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The Ghost Train to Nowhere

Trapped by washouts more than a year ago, a load of redwood is emblematic of problems on the Northwestern Pacific railroad and in the region.

May 14, 1999|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EUREKA — For railroad oldtimers around these wooded parts, it's known as the Island Mountain ghost train--three boxcars and eight flatbeds still laden with their abandoned cargo, languishing nearly forgotten along a remote stretch of California's most isolated rail line.

Fifteen months after they were stranded in a winter storm that washed out track on both sides of them, the 11 cars still sit forlornly in the heart of the forest, their cargo of prime redwood lumber exposed to the elements.

Even now, the cash-strapped Northwestern Pacific railroad has yet to find the money to fix the track and retrieve its train. And nobody knows when it will.

"We figured we'd get that lumber back in a week tops," said former train master Clyde Ferguson. "Nobody ever thought it would stay there this long."

The plight of the train is in many respects the story of the Northwestern Pacific itself--a luckless tale of foul weather, limited government funding and a prevailing gloom that what can go wrong eventually will.

It's a tale about the cost of doing business along California's soggy North Coast, which last year received more rain than Seattle. Come winter, the hard rains often wash out the railroad and stretches of U.S. 101--the region's only major roadway.

The formidable winter downpours have discouraged manufacturers, who need reliable routes to bring their products to market across California and the nation. As a result, the region's anemic economy--long reliant on the declining timber and fishing industries--remains derailed by a 9% unemployment rate, which is among the state's highest and more than double the national average.

Recent years have treated the Northwestern Pacific no better.

The historic railroad, which for decades hauled sturdy North Coast redwood to help build homes across the United States, last year became the first rail line in U.S. history to be shut down by the federal government for chronic safety violations. It is more than $12 million in debt and unable to pay its bills.

For two years, a federal audit has held up $14 million in government funding that the railroad desperately needs to pay those debts and repair track damage.

And in December, barely a month after its closure, the publicly owned line was sued by California for allegedly polluting the scenic Eel River, a habitat for the endangered coho salmon.

Despite such enormous obstacles, a cadre of local activists--convinced that a working railroad is a big part of reviving the local economy--continues to battle government officials who view the line as a drain on taxpayers.

"What the Northwestern Pacific has already endured would make for a darned good made-for-television soap opera," said Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin (D-Duncans Mills). "The line is like an abused child. It has suffered a lot of pain, and it hasn't gotten a whole lot of help from the government people who should be helping it."

Little of that was apparent on the rainy Tuesday in February, 1998, when train engineer Nick Mitchell and conductor Gary Kittleson chugged out of the South Fork station in a miserable storm.

Hauling more than $500,000 worth of high-grade redwood, they were headed for a rendezvous with a northbound train at the Island Mountain station, an unpopulated outpost amid a stretch of track so secluded that it winds about 70 miles without a road crossing.

Just before 5 p.m., as a horizontal rain beat against the windshields of the two locomotives pushing the load, the men heard the first distress call from train master Ferguson. He radioed Mitchell that the foul weather had turned their sister train back south.

Worse, a critical situation loomed straight ahead: Just a quarter-mile down the line, the incessant rains had created a condition local conductors know as "swinging track." With the ground washed out from beneath them, the rails dangled in midair like a windblown suspension bridge.

"I told them to get those locomotives out of there, to drop their load and come on home," said Ferguson, a third-generation railroad man with a ruddy face and cowcatcher beard.

Even after ditching their heavy load, the men escaped with little time to spare. A few hours later, the rains washed out more than 300 feet of track just north of them, stranding the cargo on an island less than a mile long. Even today, it's still impossible to reach the marooned cars without a 45-mile hike one-way through uninviting terrain.

A Troubled Line

Such hard luck is common freight along the Northwestern Pacific, the railroad that, like the region, is vulnerable to the whimsical hand of man and nature alike.

The 316-mile line has been troubled since its completion in 1914, when it became the first reliable overland route between the Bay Area and the far-flung North Coast.

Today, with its weather-caused washouts, rail historians say, the line's northern end remains the most expensive stretch of track to maintain in North America.

North Coast residents say that it's worth every penny.

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