Construction of the “Crookedest Railroad in the World” began on February 5, 1896. There is no clear account of when engineering and surveying began, but undoubtedly that occurred some time before. The last spike was driven on August 18, 1896. The first passenger train with Mill Valley citizens aboard went up the mountain on August 22,1896. The Grand Opening took place August 26 primarily for the press.
The original railroad road bed was 8.25 miles long with 22 trestles and 281 curves. The longest straight stretch was in the middle of the Double Bow Knot, a distance of 413 feet. The rails were 57 pound steel with redwood ties. The cost of construction was reported to be $55,000, with another $80,000 for equipment. Original equipment consisted of one Shay engine of 20 tons, one Heisler engine of 30 tons, six open canopied cars, one San Francisco cable car and two flat cars. Regular operations began August 27, 1896. The grade averaged 5% while the steepest part, just down the grade from the summit a short distance, was a modest 7%.
The Gravity Grade to upper Muir Woods from Mesa Station was 2 1/2 miles with a grade varying from 4% to 7%. One of the primary motivations for building the Gravity Car Grade was the Muir Woods Inn proposed by Mr. Kent (not yet Congressman Kent). Financing delays caused a change in plans and the Inn was later constructed by the Railroad. Operation of this segment officially began in 1907, but not on a regular basis. Shuttle service began in 1908 not long after President Teddy Roosevelt accepted title to Muir Woods for the Federal Government and it became a National Monument. This provided the impetus for heavy use of the Gravity Cars during 1908. Additional cars and engines were purchased at regular intervals and some of the first equipment was sold later to find use in northwest logging operations. A 25-passenger railcar was purchased to aid in the shuttle operations.
Learning to operate
Initially the method of operating the trains was for the engine to pull the cars. It later became clear that a safer way was for the engine to push the cars up the mountain and when the cars came down with an engine, the engine led . This had obvious safety advantages, and according to accounts of the time it also provided better viewing ahead when the train was ascending. This procedure and the other safety measures worked to a remarkable degree for there were no passenger lives lost during the entire period of the railroad operation. Two men associated with the railroad were killed. One was scalded to death in an accident involving an overturned engine. The other was killed in a head-on collision between two trains, but that was down in Mill Valley, not on the mountain proper.
In 1911 plans were developed to extend the rail line from West Point Inn down the Old Stage Coach Road to Willow Camp and thence on to Bolinas, the last part by ferry. Bolinas was a fairly large community then, much larger than Willow Camp, now called Stinson Beach. Much engineering was done including publishing of schedules, but the line never went beyond a short distance from West Point Inn and was used primarily as a siding to switch cars.
A second gasoline powered motorcar was built in the Railroad Shops in Mill Valley and put into service in 1912. The car had two speeds in either direction and could reach 25 MPH on the return climb from Muir Woods. The Gravity Car Grade passed through the Mine Ridge cut at Mountain Home and there was a pipeline truss bridge suitable for hikers bridging the cut.
The Railroad was reorganized in 1913 as the Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway. The company had 6 locomotives including 5 Shays, 19 wooden open cars, 16 Gravity Cars plus 7 other cars and coaches. The Gravity Car time schedule from the Tavern down was 8 minutes to West Point, 12 minutes to Double Bow Knot and 14 minutes to Lee St. Station.
One of the many safety rules in effect for railroad operations was that any Gravity Car pulled by a locomotive – that is, downslope from the engine – could not be occupied. Detailed safety regulations as regards speed, number of passenger occupied cars per engine, sand introduction to clean the flues and many others were developed and must have been very effective considering the safety record of the Railroad.
Water for the boilers, for cooling the wheels and for the tavern operation was a major operating concern. All engines and Gravity Cars had a small tank just for applying a small jet of water to cool the wheels. A tank car was devised initially for the purpose of hauling water to the tavern from the Fern Canyon water tank. Later, a pumping station was installed about half way down the Fern Creek trail to pump water to the Tavern. This station continues to pump water to East Peak today. A normal train trip up the mountain would include filling the tanks at the yard, a stop at Mesa Station for water and another stop at Fern Canyon.
Fire on the mountain
The first disaster occurred in 1913. A major fire raged for 5 days. Presidio troops were called out the first day and before the fire was contained more than 7000 firefighters were engaged in the fight. One San Francisco newspaper stated that Mill Valley was doomed. Amazingly, no railroad equipment or buildings were lost although several engines and cars were scorched. The railroad and its crews contributed significantly to controlling the fire.
In 1915 the railroad carried an average of 700 passengers per day during the summer and handsome profits were realized. The War in Europe had a negative effect on operations in 1917 and 1918, but by 1920 things were booming again. The Tavern burned down in 1923, but was soon rebuilt on a less grandiose scale. The trains continued to run even when there was no tavern. When the Tavern was rebuilt it was designed to serve both railroad and auto passengers.
The railroad continued to operate, although less actively until the great fire of July 2, 1929. That fire was a near disaster for some of the equipment and the crews. Again the railroad was a critical factor in fighting the fire. Crews on the mountain were in great jeopardy and some equipment was lost. One engine was abandoned and all the woodwork was burned, but the engine was eventually put back in service. Oddly enough the railroad was put back into service shortly after the fire, but closed permanently in 1930. Tracks were pulled up and sold. Engines were sold, mostly to logging companies. Two engines went to the Philippines. The fire was an important factor in the decision to shut the line down, but the real culprit was the automobile. It clearly signaled the end of an era.
Content courtesy of Robert Larson.