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,
Revising what I'd posted above where I stated that "I think Jeff said he rode on it during 1998 - almost ten years after my trip."
I reread Jeff's post again and I think maybe he meant 1988 - not '98. Is that right, Jeff?
-Fred M. Cain
1. Keep in mind this timetable is from 1985. NWP put a lot of work into the line after the 1982/1983 winter inflicted substantial damage on the line, and this dates from a few months before the 1986 storms tore the railroad apart again. Railroads could and often did issue daily track bulletins that further modified speeds based on track conditions.
2. Yes, I meant 1988, not 1998. It was late and I was tired.
It very well could be that the FRA ordered an end to the passenger excursions after the 1988 season. Whatever the case the railroad did start offering Eureka to Fort Seward trips in 1991, those persisted until the fall of 1994.
I got to thinking over the weekend. Wouldn't that be a most amazing coincidence if you and I were both on the same train?! I have no idea how we could ever figure that out. I believe I was on it one weekend in June or July. I don't think it was August 'cause I had to be back to teach school in Indiana by about mid August so I wanted to return in plenty of time before school started.
Fred M. Cain
I thought about that and wondered myself. I might see if we have anything from that trip still around. I don't remember stopping to clear a party of kids off the tracks, but then again I was all of twelve at the time.