Humboldt has surely seen its fair share of far-fetched schemes: huge bladders full of Mad River water to be towed to Southern California; buoys to harness wave power for electricity ("Wave Power," Oct. 23, 2008); a stuffed animal museum; an aircraft carrier tourist venue. One of the more venerable boondoggles, dating back more than a century but still viable, according to some, is a rail connection to the Sacramento Valley.
The earliest mention I've found comes from a story in the July-August 1985 edition of the Humboldt Historian magazine which claims, "The North Mountain Power Company [incorporated in 1902] was formed to supply power to the Humboldt Transit Company for its streetcar system in Eureka. Also ... the organizers of the [NMPC] conceived the idea of building an electric railroad from Humboldt Valley to the Sacramento Valley to move their lumber to market." By the time the power source, a 1.5-megawatt hydroelectric plant near Junction City on Canyon Creek, was completed in 1906, Humboldt's rail link to the south was under construction. That's what would eventually be named the Northwestern Pacific, running from Sausalito via the Russian River, down the main fork of the Eel and up to Eureka. Two railroads out of Humboldt were one too many and plans for the NMPC electric line were abandoned.
Briefly, anyway. In 1909, Eureka engineer-surveyor Jesse Lentell hiked to Redding, up hill and down dale, surveying a route for an east-west rail line. It's shown on the 1911 "Denny" maps — up to Lord Ellis Summit, following the ridge southeast to Hyampom (where it crosses the south fork of the Trinity), thence east to the upper Sacramento Valley. While the Northwestern Pacific line was built through prime redwood (lumber that would be freighted south), the proposed 175-mile Humboldt and Eastern Railroad would carry pine logs from the newly established Trinity National Forest to Humboldt Bay and from there shipped to the world.
It all came to naught. The government was only willing to sell off a third of the timber asked for by the railroad planners, and the estimated $11 million in construction costs (about $1 billion today) wasn't forthcoming. Commenting on the collapse of the scheme, local historian Jerry Rohde wrote in the Journal ("Railroad!" May 24, 2012), "This [amount of money] wasn't chicken feed, and the Humboldt and Eastern was not going anywhere until it devised a reliable form of funding."
And on to the latest proposal. The "Humboldt Eastern Railroad" would run from a new world-class shipping container terminal on the Samoa peninsula through Blue Lake and then (apparently) follow Lentell's 1909 route, terminating at Gerber, south of Red Bluff on the Interstate 5 corridor. The plan is for a 220-mile twin-track line to carry eight trains a day, each of which would consist of 100 cars of double-stacked export shipping containers, powered by futuristic hydrogen fuel-cell locomotives. You can read about this dubious $10 billion scheme in Ryan Burns' exposé from two years ago on the Lost Coast Outpost. At this point, the Humboldt Eastern Railroad appears shelved for lack of funding.
Sorry, Humboldt. In the opinion of this retired civil engineer, an east-west rail line isn't going to happen, given the cost, the steep and unstable terrain between here and the Sacramento Valley, and competition from existing West Coast ports. It wasn't feasible 100 years ago and it ain't going to happen today.