Brighter days for Mendocino County’s Skunk Train lead to expansion plans

After years of financial turmoil, Mendocino County’s popular Skunk Train is thriving and has plans to expand services and build a new Willits station to accommodate increased ridership even as it continues to face infrastructure hurdles that could stall the business.

The turnabout comes after a turbulent 12 years for the historic 40-mile rail line between Fort Bragg and Willits. In that time, the well-known tourist attraction has weathered a bankruptcy and ownership change, mud and rock slides that damaged the tracks, a tunnel collapse and a monthlong shutdown during the summer high season in 2011 when a murder suspect was loose in the dense woods through which the rail line runs.

The 2013 tunnel collapse nearly ended the train line, but donations from the public and a $300,000 cash infusion from the Save the Redwoods League - in the form of an option to erase development rights along the forested line - helped it survive.

Now, despite a partial shutdown for tunnel repairs on the Fort Bragg side of the line - built in 1885 to haul logs - the Skunk Train is in the black financially and looking forward to having a new Willits station that should boost business further, said Robert Pinoli, general manager and one of the private owners of the train line, formally named the California Western Railroad.

Pinoli said he’s looking forward to a new chapter in the rail line’s 130-year history.

“It’s exciting,” he said of the plan to build a station on what was once was a toxics-laden hydraulic plant at the south end of Willits. The current train depot is located at the north end of town.

The project entails purchasing and remodeling a 180,000-square-foot warehouse that for 50 years housed the former Remco Hydraulics Inc, an industrial machining and manufacturing business that was once the city’s largest employer. Escrow on the purchase is expected to close July 28. Pinoli would not disclose the purchase price.

The remodel is expected to cost about $2 million, Pinoli said. It would include a façade, a ticket office, a covered passenger loading area, souvenir shop and engine maintenance area.

The station also would serve as a tourist information center.

Located along Willits’ main drag, the new, high-visibility train station is expected to attract tourists who are passing through town, Pinoli said.

“Train stations are very sexy when there’s a train in the station,” he said.

The new facility is needed to accommodate new riders and additional trips. On average, the train’s ridership has increased 10 percent a year, even during the economic downturn, Pinoli said. But ridership doesn’t necessarily translate into profits, especially with ongoing repairs and increasing operational costs, he said.

More than 50,000 people ride the train annually, Pinoli said. The line, built by Charles R. Johnson to carry redwood logs from the woods to his sawmills, has carried millions of passengers during its lifetime, Pinoli said.

Passengers utilized the train even before its tracks were extended to Willits in 1911. In 1893, when the line extended 10 miles east from Fort Bragg along the Noyo River, passengers would take the train to that point and then catch a buckboard wagon to Willits. From there, they could catch a stage to Ukiah, where they could board a train to the Sausalito ferry station serving San Francisco, according to a history of the railroad by Louis Hough.

The train was nicknamed Skunk about 1925 when self-propelled motorcars with gas-powered engines and passenger-warming stoves that burned crude oil were introduced, according to a history of the line. The combination of the fumes from those two sources created a pungent odor.

Today’s passengers most often take halfway trips, from either Fort Bragg or Willits. But it’s also possible at times to switch trains at the midpoint and go all the way. There also are special train excursions, including a Christmas train, a wilderness camp and a Mother’s Day excursion.

From Willits, a round trip on a vintage rail cruiser takes about four hours to maneuver through forests in the Noyo River Canyon to a stop at Northspur and back. It includes a steep grade, snaking switchbacks and a tunnel. The voyage from Fort Bragg has been shortened to one-hour round trips because of tunnel work.

In 2011, the line was closed for a month while law enforcement teams searched for Aaron Bassler, wanted in the slaying of Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo and Mendocino Land Trust land manager Matthew Coleman. Bassler was shot and killed by Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office snipers.

The tunnel collapse in 2013 stopped service from both ends of the line for more than four months and cost the Skunk Train about $1 million in lost revenue.

Additional problems with the 120-year-old tunnel were uncovered during work to stabilize the earth around it following heavy rainfall last winter, Pinoli said. It’s not known when work on the tunnel, one of two between Fort Bragg and Willits, will be completed.

The problems are unfortunate but not necessarily surprising events for a historic railroad, Pinoli said.

“It’s like having circus animals. They’re cheap to buy and really expensive to maintain,” he said.

Mendocino Railway is a subsidiary of Sierra Railroad Co., a privately held California corporation that owns three other railroads.

Fort Bragg officials say the train remains one of the coast’s top tourist attractions, and they cheered the resumption of trips from the city after the tunnel collapse.

“The Skunk Train is very important to our community and to our visitors,” Fort Bragg City Manager Linda Ruffing said.

Fort Bragg also is important to the Skunk Train. It is still responsible for a majority of the railroad’s business, though that has been changing and Willits - closer to Santa Rosa and the Bay Area - is expected to gain more importance when there’s a new station, Pinoli said.

The train’s success is both a professional and personal matter for Pinoli, a longtime train buff who calls himself “Chief Skunk.” He’s worked on the train line in some capacity for 23 seasons, beginning in high school, when his jobs included emptying septic holding tanks and washing down the rail cars.

“My job as its present caretaker in time is to make sure it’s a responsible business that continues to grow in its successes and delight people from all over the world,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or ?On Twitter @MendoReporter

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