Dedicated to Sharing the Heritage of Redwood Empire Railroading
Valle recalls spending two summer vacations watching trains in the Eel River Canyon in California.
Northwestern Pacific was entertainment as well as education
TO THIS DAY, I don't know what possessed my father to decide that we would spend his two-week summer vacation in a dingy rented housekeeping cabin in the little town of Dos Rios, Calif. In fact, we did it twice, in the summer of 1952 and again the following year. I do know that it had an indelible impact on me.
When we first went to Dos Rios, I was a train-crazy kid, but by the end of the second vacation, I was a true railfan. That is, I had discovered there was more to running a railroad than just a bunch of engineers racing their locomotives down the tracks.
My first inkling of the adventure to come occurred as we drove past the Northwestern Pacific roundhouse at Willits. There, in stalls and on the garden tracks, sat about a dozen grimy steamers. The NWP had sent most of its own freight locomotives to the boneyard by that time, so virtually all the motive power stationed at Willits was leased Southern Pacific Harriman-type Consolidations. There seemed to be enough of the 2-8-0's on hand to promise some good train-- watching, if we could only get back to Willits.
Presently we left the highway and struck out on a gravel road that ran along the Eel River I was overjoyed to see that the track was also following the river, albeit on the other bank. Finally, about 25 miles north of Willits, we crossed a gleaming silver highway bridge and arrived at Dos Rios, which at that time had a large water tank, a depot with a manual block-order board, a passing track, a house track, and a spur siding. The town itself consisted of the housekeeping cabins, a small cafe, and some miscellaneous buildings straggling up the steep gravel road. To my mother it seemed like a dump, but to my dad and me it was a suburb of paradise. First and foremost, there was the railroad, which fascinated us both. Next, well below the right-of-way, the Eel River flowed, its green water looking cool and inviting in the wilting summer heat. There was a gray sand beach just under the bridge, and dramatic rock formations and high hills on the opposite bank.
I assumed that a few trains a day would pass with long, frustrating intervals, but I was wrong. It was the peak of the postwar economic boom, and the demand for lumber and building materials was strong. We hadn't even finished unpacking when a northbound freight clanked into town. The engineer spotted his locomotive under the water tank, and the fireman began to fill the Vanderbilt tender. I ran down to the track as fast as I could and arrived just in time to see the fireman overfill the tender. Water cascaded down the curved flanks of the tender like a miniature Niagara. What a thrill for a 9-year-old!
Soon that train whistled off, but 10 minutes later another pulled up to the tank and the ritual was re-enacted. The Vanderbilt tender, cylindrical in section, fills slowly at first, but very rapidly as the water gets near the top. Very few of the young extra-board firemen who drew Eel River Canyon runs knew how to draw a full tank without spilling a lot of it on the ground. I thought it was the greatest show going, but my dad wasn't so enthusiastic. He informed me that the roadbed was soft in these parts due to the proximity of the river, and that tender spillage didn't help matters. The soft roadbed also precluded the NWP from running any really big power on that line, which meant lots of relatively short trains running behind smaller engines.
THE TRAINS came through in a steady procession. Empty boxcars and flats went north and came back south loaded with lumber. There were even open-top boxcars full of sawdust in the consists. Every train had its grime-streaked SP 2-8-0 on the head end and a dark red NWP caboose bringing up the rear. Many trains stopped to pick up orders and take water, and I began to learn the whistle signals for backing up, going ahead, and calling in the flagman.
One day, while we were swimming in the river, I noticed two trains pull into town from opposite directions. There seemed to be some confusion as to which one would take the siding. Before the issue could be decided, two more trains arrived, apparently following sections! That made four trains in town at once. And then another showed up! Apparently there had been some sort of mix-up; this led to much whistle-blowing as engines simmered and safeties popped off while conductors scrunched up and down the gravel ballast with sheafs of flimsies in their hands. We had a grandstand seat, lolling on the beach or floating in the cool river, and I got my first inkling of the intricate business of train dispatching. Finally, after much sawing back and forth, the traffic jam cleared up and Dos Rios went back to its usual somnolence.
As the days passed, I got more familiar with the daily rhythm of train movements in the canyon. I noticed that a local went up the line toward Eureka every morning, often stopping to pick up and set out a few cars on the Dos Rios spur and house tracks. During the rest of the day, through freights would pass in either direction, whistling for the order board and sometimes stopping to take water. Late in the afternoon, the southbound local would arrive, drill cars for about a half hour, take on water, and depart. More trains would pass at night. The crowning event of the cycle would be the arrival of the overnight passenger and mail trains, Nos. 3 and 4. This took place in the wee hours, and I could never stay up long enough to see them, but my dad did. He told me they were pulled by Ten-Wheelers wearing proper NWP lettering and numbers, and consisted of mail cars, a Pullman, and a rider coach.
AFTER A WHILE, my favorite train became the evening peddler freight. I remember one time I ran down to the tank to watch the fireman take water. Just as I got there, the engine crew decided to sand the flues. Before I knew it, the ancient C-Class Consol was belching out black smoke like Mount Vesuvius. With the blower roaring and the sky beginning to darken overhead, I was seized by panic and indecision. Should I run for it or shouldn't I? I did run a little, but soon stopped to watch. Sure enough, the smoke eventually abated and the old kettle whistled off toward Willits, none the worse for wear.
Another time I was watching the local switch cars when the engineer noticed me.
"Hey kid," he said. "Want to come up in the cab?" Did I ever! I was up in a flash. I must have stayed in the cab for at least a half-hour while they set out cars and took water. The engine crew were young men, I recall, probably junior on the roster, but they handled their little Consolidation competently enough. After they had finished their chores, they offered to let me ride down the canyon with them. Suddenly I was wracked with guilt and indecision. How could I get permission from my parents? It was nearly dinner time. My mom would have a fit. Most pressing of all, how would I get back? Regretfully, I declined the invitation, climbed down, and trudged home. Naturally, nobody believed I had ridden on a locomotive. Looking back on it now, I should have taken the ride whatever the consequences, but when you are 9 years old, you just don't have the nerve to grasp an opportunity like that.
Eventually, our Dos Rios vacation came to an end. Naturally I was wild to do it again the next year, and we did, but much of the glory had departed. By summer 1953 the NWP had almost completed dieselization, and the only Eel River line runs still in steam were the locals. All of the through trains were handled by cow-- calf EMD switcher units. The trains were longer. The intervals between trains were longer still, and none of them ever stopped at Dos Rios. It just wasn't the same town without the steamers. Sadly, my father died of a heart attack just a few months later, and I have never been back. But the memories of that place and time have never really left me. The Dos Rios summers marked the end of my childish train craziness and the beginning of my appreciation of the true nature of railroading.
What a wonderful story!
So descriptive......anyone reading this article can visualize the scenes. Beautifully written and edited. Are there any more stories available by this gentleman? Thankyou so much for posting on behalf of all the members, including myself.....fabulous !!!!