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All Aboard the Skunk Train! (History and Ticket Info)

State and national parks and historical attractions have long been a favorite destination for Liz, and she loves sharing them.

Front view of the famous Skunk Train in motion.

Front view of the famous Skunk Train in motion.

Travel by Train

From the time I was a small child, I've been fascinated by trains. And by trains, I mean the old steam trains of antiquity. There is a certain romance to these behemoths, as they go chugging down the tracks.

In their day, they were the most modern engineering marvel to hit the transportation scene since the invention of the wheel. Only a slight exaggeration is involved with that statement. To be sure, there was a new revolution of transportation with the horse-drawn carriage, but it was still a rather simple construction as far as the basic engineering was concerned.

If you've ever gone on a train excursion, you know the ease and relaxation it affords, as you can casually stroll down the length of the passenger cars, have a meal in a full-service dining car sporting white tablecloths, or snooze in a comfortable bed.

While airplanes may get you there quicker, strolling the aisles is generally frowned upon, and your meal service, if any, is liable to be comparable to a box lunch. Sleeping? Well, yes and no, if you like to awaken with a kink in your neck.

CW M200 railbus, circa 1966

CW M200 railbus, circa 1966

The Skunk

Why Skunk? What an unflattering name! As it turns out, there was a time when the people who lived in the woods along this train line weren't served so much by the large train, but by a small, self-contained railbus.

It looked like a bus or trolley car with railroad wheels instead of rubber tires. It burned diesel fuel, and had on board a small coal-fired heater to keep passengers warm. It didn't smell very good, and the old-timers said you could smell it before you could see it.

That's just one of several versions of how the Skunk got its name.

When the logging line was abandoned, and the route turned into an excursion train, they kept the name, even though the old railbus no longer operates.

The diesel-electric from Willits

The diesel-electric from Willits

Where Do You Catch a Skunk?

The train, not the four-footed variety, that is. The California Western Railroad operates this line through the redwoods in Mendocino County, along the Noyo River.

You can board on the coast, at Fort Bragg, or inland at Willits. Boarding on the coast gets you directly onto the famous and historic steam train (in season) which runs to the halfway point in the middle of the woods at a stopover named Northspur.

Boarding at Willits, you ride a diesel-electric to Northspur to transfer to the steam train.

That said, however, the steam train is a seasonal operation, and may not be in service all year. Summer and early fall are the best times to ride. The CWR also runs special-event trains from time to time.

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How Long Is the Ride?

If you wish to ride the full distance, round trip, it's about an eight-hour trip. From either end, the train stops for about half an hour at the Northspur Station, and from there you transfer to the other train, steam or diesel, depending on which end you started from.

When I last rode, it was the full-day trip, though I scarcely noticed the passage of time, as my daughter and I spent most of the trip on the steam portion standing up in the open observation car, snapping photos and loving the scenery.

If you only go as far as Northspur, it's less time from either end (approximately half a day trip, in that case). At Northspur, you can watch the steam train take on water from the old-fashioned water tank at the site.

History of the Skunk Train

The line began as a logging route in 1885, then called the Fort Bragg Railroad. It carried lumber, but also the workers and their families to the various logging camps that sprang up along the line; it became part of the social and cultural fabric of the area.

After the logging was halted, the line was bought in 1966, after several prior changes of ownership, by local investors. This marked its first operation as an independent business.

If You're Going

To board at Fort Bragg, from either north or south, take California Highway 1, which runs along the coast.

To board at Willits, from either north or south, take US highway 101, the inland route.

It is best to call ahead for reservation and ticket information, as well as to find out when and if the steam train is running when you want to ride. 707-964-6371.

You can also visit their website.

Note: Though closed for periods of time due to COVID-19, the trains are once again running regularly.

Relics of a Bygone Era

Steam trains belong to the past while our freight these days is carried in mile-long combinations of box, flat, and tank cars pulled by diesel-electric locomotives, sometimes several linked together in what is called a consist. Some trains of this type are nearly 2 miles long!

The diesel-electric loco is rather a Rube Goldberg affair, given that it burns large quantities of diesel fuel to power a massive generator which in turn runs the electric motors that actually power the drive wheels. The steam engine is a bit more direct drive: the boiler provides steam to power the engine, which pistons are directly connected to the drive wheels. There is no need for an intermediary device of a generator.

Steam Trains Sorted by Type

In the United States, steam trains are few and far between. The “end of the steam era” was considered to be in the early to mid-1950s. The remaining ones have gone the way of the scrapyard, or to museums and short tourist excursion lines, if they were lucky.

There are many different types of steam locomotives, and the main distinctions are based on wheel arrangements, for classification purposes. This is because many manufacturers made too many body styles to be able to keep track of them by those designs.
The wheel arrangements, however, became pretty standard based on the intended use of the locomotives.

Most of them have at least two front wheels, a set of main driving wheels, and probably two, maybe more, in the rear. They are called, respectively, leading, or pilot wheels, drivers, and trailing wheels.

The pilot wheels help the train around corners; the drivers, obviously, supply the motive power, and the trailing wheels help support the weight of the rear of the engine. Not all locomotives have all of these. The designations look like this:

2-6-2 would be two pilot wheels, six driving wheels, and two trailing wheels. Since you can only see one side of the train at a time, you need to remember that you are counting pairs of wheels, so when you see a one, three, and one wheel combination from your side, you double the numbers to include the ones on the other side.

The Skunk steam train is a Baldwin Locomotive 2-8-2.

Below is a very interesting and well-done video explaining all of this.

© 2020 Liz Elias

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