This article appeared in the July 24, 2003 edition of the Mendocino Beacon.
Back in 1884 C.R. Johnson who with Cal Stewart and James Hunter owned a mill up in Kibesillah, announced the start of a new mill down next to Soldier Harbor, where Fort Bragg had been abandoned in 1867. On November 16, 1865 he turned on the new band saw, thus officially starting up operations of the new Fort Bragg Lumber Co.
By that time some track had already been laid for his other new business, the Fort Bragg Railroad Co, , which included the Pudding Creek Railroad, purchased from Alexander McPherson and Henry Wetherbee. The tracks ran from the mill to Pudding Creek and followed it east into the woods; on it in 1886 the newly purchased 26-ton steam locomotive “Sequoia”, a 2-4-2 started hauling logs started hauling logs to the mill.
By 1887 there was nearly seven miles of track. A second locomotive was purchased, along with a San Francisco cable car which was converted into a passenger car. “C.R.” was unique in that he wanted his railroad not only to support the lumber business, but also to have it serve social and cultural needs – right away it started carrying loggers with their wives or girlfriends on Sunday picnics.
By 1893 Johnson bought large timber tracts along the Noyo River from the firm of White & Plummer, merging these assets and the Fort Bragg Lumber Co. into the new Union Lumber Co. To get the logs from this newly purchased land to the mill, a 1,122 foot long tunnel had to be dug through a rocky slope between Pudding Creek and the Noyo River; it was completed in 1893, built entirely by Chinese laborers.
By 1893 the railroad extended along Pudding Creek and the Noyo River for 10 miles; its main purpose was to move logs to the mill, but it was also far enough inland so that travelers could ride the passenger car to the end of the line, catch a buckboard stage to Willits, another stage to Ukiah, the railway to Sausalito, and then ferry to San Francisco.
By 1904 regular service was extended to Alpine, 18.1 miles inland. The route was of course just one long series of curves (see pictures and map) and bridges (one trestle was a perfect “S” curve – see picture). It was necessary to use A-Frame bridge construction (the top of the “A” was above the tracks; i.e., the weight of the tracks right over the river was supported from above and thus there were no supports in the water below the bridge to be wiped out by logs that often came crashing down-stream with the winter rains).
In 1905 Johnson further expanded the business, buying a controlling interest in Mendocino Lumber Co., and 50 per cent interest of the Glen Blair Lumber Co. The railroad company was re-capitalized and before long was named the California Western Railroad. The goal of the new company was to reach Willits, to meet the Northwestern Pacific Railroad coming north from Ukiah.
The land rises to 1,740 feet as you get closer to Willits; at one point it was necessary to lay eight and one-half miles of track to move forward just one and ne-half miles, and an upgrade of 3.3 degrees was required while most railroads do not exceed one degree.
By 1910 there were 27.8 miles of track and only five miles to go (but it would take another 12.2 miles of track). Another tunnel, this one 795 feet long had to be dug and blasted out of the rock; it was accomplished over seven months by Nelson & Co. out of San Francisco – two 12-hour shifts at each end, with 20 men on each shift.
The great day marking completion finally took place on December 19, 1911, after 26 years after the railroad was started. To be invited to ride on the inaugural roundtrip was an honor akin to knighthood. One hundred and fifty lucky passengers left Fort Bragg amid wild cheering of nearly the entire town (2,500 people then – see picture); they were pulled by #5 (see picture) over the curves, the bridges and the tunnels on to Willits, 40 miles away (but only 22 miles as the crow flies). Most of that town’s 1.200 citizens were there, the band playing was playing and everyone was hollering – quite an occasion. (see picture).
The roundtrip fare was originally $3 – a great bargain when compared to the stage fares. By mid-1912 more than 400 visitors a day were arriving.