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  • Northwestern Pacific's Undying Spirit

    Text and Photography by Sean Zwagerman

    ABOVE: With water lapping at the Schellville Yard tracks, January 3, 1997, is just another day on the NWP. FAR RIGHT: Engineer Ed Lynch washes No. 3850 at Hopland on June 18, 1997.
    RailNews - December 1997 - Page 50

    Northwestern Pacific's Undying Spirit

    Warm, heavy rain fel1 in the mountains, saturating the earth and melting a winter's worth of snow in a couple of days. The run off overwhelmed every river it reached, causing rivers to sweep away railway tracks as if they were cobwebs. The three major rail lines into northern California were shut down for weeks. So thorough was the destruction of the Feather River Route that Union Pacific considered surrendering the fight and abandoning the entire line. In the Cascades to the north and the Sierras to the east, track repair crews labored to take the knots out of hundreds of miles of s torm-twisted track; most had never been face-to-face with the aftermath of such climatic rage. For the employees of Northwestern Pacific, several rivers and ranges to the west, winter 1996 was nothing extraordinary. Storms closed the line north of Willits, causing $5 million worth of damage, including 20 landslides along 30 miles of track and a collapsed tunnel near McCann. Since the trains weren't running, the company could not afford overtime pay; repair crews worked only 40 hours a week. The solution-keeping the line through the Eel River Canyon closed from December 28 until March 12-only worsened the problem, sending the railroad further into debt from lost business. Just another winter in the canyon.

    ABOVE: Nos. 5305 and 3850 head south at Cummiskey with the Schellville Hauler on May 15, 1997. FAR LEFT: In its early years, the North Coast Railroad leased locomotives from SP.
    RailNews - December 1997 - Page 51

    And now, though the track gangs have scarcely had time to scrape last winter's mud off their shoes, the National Weather Service is predicting another wet winter in northern California, with the possibility of the worst flooding in a decade. At times NWP's survival seems so tenuous that every car making it from Eureka to Schellville becomes a symbol of perseverance, overcoming an impossible landscape one more time. Its trackage lies on some of the most unstable ground in the state, and is said to be more expensive to maintain than any other railroad in the world. Though seemingly cursed of late with more than its share of bad luck, NWP has lasted through nearly a century of winters and still manages somehow to stay one step ahead of the next dark storm on the horizon.

    "Everything was floating down the river: trees, cattle, houses, you name it." A former NWP employee and long-time resident of Dos Rios was recalling the historic flood of 1964, which wiped the railroad from the side of the canyon for 100 miles. "A month before, I'd been working on the Island Mountain bridge, and I wrote my name on one of the girders when we finished the job. So here comes something down the river, and I knew right away what it was, and there was my name on the side of it: it was the Island Mountain bridge!"

    BELOW: The Willits Hauler (left) and the Schellville Hauler (right) wait side by side at Cloverdale on March 10, 1997. Main Photo: The Scotia South Freight, with GP9s 3788 and 2782, makes a through run from Scotia to Willits, July 30, 1997. ABOVE: On July 3, 1997, the Willits Hauler heads southbound on Ridge Hill near milepost 127.
    RailNews - December 1997 - Page 52 RailNews - December 1997 - Page 53

    Another winter like that would likely be the end of the line north of Willits. And what NWP needs less than another bad winter is more bad press. In April 1996, Southern Pacific sold the line south of Willits for $27 million to the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Authority, a joint-powers board comprised of the Golden Gate Bridge District, Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Humboldt counties. Since then, the railroad has consistently lost tens of thousands of dollars every month and made the news with derailments, accidents, missed payrolls, and ultimatums from the Federal Railroad Administration. Northwestern Pacific is dependent on public funding, and editorials in the SANTA ROSA PRESS DEMOCRAT and other local newspapers reflect a populace increasingly hostile toward subsidizing a railroad that seems to be running steadily downhill.

    Press portrayal has often been negative, but one cannot write honestly about NWP without mentioning the bad news. The railroad suffers from a tangle of problems so knotted that no one can be separated and resolved. Advocates breathed a sigh of relief when the railroad celebrated its first anniversary on July 22; it often seemed it might not make it. While the seven dirty and dented GP9s inherited from the North Coast have chugged dependably up and down the canyon, NWP has struggled to keep the eight rebuilt locomotives acquired last year in service on the south end. As they have been for decades, SD9s were NWP's locomotive of choice for the 3 percent grades of Ridge Hill. SD9 4423 blew a piston in June and was out of action for a month. The 5305 has not had reliable dynamic brakes since the day it arrived, and NWP's diesel mechanics finally gave up trying to decipher the locomotive's idiosyncratic wiring plan. It has finally found a home, when not in the shop with a persistent oil leak, pulling the Schellville Hauler through the gentle landscape of the south end, far from the steep slopes of the Laughlin Range.

    Maintenance problems for two locomotives, GP9s 3850 and 3844, were eliminated on July 10. The 3850 was switching at the north end of Willits Yard that morning when the 3844 and the 3825 rolled away from the fuel track. They picked up speed as they continued northward toward the 3850. The runaways slammed into the switcher, pushing it 1000 feet up the line and putting its two crew members in the hospital. Miraculously, their injuries were minor, but the damage to two of the locomotives was terminal: their pilots drooped like pained expressions, their backs bent beyond repair. The 3825 is noticeably hunch backed but continues to run, though according to one employee "nobody wants to use it."

    It would ordinarily be good news for the railroad that lumber shipments are on the rise. But short on locomotives and employees to operate them-"Who's gonna come work here? They all read the papers."-NWP struggled throughout summer to get the cars over the hill from Willits. Each SD9 can pull six to eight loaded cars over Ridge Summit, but often times there were only two working locomotives available. As a result, the loaded cars were arriving in Willits from the north faster than the Willits Hauler could move them south. Hopper cars, heavy with river gravel shipped from ashmead to Ukiah, added to the Willits bottleneck when they weren't spreading the rails and causing derailments along the Eel River. At least the frequent derailments in the canyon-twice in three days in mid-July-gave the trains south of Willits a chance to get caught up. The Willits Hauler might spend a full day shuttling cars a few at a time from Willits over the summit to Redwood Valley. Twelve hot summer hours later, the freight had moved a total of 17 miles. The Schellville Hauler coming up from the south could not make it all the way to Redwood Valley without running out of time on the way back to Schellville. Thus, the Schellville crew would have to drop its northbound cars at Geyserville, leaving 46 miles of railroad between two trains that were supposed to meet. This, of course, sent a ripple of problems northward: When the empties didn't get to Willits in the evening, the north freight out of Willits the following morning had no cars to hand off to the south train from Scotia. In turn, the Scotia and Arcata switchers were left with no cars to spot at the lumber mills around Eureka.

    Since nature has made running NWP merely formidable, the FRA stepped in to make it nearly impossible. After repeated inspections, the FRA halted summer passenger excursions between Healdsburg and Willits, costing NWP an important source of revenue. On July 25, a celebrity wine train was to run from Asti to Hopland. Instead, the passengers sat in the coaches at Asti and pretended they were moving. The FRA also imposed a 10 mph speed limit on most of the 273-mile railroad, making for long workdays for the crew and plenty of overtime pay for the company. This in turn, of course, leaves the railroad with less money to make all the repairs needed to erase the speed restrictions.

    This catalogue of bad news began with the observation that NWP doesn't need any more negative publicity. So how does one put a positive spin on the railroad's current situation without being naive or foolishly optimistic? Trainmaster Chris Simas thought about it. "Hmm. You want to write about the positive side and not just the bad news? Well, we've got good people working here."

    The bright side of the NWP story-and its hope for surviving beyond this winter-is indeed provided by the employees. Engineer Ed Lynch literally brightens the picture by hand-washing the locomotives, often after working a 12-hour shift on the Willits Hauler. "See how hard I work to make your photographs better?" Lynch says, putting a shine on NWP's variant of SP's classic Black Widow design. "Except for the Milwaukee Road, this is my favorite paint scheme," Lynch says.

    An ll-car Willits Hauler snakes south bound between Willits and Ridge on July 3, 1997.
    RailNews - December 1997 - Page 54

    ABOVE: No. 2872 North enters tunnel 18 at Dos Rios on July 24, 1998.
    RailNews - December 1997 - Page 55

    The northern California scenery also comes in a close second behind the Montana mountains traversed by his favorite railroad. Like many of his co-workers, Lynch came to NWP from California Northern when NWP took over operations north of Schellville in 1996. He has quite literally weathered the ups and downs of the railroad's fortunes, leaving a dispatching job on California Northern to become a locomotive engineer. "I don't want to be behind a desk," Lynch says with intensity. "I wanted to be an engineer, and I wanted to live in the mountains." He experiences both on the run over Ridge Hill, where deer, hawks, eagles, and mountain lions observe the railroad's daily intrusion into the wilds of the North Coast.

    "I love it," said a new engineer of his job on the NWP. "There's so much to see."

    "I like watching the eagles," says Charlie Voegele, conductor on the north freight out of Willits. Train crews are particularly fond of the wildlife along the Russian River south of Hopland, a favorite summer habitat of the California nude sunbather.

    Engineer Ernie Sutton also came over from California Northern. He has led a varied and fascinating life and is finally living his fantasy of being a railroad engineer. "My wife thinks I'm nuts," he says cheerfully, as he sits in the cab of SD9 5305 at Cloverdale. "I said, 'After 30 years, you're just now figuring that out?'" Ernie belongs in the engineer's seat: He dresses the part in overalls and engineer's cap and speaks within the rich tradition of humor and story-telling still surviving on the railroads. He marvels at the ability of one of NWP's customers-a metal scrap dealer-to turn every part of an old, rusted railroad car into something profitable. "If he was a hog farmer," Sutton says in his smooth southern voice, "he'd market everything but the squeal." Behind the easygoing manner is a professional who takes his job seriously: When the January rains began to under mine the yard in Schellville, Sutton eased a locomotive across some precarious rails to rescue a tankcar full of propane from the collapsing tracks and rising flood waters.

    The frustrations of the job and the ability to laugh afterwards have created a fraternity of sorts among the train crews. The crew on the south train out of Scotia ran through to Willits one day in July and derailed a boxcar en route, delaying the train several hours on what was already a long, hot trip through the canyon. The crew from the Willits Hauler greeted them upon their arrival in Willits, as the conductor stepped off the locomotive. "We derailed at Spyrock and still made it in 12 hours!" he said triumphantly. He then looked worriedly around the yard. "Where are the empties for tomorrow?"

    "They went dead at Cloverdale," Ed replied. With that news, the Scotia crew had no idea what day they would be returning home with northbound empties. Ed and his conductor took the homeless Scotia crew out for steaks and beer.

    Trainmaster Chris Simas has the weary sense of humor that one finds among high school teachers, or citizens of Moscow: Every day will be a struggle, but one might as well make the best of it. On any given day, Simas may be trainmaster, engineer, conductor, track repairman, drawbridge mechanic, or all of the above. One afternoon last summer, he helped fix drawbridge operator Roberto Meza's pickup truck, then waited with Meza at the Petaluma bridge for the Schellville Hauler.

    "What's your engine number?" Meza asked engineer Sutton. The usual locomotive, SD9 5305, was out with an oil leak.

    "4324," Ernie replied. "And she's one sick puppy."

    Chris laughed and got on the radio. "That's why the Willits crew gave it to you, Ernie."

    "Well, be sure to thank them for me."

    "I guess we'll have to get a diesel mechanic to look at it," Chris said to me. "If we can find a diesel mechanic." He was looking forward in September to more locomotives arriving to replace the two destroyed in the July wreck and to "keep the customers happy." The railroad has certainly struggled to do that, but not because of employee laziness or indifference. Simas would like to have enough employees and locomotives to run 24 hours a day. This would smooth the flow of cars in and out of Willits Yard, and keep his train crews from having to work such long and strenuous shifts.

    ABOVE: The Schellville Hauler crosses Sonoma Creek outside Schellville yard on July 22, 1997. BELOW: Spring flowers dust the landscape at Lytton as the Schellville Hauler travels south on March 13, 1997.
    RailNews - December 1997 - Page 56

    The railroad is leasing five former SP SD9s to replace the GP9s wrecked at Willits and ease its chronic shortage of power. The leased units were to be placed into service, as Simas was anticipating, in September and October, primarily on the Willits Hauler over Ridge Hill. They will remain in SP paint since NWP does not have the $25,000 needed to paint five SD9s. In the same spirit of economy, the locomotives are being repaired as 8-units-useable and more or less reliable-but not point-worthy. One exception may be former SP 4436.

    Laid down on some of the most remote, barren, and hopeless land in the West, the tracks of the Nevada, California & Oregon Railroad were said to have been built either 300 miles too long or 300 years too soon. In the opinion of many people and apparently of nature itself, the NWP is about 160 miles too long, and its survival north of Willits becomes more improbable with each winter. The blue clay that oozes over the railroad during winter downpours continues throughout the year to slowly shove the tracks towards the river or push them skyward from below. As the southbound freight approached one such bulge-the notorious Burger Creek Hump-the old-timer from Dos Rios said to me, as casually as if he were pointing to the buzzards circling overhead, "Watch this. You'll get to see a train derail." The engineer slowed the train to a crawl; he and his conductor leaned out the windows to watch the track ahead. The locomotive crept up the rise, rocked heavily back and forth and, as the rails groaned beneath the weight, came gently to rest on the gravel roadbed. Just another summer in the canyon.

    Sean Zwagerman teaches writing at USC where he is working on a PhD in American Literature. His evoctive prose graced our July issue in the "Amador Central."

    Article Details

    • Original Author Sean Zwagerman
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date December 1997

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