Fans of Mendocino County's beloved Skunk Train have kicked in about $20,000 so far to help clear a tunnel collapse that threatens the future of the tourist attraction.
The company, Mendocino Railway, needs about $300,000 to clear rubble from an unexpected rockfall that blocked a key tunnel near Fort Bragg in April. The company launched a publicity campaign earlier this month, asking for donations and selling yearlong and lifetime passes for rides on the train, which normally runs on 40 miles of redwood-lined tracks between Fort Bragg and Willits.
The company, which does not disclose its finances, has no reserves to pay for the repairs, Vice President Robert Pinoli said, leaving it $280,000 short. Pinoli has said the train's reserves were drained after a mudslide in 2006 and the manhunt for armed fugitive Aaron Bassler in 2011. The search for Bassler cost the train $200,000, Pinoli said.
"That seems monumental, but I think we're going to be successful and do just fine," Pinoli said Friday.
Not, however, before preparing for lean times. Pinoli said he has already reduced hours for his part-time employees. If the tunnel isn't reopened in the next few weeks, he said, he might have to start furloughing some full-time employees.
The railroad employs about 40 full- and part-time workers.
The collapse dumped tons of rock on the tracks in a century-old tunnel just a few miles east of Fort Bragg. On the eve of the busy Memorial Day weekend, the railroad is operating on a drastically reduced schedule, just a short run through the woods on the line west of the tunnel.
At the time of the collapse, all of the rail line's equipment was in Fort Bragg, so the Skunk Train is unable to offer even limited service from the Willits end of the line.
Pinoli had hoped to raise funds online through the website Kickstarter, but the campaign has been delayed by technical problems, he said. While that is pending, he established a fundraising campaign through the similar online fundraising site GoFundMe. That campaign opened Thursday, though he still hopes to open the Kickstarter campaign as soon as possible.
In its first 24 hours, the GoFundMe campaign had raised about $7,300, or about a third of all funds raised by the Skunk Train so far.
"The love affair with the Skunk Train across the world is just unbelievable," he said.
The train is Mendocino County's top tourist attraction other than parks, so tourism officials are worried about the effect of a prolonged shutdown on the local economy.
Some area hotels and inns have been adding a dollar or two to each customer's bill to donate to the train, said Scott Schneider, president and CEO of Visit Mendocino Inc., although he did not have a firm number of businesses doing so.
City officials, meanwhile, are concerned about the economic effect of the Skunk Train's troubles, but they say there is little they can do, despite a request for help from Pinoli. The city had previously lent the train line some money, when a previous owner was in bankruptcy court, but that doesn't appear to be an option in this case.
"It's a little bit more complicated to lend to a private business than it was to the bankruptcy court," Mayor Dave Turner said. "At first blush, it appears to be hard to do."