Historic Skunk Train rolls again in Mendocino County

08/10/2013 12:00 AM

08/12/2013 8:45 AM

The Skunk Train is rolling again, after a nearly four-month hiatus because of a collapsed tunnel, thanks to its supporters and an environmental group.

The Save the Redwoods League's plan to protect California's ancient redwoods is credited with quickly restoring train service along a 128-year-old rail line.

Operated by the Mendocino Railway, the Skunk Train offers excursions between Fort Bragg and Willits. But a tunnel's collapse 4 miles east of Fort Bragg in April left trains stranded in Fort Bragg and its operators scrambling to raise approximately $360,000 for tunnel repairs.

Robert Pinoli, railroad general manager, said local businesses and Skunk Train fans donated about $110,000 toward the repairs. Then the Save the Redwoods League offered $300,000 for an option to purchase a conservation easement to permanently protect the ancient redwoods along the train's redwood route.

Upfront funding from the league enabled the railroad to quickly undertake the tunnel repairs. Pinoli said operators were able to move trains through the tunnel July 31, allowing excursions on the eastern end of the line to resume between Willits and Northspur.

Excursions on the western portion, between Fort Bragg and Northspur, are expected to begin within two weeks.

"We're shooting for Aug. 18," Pinoli said.

People have been making reservations in eager anticipation of the train's return to service. "There is a real love affair with this railroad," Pinoli said, noting that the line serves about 50,000 people a year.

Catherine Elliott, project manager for the Save the Redwoods League, said the Skunk Train helps further the group's mission of educating people and enhancing their experience in the redwoods.

In 2010-11 the league led the effort to purchase the Noyo River redwoods to prevent the previous owner from removing the trees under a timber harvest plan. Now owned by Mendocino Land Trust, "the only way to see and enjoy the beautiful Noyo River redwoods is from the Skunk Train," Elliott said.

The league plans to pursue purchase of a conservation easement along the 40-mile stretch of railroad to generate additional funds for the train. That probably will take about two years, said Elliott.

Terms of the purchase, Pinoli said, would include two stipulations: that the redwoods be protected and that the land be permanently maintained as a rail corridor.

The tunnel collapse was the most serious operational problem the railway has encountered. Large landslides occurred in 1997 and in 2006, Pinoli said, "but landslides are a lot easier to deal with."

What caused the 120-year-old tunnel to collapse is unknown, he said. The structural problems were discovered during one of the twice-weekly inspections that are made of the entire railroad.

During a Thursday inspection, crews noticed two tunnel timbers showed signs of bulging. Rail service was canceled that Friday to mobilize equipment for repairs, but the tunnel had collapsed by Saturday, Elliott said. About 50 feet of the 1,122-foot-long tunnel were blocked.

Crews have since cleared about 200 tons of material, and the previously wood-lined tunnel has been reconstructed using modern methods. "It's like an upside down swimming pool," Pinoli said, describing the new structure of mesh bolted to rock, then filled with concrete.

The Skunk line was built in 1885 as a logging railroad, but also carried passengers from its inception, Pinoli said.

Call The Bee's Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.

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