Gaye LeBaron: Great Redwood Trail proposal a worthy idea
The past is a sometime thing. Some dismiss it most of the time, others part of the time - or part of the past. Let’s face it, some live in it. As one who reads, writes and muses on the past, I float amongst all the above.
Certainly there are things I would rather not dwell upon. Others I revisit so often that friends and family run screaming from the room.
I try, as with good fortune I grow older, to limit the nostalgia to appropriate occasions. Mike McGuire’s proposal for a Great Redwood Trail is such an occasion.
State Sen. McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose district includes the proposed 300-mile route of the trail, can get almost poetic talking about the beauty of it.
“I have to say,” he told me last week, “this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity … so few times in our lifetimes do we have a chance to see such a thing happen.”
“LIFETIME” IS too brief to describe how long it’s been. The Redwood Trail proposal comes as another great idea. The first one, which has made all the difference, is the Save the Redwoods League. The League is celebrating its 100th year, an anniversary that honors the foresight of a group of “busybody” women in a lumber town, and five VIMs - Very Important Men - who heard their plea.
It was 1917 and the members of the Eureka Women’s Club were worried the “timber rush” occasioned by a fast-growing Bay Area would mean the loss of the spectacular redwoods that would make the long-promised highway connecting Humboldt County to the wider world one of the most beautiful drives in the nation.
But the club members recognized they had neither the necessary money nor the political clout.
Their congressman, Rep. William Kent of Marin, a friend of John Muir and very familiar with redwoods having owned a grove (now Muir Woods) on the side of Mount Tamalpais for a decade, stepped up.
He gathered a band of early conservationists including UC Berkeley professor John C. Merriam (later president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C.); naturalist Madison Grant, secretary of the New York Zoological Society; Henry Osborn, director of the American Museum of Natural History, New York; and Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service.
Several of them had never seen a redwood tree, but this “A-list” donated $20 each (that’s right, just one zero) as “seed money” to confirm their intentions. Then they took the long trip up dirt roads to look at the Humboldt redwoods.
The “ladies of the club” had found their allies. And those $20 bills from the nation’s leading conservationists were parlayed over the years that followed into $75 million to save more than 50,000 acres of redwood forest.
IF THESE men had not been bent on their very productive sightseeing, they could have reached Eureka more comfortably by a 4-year-old rail line - the Northwestern Pacific - which followed the Eel River north from Willits. Built in 1914 to carry lumber from the northern mills through ruggedly beautiful country east of the chosen highway route, it had the distinction of being one of the most, if not the most, expensive railroad lines per mile in the West.
That’s how remote and rugged the terrain was - and still is. There was passenger as well as freight service into the early 1960s, interrupted frequently by floods and slides and fallen trees. Then, in 1998, a fire in the milelong Island Mountain Tunnel closed the line. This time, forever.
The current owner, the North Coast Railroad Authority, runs freight now from Willits south. The route of the proposed trail would be the right-of-way for those rusting tracks, through lands that are near-wilderness with large ranches stretching eastward. You may have read last month about the proposed sale of the Dean Witter Ranch that has more than 16 miles of river frontage along that track.
The Redwood Trail legislation, as McGuire proposes, would end the railroad authority, shift the Willits-south freight line to Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit and create a shorter, less daunting echo of the Pacific Crest Trail with a kayak option as well.
I BEG for a nostalgia break here to remember my first trip on that train. It was 1942. World War II and gas rationing were new - effectively stopping traffic on the Redwood Highway.
It was an overnight trip (a “red-eye,” we would call it today) and the creaky old Northwestern Pacific was filled with new soldiers in ill-fitting wool uniforms. It was hot and stuffy and dimly lit and an adventure that stamped that train trip indelibly on my memory.
I made other trips on that train, more comfortable, more excursion than necessity. The speed never increased - those tracks were very difficult to maintain. Stops to clear the tracks of a limb or a toppled tree were frequent.