FT. BRAGG, Calif. — A familiar whistle is echoing through this logging town again. It's the salute from Ol' No. 45, the smoking steam locomotive of the famed Skunk Line that's back on track after a two-year absence.
The vintage iron horse has a rebuilt boiler and is once more puffing its way with carloads of sightseers through the redwood forests of Mendocino County. Diesel-powered locomotives and rail cars also ply the Route of the Redwoods, but the steam train is an excellent way to go. Beginning this weekend, visitors can take a nostalgic ride behind the 65-year-old Baldwin locomotive every Friday and Saturday through Sept. 9. Other steam train trips are scheduled on Sept. 23 and Oct. 7 and 21.
Reminiscent of times gone by, puffs of white steam cloud the sky while a long whistle announces the departure of the Super Skunk. Kids in engineer caps wave from the windows as the great maroon engine chugs out of Ft. Bragg.
"Tickets, please!" calls out the red-vested conductor from the front of the first passenger car.
Then he uses the train's public-address system to introduce the other crew members (engineer, fireman and brakeman), announce that smoking is prohibited and begin pointing out sights along the way.
Paralleling century-old rails used by the original logging trains, the tracks lead almost immediately into the woods to follow the course of Pudding Creek and the Noyo River. Beyond Milepost 3.5 is the entrance to an 1,100-foot unlit tunnel that took Chinese laborers two years to dig in the 1890s.
"Close all windows to keep smoke out of the coaches," announces the conductor. "And no necking in the tunnel."
After the train emerges, passengers are allowed to go to a roofless observation car in the middle of the train. There are no seats, so it's easy to maneuver to a good position for taking pictures of the passing scenery.
On either side are huge trunks of felled redwoods and new stands of timber and ferns covering the forest floor. Besides a few vacation cabins and children's summer camps, the woods are inhabited mostly by wildlife, including rabbits, deer and an occasional bear. Look for osprey and great blue herons, too.
Into the Woods
The 43-mile round trip runs from Ft. Bragg deep into the woods to the turnaround station at Northspur. Passengers disembark for refreshments while the steam engine is switched to the opposite end of the train and refilled with water for the return trip.
If Ol' No. 45 is booked up during your visit, there also are twice-daily excursions powered by historic diesel locomotives. In winter the trips are made in 50- and 69-passenger rail cars.
Dating back to 1885, the Skunk Line began as a railroad that hauled logs to timber mills on the coast at Ft. Bragg. After the turn of the century, passenger service was begun to take townsfolk on Sunday outings in the woods.
Soon the tracks of the California Western Railroad were extended to Willits, where passengers could connect with stagecoaches to San Francisco. Steam-train service ended in 1925 when single, self-powered rail cars were introduced.
People said you could smell their gas-fueled engines long before you would see the rail cars, and that's when the railroad became known as the Skunk Line.
The Super Skunk
After excursions on the bright yellow rail cars became a popular attraction in the 1960s, it was decided to put a steam train back into service. The Super Skunk, made up of restored locomotive No. 45 and four passenger coaches from the Erie-Lackawanna line, began sightseeing runs in 1965.
Due to mechanical breakdowns, increased operating costs and a change in the railroad's ownership, steam-train service has been sporadic since 1980. But the Mendocino County Railway Society was formed and it has succeeded in reestablishing steam-locomotive excursions on a regular schedule this summer.
Ol' No. 45 departs Fridays and Saturdays at 9:20 a.m. and 1:35 p.m., with extra rail cars capable of accommodating up to 460 passengers. Steaming to speeds of 15 to 20 m.p.h., the train's round trip to Northspur takes three hours. On other days the coaches and open observation cars are pulled by a diesel locomotive.
The steam or diesel excursion costs $16, children 5 though 11 years $8, under age 5 free.
Rail buffs who would like to make the entire 40-mile run to Willits can change trains at Northspur and continue via diesel locomotive.
If you take the morning train it's possible to make a round trip to Willits in the same day, returning to Ft. Bragg at 4:35 p.m. The fare is $20, children $10. (Diesel trains also make twice-daily round trips from Willits to Northspur.)
For a full schedule of the Skunk Line excursions, call (707) 964-6371 or write to California Western Railroad, P.O. Box 907L, Ft. Bragg, Calif. 95437. Reservations are recommended for any trip, steam or diesel; call the same number.
The Skunk depot in Ft. Bragg is at Laurel Avenue just off California 1 (Main Street).
From Los Angeles, drive to San Francisco, then follow U.S. 101 north beyond Cloverdale to join California 126 west. When it meets the Coast Highway at Navarro River Beach, continue north on California 1 past Mendocino to Ft. Bragg.
While you're in town, visit the Guest House Museum adjacent to the depot. Exhibits in the three-story Victorian home recall the area's early logging and railroading days. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission $1.
Across from the depot at the North Coast Brewing Co., 444 S. Main St., you can enjoy sandwiches and salads with beer made and sold only at the brewery. Try a dry stout called Old No. 45.
For more information about dining, lodging and attractions, call the Ft. Bragg-Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce at (707) 964-3153, or write to P.O. Box 1141, Ft. Bragg, Calif. 95437.
Round trip from Los Angeles for a train ride along the Route of the Redwoods from Ft. Bragg is 1,072 miles.