but plays itself out n a sandbar across the inlet! Along here, we pass the town of Mendocino, where outdoor scenes for the TV series “Murder She Wrote” were filmed. Mendocino is on a bluff on the north side of one of the inlets, between the highway and the ocean. A few miles north of Mendocino another high bridge crosses the river on which the harbor at Ft. Bragg is located, then the highway enters Ft. Bragg itself. Our hotel (5:23) is about halfway between that bridge and the California Western RR depot, on the landward side of the road.

We exit the bus, Art Lloyd hands out the room keys (once he gets them from the hotel staff), and we find our room. The second bus (from Emeryville) arrives about half an hour later. After it gets dark, we eat dinner in the hotel restaurant and go to bed. During this time period, coastal fog rolls in (it had been misty from the moment our bus reached the coast), and we hear the local foghorn blowing all night long.

Sunday, October 14th, 2001

We arise almost before dawn, check out of the hotel, put our suitcase in the assigned forward luggage bin on the bus (for San Jose), and board the bus for the short trip to the California Western Railroad depot. That depot is about a mile further north along the coast highway, north of a large lumber company facility along the shore. The exit tracks from the depot run to the north, turning east to run through the town, crossing streets at an angle. When we arrive at the station, CWRR 2-8-2 (“Mikado”) 45 is busy making up our train, so we take the time to look around the gift shop and chat with a few people we know who hadn’t been on our bus the day before. (There are about 250 people riding on the train today, only 60 or so of whom came up on the two buses, ours from San Jose and Palo Alto, and another from Emeryville and San Francisco.)

The weather this morning in Ft. Bragg is heavily overcast and quite cool, so everyone is bundled up. At 7:45 am, we’re invited to board the train, in our assigned cars. We’re in car 1, which is just behind the engine on the morning part of the trip. (There is some confusion with the car assignments, since those with boarding passes for car 2 are directed to car 4, and vice versa.) Our train has four enclosed passenger cars, of clerestory outline, surrounding an open car that has no assigned passengers but is available to all.

California Western Route Description

At 8 am, or thereabouts, we start out heading inland, at first through the town and then into the redwood forest alongside a creek. A couple of miles inland, we’re asked to close those windows that are open (not many, as yet) and those in the open car are asked to return to the closed cars, because we’re going to go through a major tunnel. This tunnel takes us from the creek north of Ft. Bragg to the valley of the river that meets the ocean at the south end of Ft. Bragg, which we will follow for the next thirty (railroad) miles. We are now deep in the coastal redwood forest, with occasional groups of houses, an extensive children’s camp, and other buildings for the first few miles, after which we’re away from road access until almost to Willits. As we pass further inland, we cross the river several times.

About 15 miles inland, as expected, we pass slowly from the coastal redwood forest to the interior lodgepole pine forest. (“Slowly” refers to a transition zone, not to the speed of the train; the latter, however, never exceeds 20 mph anywhere on the railroad, for that is the maximum permitted speed for this line.)

During our morning stop at Northspur, Chris takes the opportunity to purchase some miniature cat sculptures. The photo runby is performed with the photographers standing behind the east leg of the wye, to the north of the main track. While the photo line is assembling, the engine is greased and backed up to the water tank to replenish the tender. Hal Lewis coordinates the photo runby and is out on the line, He says that he is trying to reduce his activities in running excursions to the point that his job ends when the excursion itself begins. Also near me are Don Kehl and Ed Graham, familiar figures from many NRHS National Conventions.

Steve Miller, who is train director today (a job Hal would have had in previous years) lets the crew know when to make the runpast. While we’re waiting, and taking shots of the engine at the water tank, it becomes clear that the light level here, even with bright sunlight filtering through the tress, is such that I will have to use the fixed focal-length lens, with its wider aperture, rather than my normal usage of a zoom lens to allow real-time cropping. After the stately runpast (there is a 20 mph speed limit), the train reverses into the station and we reboard. On the first stage of the climb, east of Romoco, we can clearly hear how hard the steam engine is working, through the many now-open windows in our car.

At Shako City, a few miles further into the lodgepole pine forest, there is another siding at which we pass the Edwards Motor Car, M-100 that forms the morning train from Willits to Northspur. Once that train has left on its westward journey, we run forward to Burbeck, where, we have another runby. Again, I use the fixed focal length lens. Photographic angles for this runby are not as good as those for the first run, with the photographers located much closer to the track the train is running on.

East of Burbeck, the 3% climb to the summit of the coastal range begins in earnest. So after the photorun, but before we set off eastward again, one of CWRR’s chop-nosed Geep diesel locomotives is added to the train, between the steam engine and the first passenger car. For the rest of the eastward trip, our forward view is of diesel loco. headlight, not steam engine tender! The climb to the summit requires a number of hairpin turns across the face of the mountain, requiring 10 railroad miles to go just three miles geographically. With the diesel helper, the steam engine does much less of the work, and we are no longer treated to such wonderful clear stack talk as we had had before reaching Burbeck.

After an hour or so of climbing the mountain face, including another tunnel, we reach the summit, and start the gentle descent to Willits (500 feet in seven miles, compared to around 1500 feet in ten miles on the west slope). Again, the vegetation has changed, as we are now in an interior climate zone. The air outside is also much hotter here! At the beginning of the trip, it was deemed an advantage to be in our coach, since it was warmer than the others. Now, that warmth becomes something we’re trying to shed, not very successfully, through as many open windows as possible.

At the Northwestern Pacific junction, we stop to throw a switch, even though that line is currently embargoed. Then we pull down past the NWP depot to the CWRR depot, adjacent to both the CWRR and NWP yards, and the wye on which the steam engine is turned. We detrain in the yard and walk back to the depot, while the engines are decoupled and run around the wye. The engines are then run past the depot for servicing, but stay out of the way to permit the M-100 to return from its morning trip. In addition to photos of our engine(s), and of M-100, some of us walk around the yards taking pictures of the deteriorating rolling stock cut off from active operations by the NWP embargo. I’m able to return to use of the zoom lens in the bright sun of this interior valley town. After M-100 has unloaded its passengers and pulled out of the way, our engine backs down on (the other end of) our train, and pulls it forward into the depot. We all reboard and the train heads off for its return journey, including a stop for water at the tank just west of the NWP connection.

As we head up and over the mountains, especially down the steep portion of the west slope, it is interesting to listen to the radio chatter between the crews on the two locomotives. On the downgrade, much of the braking is done using the dynamic brakes on the diesel, but several times the diesel crew ask the steam engine crew to use an air brake application, because the diesel’s dynamic-braked wheels are slipping on this track! Each time, the air brake is restored as soon as the diesel regains its footing.

We pass Burbeck without stopping, but we do stop at Northspur, both to provide a break for the passengers (and another crack at them by the souvenir vendors), and to service and water the engine. Before the engine is serviced, the diesel helper is cut out and heads back to Willits. After leaving Northspur, we stop at the next siding towards the coast (Alpine) to wait for the afternoon train from Ft. Bragg to pass us. An extended time period elapses before the diesel locomotive and its coach appear and pass us in the siding. We’re now well behind “schedule”, so a decision is made to cancel the third planned runby in the interest of reducing the lateness of our arrival at Ft. Bragg.

Chris spends much of the time from Northspur to the tunnel standing out in the open car, while I remain in our seats inside the hot car. As we head along the river, the radio conveys a question from the CWRR dispatcher about “60 lunches” that have just been delivered by the local Safeway to the Ft. Bragg depot. After some inquiry, it is agreed that those are intended for the two buses that will be returning some of us to the bay area, and should be accepted (especially since they are already paid for!). Chris returns to our seats when the open car is emptied for the passage through the tunnel.

On arrival back in Ft. Bragg, the coastal weather is much as it was when we left. We detrain, and those of us on the buses reboard our respective buses. The “lunches” are divided into two groups and loaded aboard the buses, as are bottles of water that are put on ice. We’re now an hour or so later than expected, so the buses depart as soon as everything is loaded.  It seems that both we and the other bus are short one passenger, so we stop in town to check with each other, Tom Glover coming aboard our bus to ask is a specific person is aboard (he isn’t). In part because of that lateness, and in part to minimize the travel on twisty roads, Ken and Art opt for us to head directly east on CA 20 to Willits, then south on US 101, rather than retrace our route north.

The road across the mountains runs at a much higher altitude than does the railroad, providing extensive mountain vistas, before crossing the railroad next to the KOA camp at the approach to Willits. South of Willits, on US 101, it becomes clear why the drop down from the summit to Willits was so much smaller than the climb from the coast: Willits is high up at the north end of the Russian River valley, and the highway drops sharply between Willits and Ukiah. Our “lunches” are handed out after passing Willits (to avoid doing this on twisty roads), and by the time we pass Ukiah, darkness has fallen.

There’s no traffic to speak of on this Sunday evening, either south of Santa Rosa or even approaching the Golden Gate Bridge (where the nighttime view is as clear as yesterday’s midday view), so our journey time this evening is a full hour shorter than yesterday afternoon. We drop off the Elks Club contingent at 9:35 pm, and reach San Jose Diridon at 10 pm. We take a taxi to our hotel (the same one as before), then walk to an ATM to replenish our cash from the day’s expenses, check on the progress of the train we will be boarding tomorrow morning (it’s on time leaving Klamath Falls), and go to bed.

Monday, October 15th, 2001

Our train is due out of San Jose at 10:05 am, so we arise about 8:15 am, check on the progress of our train (it’s still on time), get some of the continental breakfast from the hotel lobby, pack and checkout of the hotel, and take our taxi over to the station at about 9:20 am. Here we find out that the train will be 10 minutes late on arrival at San Jose. Sure enough, it arrives just after 10, and I get some pictures as it pulls into the platform.  This time we’re in room 3 of 1132 (32072). During the stop in San Jose, a Caltrain F40PH is added to the front of what otherwise had been the same consist we had taken up on Friday (as expected). Adding the locomotive causes us to be about 20 minutes late leaving San Jose.

There are seals playing in the waters at Elkhorn Slough, as well as the usual large complement of shore birds. There is a huge fogbank along the shore of Monterey Bay. The lunch call is made as we leave Salinas, so we head to the diner. At Templeton, we meet UP 6249 north. Today, train 11 (us) reaches San Luis Obispo first, so we get to occupy the station while train 14 waits just to the south. Even so, since we depart nearly on time, #14 (463, 112, 113) is into the SLO station on time at 3:28 pm.

[consist]

F40                  Caltrain 902
P42                  128
f59                   465
Baggage           1159
Transition         39021
Sleeper             32072  Arkansas
Sleeper             32104  Oklahoma
Sleeper             32103  Ohio
Pacific Parlor    39974
Diner                38062
Lounge 33027
Coach              34102
Coach              34504
Coach              34114
Coach              34117

Train 11, 10-14-2001

Schedule

Actual

10-15-01

 

 

San Jose

10:05am

10:24

Salinas

11:46

1:53/59

Paso Robles

1:36pm

2:01pm

San Luis Obispo

3:10

3:15/31

Santa Barbara

6:17

6:23/31

Oxnard

7:08

7:20

Simi Valley

7:46

7:54

Glendale

8:28

8:29

Los Angeles (arr.)

9:15

8:39

There is another massive fogbank along the coast south of San Luis Obispo, first glimpsed while passing through the valley between SLO and the coast. In Pismo Beach, we’re under thick cloud cover. At Callender, two new sidings are being ballasted. I wonder if these have anything to do with the appearance of those interesting freight cars, here. On both Friday’s northbound and today’s southbound, the dining car crew has offered an :early-bird special” dinner to coach passengers. This appears to be a potential solution to the inability of the diner to handle all who want to eat dinner. It’s not clear whether this is Amtrak West’s solution or this steward’s solution. It’s still foggy/cloudy when we reach the coast, and after we turn east at Point Conception. We have to wait a few minutes for the opposing Central Coast Surfliner west of Goleta. The latest reservation for dinner is 6 pm, so we take that. We’re eating dinner during the Santa Barbara stop (we leave about 20? minutes late). It is dark by the time we’re done with dinner.  At the east end of Santa Susanna Pass, the clarity of the lights below suggests that it has been as clear here as in the bay area. By Glendale, we’re only one minute late. Due to the makeup time included in the schedule, we’re thus 40 minutes early into Los Angeles Union Station. We head directly for our car, pay the $19 parking fee, and are home by 9:30 pm.

This has been a thoroughly enjoyable weekend. It was good to spend some time in the redwood and lodgepole forests again, even if only for a day. The steam excursion, for which we had made the trip, was well worth the time and effort of all concerned.