Dedicated to Sharing the Heritage of Redwood Empire Railroading
I have made several posts on here trying to find interest it getting the line north of Willits rebuilt. I hope and pray that will happen someday. But right now I’d like to try and pry open a window in my memory and take a little peek back into the past.
It was the summer of 1988 or maybe ’89. By then I was already living in northern Indiana. My parents had relocated to Danville in the East Bay Area. So I decided to head out West on Amtrak for a month or so. This was not the first time I’d done this nor was it the last. Since I was still single at the time that made it just a tad bit easier I guess.
Before I left I think I saw an article in TRAINS Magazine about a train called the North Coast Daylight that was operating from Willits to Eureka. After I got out there I enthusiastically told my Dad about it. However, Dad was a bit skeptical as to whether or not he really wanted to spend the money and time doing this. Somehow, I finally talked him into it.
So one Friday after he came home from work the two of us headed for Willits. We checked into what I remember as being a somewhat rustic but still quite comfortable motel right off of U.S. 101. I remember Dad calling home to tell Mom that we’d made it O.K. and that they still had the old rotary phones in there which were already getting rarer back then even in ’88.
The next morning bright and early we arrived at the Willits rail yard which was at that time jointly used by the California & Western R.R. (C & W), the Eureka Southern (E.S.) and I believe that the SP still came in there from the south. There seemed to be a crowd there of some rather bewildered looking people wondering what was what until finally our train pulled in. It was beautiful sight to behold! All brightly painted in orange “Daylight” colors (inspired by the old SP) and a freshly painted and dapper looking locomotive for the E.S.
We soon boarded and settled into our seats. We took off from there a-flyin’. I would guess that it was at least 49MPH. At some point we slowed down to a crawl. There was a very short tunnel that had collapsed and the ES had built a flimsy shoofly around it that we tippy toed over at about 5 MPH. Then we were off again. It could’ve been as fast as 59MPH, I don’t know. That is the maximum speed allowed for passenger trains in the U.S. in “dark territory”. I stood for a time in the last car looking out the back an marveled at the dust we kicked up flying over rural grade crossings.
There was this really cool guy on there who I can only refer to as “The M.C.”. He was kinda like the head attendant on an Amtrak train. But he was also responsible for the operation of his equipment and it was obvious that he was very knowledgeable. He was also very friendly. I struck up a conversation with him and mentioned the good track and the high speed. Then he said something like, “Oh, but just wait. In a few more miles we will enter the Eel River Canyon then it’s 10MPH all the way to Eureka!”
And so it was. This guy would walk down the aisles every few minutes and try to make sure that everyone was happy and having a good time. He went above and beyond the call of duty. He stopped and talked to me again to see how it was going and then I asked him a question about the locomotive. I can't remember what I’d said but he then asked me, “Oh, so. You wanna see the engine?” I was kinda like, “Gee, I dunno. Can we do that?”
“Of course you can. Just follow me!” So Dad and I followed along behind him through a couple of cars to the head end of the lead car. He unlocked the door and told us, “O.K. but you have to hold on tight here”. So we walked along the side of the moving locomotive holding on for dear life and I tell you what, that thing was a rockin’ and rollin’ and pitchin’ back and forth! I could look down and see the rapids in the Eel River. He walked up, opened the cab door and we entered the cab. I asked the engineer about the track and he told me 10MPH – that was it.
Soon the M.C. took us back to our seats, walking along the rocking engine again. Back in our seats again, my Dad’s face was as white as a sheet as if he’d seen a ghost. Then he started to chuckle. “Oh my gawd”, he said, “I just can’t believe the condition of those tracks! Those are the worst tracks I’ve ever seen”. Then sometime later he brought it up again. “Those are the worst tracks I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t understand how they can even keep this thing on the rails”.
Later we took siding at Island Mountain to allow a southbound E.S. freight to pass. I noticed several flats loaded with what looked like large wooden beams. “That’s good stuff for us to handle”, said the MC, “’cause it’s heavy. Trucks simply cannot carry so much of a load of it at a time”.
I asked the MC about the future of this line. He shook his head and said things don’t look real good. I asked him if anything could be done to save it.
“Well, there is one thing”, he told me. “They’re talking about a deep sea port at Eureka for export coal. THAT would save it.” But, sadly, that just never happened.
As we got into the more northerly part of the Canyon small “stringers” of redwoods began to appear mostly along stream courses flowing into the Eel. As we continued to progress toward the northwest, the trees began to grow thicker and taller until we found ourselves in a beautiful redwood forest of second growth.
I stood in the vestibule with the open windows taking it all in. (Yes, they let us to that too). We rolled on through the forest clickety clacking on jointed rail with the engineer blowing for an occasional grade crossing. There was a unique fragrance of the redwood forest mixing with Diesel exhaust.
As we approached Eureka, I can distinctly recall that the tracks were up on the side of a hill on top of large retaining wall or something. It was on that retaining wall that we ground to a stop and sat there for ten of fifteen minutes until the MC walked through shaking his head. “Dumb kids”, he related, “having a party on the tracks. They thought they were no longer used. Couldn’t they see that the rail heads were shiny and wonder why?” Finally, finally, finally they got the kids off the tracks – don’t know if they called the sheriff or what – and we were on our way again.
Coming into Eureka there was a stretch of street running where the track was smack dab in the middle of the street. That’s where we stopped and unloaded. Dad and I headed for our hotel – the same one we’d stayed in before when we’d taken road trips to Eureka. I can no longer recall how we got there. Since it was several blocks from the train I assume Dad found a cab ‘cause he wasn’t the world’s greatest walking fan.
Next morning we were back again and left early. Had a nice breakfast in the dining car. I remember a stretch of track with welded rail that ran along or near the water. Limping along at the mandated 10MPH I imagined that the engineer finally muttered to himself something like, “Oh s____! F___ the damn F.R.A.!” and opened up the throttle taking us quickly up to at least 49MPH. The ride was bit bumpier at that speed but not nearly as bumpy as some of the BN tracks that I’d crossed the country on Amtrak.
Although the engineer may have violated an FRA mandate, I firmly believe that he KNEW his territory and KNEW his railroad and he KNEW that that stretch of track was clearly safe for 49MPH. The guy at the throttle knew more about his railroad than some bureaucrat in Washington! However, after a few more short miles we were back down to 10 again all the way until about 10-20 miles north of Willits.
All too soon we found ourselves back in Willits and faced the long drive home back to Danville.
I simply cannot put into words how grateful and thankful I am that I had this experience. It is a most wonderful memory that I will never forget as long as I live.
There were two meals a day served in the diner and the food was excellent – Amtrak passengers should be so lucky – although I did feel that the portions were somewhat small. No matter. We were just sitting for two days anyhow.
The scenery was nothing short of breathtaking and the service was excellent and that MC was wonderful and most helpful. If my hopes and dreams ever come true and this railroad gets restored, it will never again be quite like it was back then. On some possible future tourist train (if that ever comes to pass) I can’t imagine them taking a passenger out on the engine again! Not happenin’ !
Searching online, I found some nice photos of the train from the “trainweb” site. You have to scroll down a bit past the pictures of the C&W to see the photos of the Daylight.
Then, here is a fun online video I found:
That really brings back memories of the experience I had. It was just like that! If only future generations could be so lucky to have a train ride like this. Probably it will never happen again. Once more, I cannot emphasize enough how glad I am that we did this.
Fred M. Cain,
Wow! Thank you Fred, for sharing your reminiscence of the North Coast Daylight. Incredibly rare mileage for sure.
Thanks Jennifer ! ! !
Yes, great story! Didn’t know that E.S. trains ever ran that fast on the line.
A rare moment in history, as the E.S. only ran for about 18 months (and I blinked).
Do you recall what the fare was?
I recall a motel in Willits with the sign “Ailens from outer space stay free. ID Required.” Early 1980’s?
Last week I posted a picture here of one of the last remaining pieces of Daylight rolling stock now sitting on a spur in Asti south of Cloverdale. Someday we MAY see passenger service once again on that RoW but it surely will not have a dining car like you experienced and it will be Green and silver, not Orange. I grew up in Southern Calif. and have similar sweet memories of riding the Coast Daylight from Santa Barbara up to Palo Alto in the '50's. Too young then to appreciate the dining experience but I did learn for future experience where many of the special surf spots were/are. If you see someone wearing a shirt that has "Hollister" on the front, that is the name of the ranch that the Daylight tracks transversed. Amtrak still runs trains on that route so before some politician in DC redlines the funding for Amtrak, you must come out to ride that route. Then you can come to visit our meetings here in Sonoma County. Might even take a trip over to Napa where the other car in that Daylight dining consist is now part of the Napa Valley Wine Train.
Also on that the thread that I started you will see where one of the members of this w-site id'ed the car as one of two dining cars used on the Daylight run. That car may have been one you sat in or at least one that provided the kitchen for your meals.
Thanks, Richard. Also, as an aside, after my Dad retired from the Lawrence Livermore Lab they moved up to Yountville. I used to go out there and visit them and would often see the Wine Train. I always wanted to ride on it but unfortunately you had to buy a meal to do that. I wasn't interested in the meal, I just wanted a train ride. Since then they might've changed that.
I actually grew up in Arizona. But my Dad and I also rode the Coast Daylight in 1969 before Amtrak took over. Since then I have also ridden on Amtrak's Coast Starlight a couple of time but that's already been about 30 years ago now.
Fred M. Cain
First off, no way were you going speeds that fast...20-25 I could believe, though it probably felt like 40+ on poorly regulated stick rail. Here's a page of Eureka Southern timetable #1 from 1985 I found somewhere on the internet a while back showing posted speed limits for the line, note there is only one stretch of 40 up around Fernbridge, otherwise it was mostly a 10-25 mph railroad.
To Dave S, Eureka Southern actually lasted from 1 September 1984 to 31 March 1992, though after December 1986 the company operated under bankruptcy protection and was managed by a trustee appointed by the court. As for the passenger excursions....Great Western Tours formed Redwood Coast Railways, which launched the North Coast Daylight on 25 May 1985 using EUKA power and GW's passenger cars. Great Western/Redwood Coast only lasted that one season, as they declared bankruptcy in January 1986. North Coast Daylight then stepped in, but the extensive storm damage inflicted on the EUKA in the spring of 1986 coupled with problems purchasing liability insurance forced the company to cancel the entire 1986 season. EUKA declared bankruptcy on 15 December 1986, but some financial arrangements allowed the railroad to buy the passenger cars from Great Western in May 1987, and North Coast Daylight actually ran its first train in June and started full Willits to Eureka trips in July. Unfortunately, North Coast Daylight only ran the full Willits to Eureka service in the last half of the summer of 1987 and then a full season in 1988, and that was it. EUKA ran no passenger trains in 1989 or 1990, though in 1991 it ran a small handful of passenger trains from Eureka to Fort Seward and return. North Coast Railroad continued these in 1992-1994, but the last of those ran in the fall of 1994. Afterwards the railroad did run a few public trips around Humboldt Bay until about 1996. NWP did offer a few excursions out of the Asti area shortly after it replaced California Northern, but the bad track conditions quickly ended that service.
My family and I also rode North Coast Daylight sometime probably towards the end of that summer of 1998, I remember a very similar weekend to the one you experienced Fred. I do remember they had shuttle van service from the unloading area in the middle of the street in Eureka to the various hotels and then back to the train in the morning. I'll have to see if I can find anything from that trip. I would move to Arcata to attend college six years later, and thus had a front row seat to the death throws a few years later.
Thanks for the memories!
Hey ! Great Picture ! That's the way I remember this, too!
On the speed limits, there's kinda of puzzle there. I distinctly remember that the guy I call the "MC" told me that the entire railroad had been slapped with a 10MPH speed limit north of just a few miles north of Willits. According to the ETT you posted, I'm guessing that'd be around M.P. 183 but cannot be sure. Realize, I have been trying to draw on memories from nearly 30 years ago now.
Another question I have, most railroads (but not all) allow passenger trains consisting entirely of passenger equipment to run slightly faster that freight trains. Did the Eureka Southern ever do this?
I seem to vaguely recall reading years ago in TRAINS Magazine that the D&RGW didn't do that. Amtrak complained about it for a long time. Then after the D&RGW-SP merger (or whatever it was) they finally raised the speed limit for the California Zephyr. The CZ could now run at speeds of up to 79MPH on the best stretches of track.
Fred M. Cain
You are correct, that the canyon was slapped with a 10 MPH limit. Some track limits do allow Passenger trains to run faster... NWP/EUKA I would say, between Arcata and Fortuna, would "very" their speed sometimes if they were running late. I do have to say, that from word of mouth of Engineers, they respected the canyon speeds and sometime ran slower than posted speed in the Eel.
Great story! I have ridden the EURK Daylight and NCRA Daylights as a kid. However, as Jeff posted, I think the top speed was 25 and towards the end, that was top. I do want to say from experience, my dad (and I) used to volunteer on the forth of July daylight that ran between Arcata and Eureka. at the point between Bracut and the Bridge by the old Monkey Wards we were almost keeping up with cars going around 60 MPH, so I could believe that we were doing around 40 as passengers, but 40 would be TOP. The other half of the forth of july daylight was not so pleasant, the tracks between Bracut and Arcata were bad and the train only crawled 10 MPH. Heck, one year they made the passengers get off at the marsh and "walk the trails" to "see the sights"... it was really because the track was so bad, they didn't want to risk a derailment with people on board. : /
I also used to get cab rides all the time. Most ride a-longs were for the Arcata/Blue Lake local. Most engineers kept the speed down to 15 MPH thru Arcata, Maybe 25 at some points. I remember one engineer was running late, and decided to pick up speed. We were on the lead to Simpson in the bottoms. That track was BAD. It shouldn't have been open... He was moving 25 MPH... I was 9 or 10... I thought I was going to die. I have never seen CCT #70 rock and roll so much in my life... This same engineer used to couple cars hard. He used to make loads of lumber on flatcars shift back and forth... He definitely either had a death wish or seriously trusted the NWP's trackage.
I am glad that the Engineers and Conductors used to let me have cab rides all the time. It was a wonderful opportunity to actually observe the NWP in its final days.
Thanks for sharing your memories! One question I have is that I thought I could distinctly remember reading in TRAINS Magazine perhaps a year or so after our trip on the Daylight, that the FRA banned all passenger service on the EURK because their track was "unfit for passenger service". Does anybody else remember that or am I full of it? If the FRA did that then somehow EURK must have addressed the issue again because I think Jeff said he rode on it during 1998 - almost ten years after my trip.
I think that the "fast running" I remember to the north of Willits was probably in the 25 MPH zone indicated in the ETT that Jeff shared with us. Since it was passenger equipment, the engineer might have pushed it a little bit but I don't know that for sure. It might've just seemed faster as Jeff suggested.
As for the faster running I remember along the water on welded rail, that was surely the 40MPH zone between M.P. 270.8 and 279.2 as indicated on Jeff's ETT. I continue to suspect that the FRA had mandated a 10MPH limit through there but the engineer, knowing full way that the track was safe for 40MPH simply observed the old speed limit. But again, I'm speculating here.
It'd be nice to see an ETT from the 1960s to see what the speed limit was for passenger trains back then when the RDC was running. The Old SPT Co tended to put their speed limits in a separate book of "special instructions". I don't know if they did that for the NWP or not. In the last years that the SP operated before the UP "takeover" the speed limits were included in the ETT.
Fred M. Cain