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Trouble on the Line: The Decision – Part 1



"Only men of the Eel River Line would railroad here: the ordinary railroad man would take one look, collect his pay and disappear to flatland railroading to seek a less adventurous form of employment."

– Donald D. Edmisten, Railroad Inspector for the Eureka Southern, 1989

It's easy to look back and say, "What were they thinking?" I've certainly done my fair share of second-guessing while driving down U.S. Highway 101 to San Francisco. "This is the route they should have chosen for Eureka's railroad connection to the Bay Area, down the South Fork of the Eel, not down the main channel," I'll say to Louisa. But smarter and more experienced civil engineers than me did, indeed, decide against the South Fork route U.S. Highway 101 more-or-less follows through Garberville and Leggett to Willits. Minutes later, we'll be driving over the two bridges that, since 2009, have bypassed the Confusion Hill grade, remembering the landslides that closed the highway virtually every year ... and maybe the South Fork wouldn't have been such a great route after all.

As it was, in 1907, railroaders picked the route that heads east from today's 101 at Longvale, along what's now Covelo Road to Dos Rios, thence north into the Eel River Canyon to Dyerville (South Fork), where the South Fork of the Eel enters the main channel. And north to Eureka and Arcata.

It came about this way: In the early 1900s, two railroads — the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific — were vying to be the first to connect our part of the world with the San Francisco Bay Area. By October of 1906, the two companies realized there wouldn't be sufficient commerce for two lines, so they agreed to combine forces, forming a new company, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. In 1907, engineers and surveyors from the two parent companies and from the NWP agreed on the main channel (down the Eel Canyon) route, and crews set to work. But to quote Clarke Museum Director Josh Buck, who recently wrote a paper on the trials and tribulations of the NWP for his Cal Poly history class (and whose research has been invaluable for this column): "Since the finalization of the prospective route through the Eel River Canyon in 1907, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP) was doomed. ..."

The project took seven years of heroic construction, with crews laying a mile of track every 15 days on average, or 15 times slower than tracklaying under ideal conditions. Slides and washouts were a chronic problem during construction, a taste of things to come. The 95-mile stretch between Willits and South Fork required hundreds of bridges and 30 tunnels, including the longest, Island Mountain, where crews had to blast their way through dense volcanic rock for 4,313 feet. (In September of 1978, redwood frames within the tunnel caught fire, causing a partial collapse. Repairs took more than a year to complete.) By the time of completion, in the fall of 1914, the Northwestern Pacific could claim to be the most expensive railroad per mile ever built in the U.S.

Literally right from the start, the unstable clay-rich "blue goo" of the Eel River Canyon caused problems. Immediately after the golden spike ceremony, held near Island Mountain on Oct. 23, 1914, to celebrate completion of the railroad, a rockslide caused a seven-hour delay for the passenger train taking celebrants back to Eureka. From then on, each year of the line's 74 years of operation required repairs due to landslides, washouts and "sinks," where the tracks drop into soft spots of subgrade.

To be continued next week.

Barry Evans (he/him, [email protected]) is so ready for the Great Redwood Trail, along the former NWP right-of-way, to come to fruition.

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