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Skunk Train at Fort Bragg, California.

Skunk Train at Fort Bragg, CA.

"You can smell 'em before you can see 'em."

Fort Bragg and Willits, California

June 9 - 11, 2005

By Carl@TrainWeb.com

The best thing about a tourist train is not the equipment, but the people who operate the train.  This is obvious when you first arrive at the Fort Bragg Skunk Train Depot.  We were scheduled to take the ST trip:  Steam Train to Northspur - Adults $45 - Children $20 - 3.5 hours train pulled by Steam engine to Northspur.  Because the steam engine was in the Fort Bragg shed for over-heating bearings repair for about a week, the same four-car train was pulled by the No. 66 diesel, to the same location.  Departure time during the summer is 9 a.m. Wednesday through Saturdays, May 28 - Sept. 4.
(Double-click any photo below for a double-sized copy.  Click BACK in your browser to return to this page.)

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Wendy Squires efficiently operates the Fort Bragg Station


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The station is one block left off Hwy. 101 at the end of Laurel Street.

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The weather was beautiful and the two coaches, cafe car, and open observation car were in place, ready for the run to Northspur and back.


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Train Host, Chuck Whitlock, told the assembled passengers to step down to the end of the platform to see an historic motorcar pull out for its duties the next few days over the mountain at the Willits Station.

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At precisely 8:50, 10 minutes before our scheduled departure, the unique motorcar pulled out, switched onto the main line and headed east.
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Engineer Evan skillfully maneuvered the historic M-100 motorcar eastward toward Northspur and Willits.
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The 1955 GP9 No. 66 soon pulled into position for the day's work. The water tower here and others along the route, are still needed for the steam engine.


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The Engineer on the #66 was Bob Juhola who had been with the Skunk Train for 25 - 30 years, and is the Roadmaster.
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No. 66 switches to lead the consist up the mountain to Northspur.

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The California Western RR station as well as the rolling stock sports the Skunk.
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Employees multi-task in different capacities, but Jennifer was cashiering in the Gift Shop when I made my purchases.

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Jolene was selling tickets.

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There was ample seating in either of the two coaches, and you could move around during the trip.  The second coach was nearly full.
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All windows had been replaced and passengers could raise or lower them for ventilation.  (Hat is from the souvenir shop.)

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The "fully air conditioned" observation car gets popular during the trip and is the best place to be to shoot photographs of the redwoods and other points of interest.  It is positioned with the cafe car in the middle of the train.   Chuck announces upcoming points of interest, with a wireless microphone, from througout the train during the trip.

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The open observation car is a great place for pictures.  Kyle, 6 yrs. old, and Jacob, 9, (above left) smile for Grandma as the youngest of four generations in their family enjoying this trip.  Sister Gracie, 3 yrs. old, (above right) was off with Dad enjoying the ride as well.


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"How do you know so much about trains, Dad?"
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There are 30 bridges and trestles between Fort Bragg and Willits.
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When we got up to the redwoods, Chuck continued his route description from the observation car and encouraged others to join him.  As you can see, the June weather was sunny and cool...a great day for a train ride in the redwoods.

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Evan, 3 yrs. old, from Lodi, CA, will probably remember this trip for years to come, as I will!


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Kathy and Amanda worked the cafe car.  We enjoyed the turkey/cheese sandwich with soft drinks.  When the train stops in Northspur, it is met by the train or motorchoach up from Willits.  The Willits Motorcoach does not have food service, but those passengers can board the stopped Fort Bragg train and purchase wine, beer, specialty desserts, locally produced food items, or shop for souvenirs.  Or, the shelters at Northspur have ice cream, locally made jams and jellies, and some shirts and sweatshirts.
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These folks asked Earl for the history of his antique guitar.

Earl Oliver, The Walkin' Blues Man, (above) entertained and had a CD available in the Cafe Car.  He's very good at singing his original train songs while keeping his balance as the train rattles up and down the mountain.  Buy his CD so you can enjoy his train songs throughout your journey after the Skunk Train experience.

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The scenes along the way are not your typical Amtrak Scene! 

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Access to the few homes on the Fort Bragg side of the mountain is via private logging roads. The plots are grandfathered with better, year round, access than on the Willits side of the mountain.  The railroad parallels the rushing Noyo River.
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Janice and son John Henry, age 12, are from Miami.
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During our 45 minute stop in Northspur, luggage of the through-passengers was transferred and Dave helped passengers on and off the train.

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Since both the 9 am train from Fort Bragg and the 9 am train from Willits meet at Northspur, roughly halfway between the two, there is a lot of switching of engines to the opposite ends of both trains to take them back down the mountain using the wye at Northspur.  During this time all passengers can get off the trains, and this gives ample time to photograph both your own train and engine, but also the train from the other town and its engine.  On this day, we had been pulled up by No. 66 and the Willits train was headed by engine No. 64, nearly identical except for the numbers.

Northspur was one of the busiest logging camps in the Coastal area, housing a tavern, post office and general store.

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While at Northspur, I spotted "Train Singer," Gregg Schindel.  I have had two of his train music CDs for a long time and was happy to finally meet him.  He has worked on the California Western Skunk Trains for 16 years!  He is an excellent singer, entertainer, and composer of train songs, some specifically about the California Western Railroad!  He wears a vintage conductor's hat, not with 'conductor' on the front, but "Train Singer!"  He's a great addition to the Skunk Train Experience  and you'll enjoy his music.  He also has his CDs and tapes available at Northspur, Fort Bragg and Willits Stations, as well as online.

For information write him at P.O. Box 1376, Willits, CA  95490, (707) 459-3739, www.trainsinger.com.
                                                                                                                     
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When we got back in our car to continue our trip, we enjoyed his newest CD:  Anniversary Special, available on his website.     

Anniversary Special
©2004, Greg Schindel
Let’s go take a ride! TRAIN SINGER® is celebrating fifteen years of riding the rails with his collection of original train songs. Interwoven with the exciting sounds of authentic steam locomotives including whistles, bells, the hiss of steam and the clickity-clack of the tracks, this is as close to riding a train as you can get without leaving the station! Featuring “The Ballad of Boomer Jack” based on the true story of a Northwestern Pacific Railroad dog.


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While in Northspur, you can walk to the end of the station, toward the trestle, and then down to the river.  There you can see all the trestle (left) and the train heading back to Willits as it leaves Northspur.  Approaching Camp Mendocino above.




In keeping with my TrainWeb.com colleague, Chris Guenzler's saying, "Every train trip is an adventure," we learned at Northspur that on our trip up the mountain, the engineer had noticed a berm washout that he considered unsafe to travel over on the return trip!  But not to worry, we would return down the mountain as far as Camp Mendicino, a Boys' and Girls' Club of San Francisco Camp.  There we would be taken off and bussed safely back to Fort Bragg.  I talked with Chuck as we went back to the camp and he said the train crew would bring up, from Willits, dump cars and pick up rock to fix the berm washout.  All would be finished for the next day's two runs from Fort Bragg to Northspur, but this day's afternoon run would be cancelled.  That explained why we had stopped on the way up...so Chuck could make a call to arrange for bus transportation for the passengers.

This was another example the efficiency of an experienced group of individuals who run the Skunk Train.  As we pulled into the camp, the school busses were backing into position to take us back to Fort Bragg.  Two busses had already been scheduled to pick up the students who were leaving the camp at the same time, and they just added another bus for us.  They were modern school busses which Wendy had quickly arranged for after the earlier call from Chuck.  She said this was an example of a small community working together to keep things moving for an important element of their local economy...the Skunk Train.

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Back at the Ft. Bragg Station (right) all the bus riders thanked the talented driver (vest) for our safe return.
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When we got back to the Fort Bragg station, I asked Wendy how they handled the cancelled afternoon train's passengers.  She said they rescheduled them for the next morning's train, or if they were traveling on that evening, she refunded their money.  This seemed a fair and equitable answer to me. 

Train Host, Chuck Whitlock, asked those still around the station if they'd like a tour of the shops.  Many of us jumped at the opportunity for this behind-the-scenes tour of the Skunk Train facilities.

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The "Skunk M-300" built in 1935 was to be repainted the following week.
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Steam Engine #45, a Mikado 2-8-2, was in the shop for the installation of a custom bearing lubrication system and would be back on the line for the following weekend.

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We shopped for souvenirs in the Fort Bragg Station, then walked around the quaint town and checked out their shops.



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