Gravity Car Barn

The grand opening of the Gravity Car Barn took place on Sunday, May 3, 2009. The Barn is typically staffed and open to the public from noon to 4:00 pm on Saturday and Sunday.

If you would like to serve as a docent in the Barn, please contact  Jimmy Dunn

History of the Project

In honor of the Mill Valley and Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway, a fund-raising effort has been under way for the Gravity Car Barn, a permanent home for the brilliantly recreated Gravity Car and an interpretive display highlighting this special time in California and Mt. Tamalpais history. The Barn has been constructed over a section of the 84 feet of standard gauge track at the historic rail siding on East Peak and will serve as an educational facility and visitor center for Marin and beyond.

Those who live in the shadow of its majesty, who have climbed its many challenging trails, who have marveled at the 360 degree views from its summit, or have spent time pondering its impact on the skyline of the San Francisco Bay Area, cherish the power and natural beauty of Mt. Tamalpais. One hundred years ago, people as impressed and inspired by “The Sleeping Lady” came for a visit from the world over. Their goal — to steam up the mountain in what was affectionately called “The Crookedest Railroad in the World.

Traversing the double bow-knot, locals and tourists alike delighted in jaw-dropping vistas as they reached the 2,571 foot summit at East Peak for a day of unparalleled sightseeing, dinner at the Tavern of Tamalpais and dancing in the Pavilion. At day’s end, the daring would climb aboard the Gravity Car, and the “Gravity Man” would “turn on the gravity”, and down they would coast over 8 1/4 miles, around 281 turns on the mountain’s 7 % grade to the Mill Valley depot or Muir Woods. This was clearly the “E” ticket ride of its day!

 

By 1930, the railroad was usurped in popularity and practicality by a road to the top of the mountain and the novelty of automobiles. However, the spirit of the Mt. Tamalpais steam train and Gravity Car still lingers in the hearts and minds of those lucky enough to have experienced it as well as in those who have heard tales of it from their parents or grandparents.

Raising the Gravity Car Barn provides a much needed and publicly requested space for the kind of interactive, interpretive programs found so stimulating and informative. The Gravity Car Barn, we will ensure that the substance and spirit of those times will be our gift to the future. We invite you to join us.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said of this railroad:
“…in all my wanderings, I have never had a more glorious experience”.

Friends of Mt Tam has organized several special events and projects related to the mountain.  Honorary member Arlene Halligan recalls, “In the 1996 Memorial Day Parade, members of the Friends of Mt Tam dressed in 1896 period costume, and in 1997, a gala dinner-dance fundraiser was held by the Friends of Mt Tam on Mt. Tam’s East Peak, 2,571 feet above sea level.”

For many years, one idea that falls within the organizations’ goals of education and interpretation that has been given a lot of time and thought by the Friends of Mt Tam has been the Gravity Car Barn.  This is the long range plan to honor the unique form of transportation used on the mountain over a century ago.  The Mt. Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway used steam engines to transport trainloads of visitors up the mountain, and gravity cars – so called because they used the energy efficient force of gravity – to take the visitors down.  Affectionately called ‘The Crookedest Railroad in the World‘, the trains climbed the vertical half-mile up the southern face of Mt. Tamalpais on 8.19 miles of track, required due to the circuitous route needed to safely negotiate the average five percent rise to the top.

The railway ran from 1896 to 1930, and a document from the Friends of Mt Tam described an ideal day during the period:  “Locals and tourists alike delighted in jaw-dropping vistas as they reached the summit of the East Peak for a day of unparalleled sightseeing, dinner at the Tavern of Tamalpais and dancing at the Dance Pavilion.  At day’s end, the daring would climb aboard the Gravity Car, and the ‘Gravity Man’ would ‘turn on the gravity’, and down they would coast around 281 turns on the mountain’s route to the Mill Valley Depot.  The rising popularity of the automobile and the Great Depression tolled the death knell of the railroad, and service was discontinued and tracks torn up in 1930.

Over the last fifteen years, plans were made and revised crises arose and were overcome, and fundraising events were organized and held with the goal of acknowledging the place in Mill Valley’s history held by the singular railroad, and the commemorative project is a work still in progress.

The driving force during the early years of the plans to commemorate the Railway was Randy Hogue, a Mt. Tamalpais State Park Ranger since the early 1970’s.  In the late 1980’s Hogue began searching for funds to purchase a Heisler or Shay locomotive, those used by the Railway, with the intention of displaying it near the summit of Mt. Tam.  In 1992, goal number one was reached.  Mt. Tamalpais State Park received a $25,000 grant in State Volunteer Enhancement Funds for the purchase of a locomotive.

Soon after, the plans and goals were modified.  Instead of purchasing a locomotive, it was decided that the grant would be used to build a replica of a more emblematic gravity car, initially for display during the Railway’s centennial in 1996 on tracks built on the East Peak of Mt. Tam.  After the centennial, a Gravity Car Barn and Museum would be built on the East Peak to permanently house the gravity car replica.  In late 1995, the multi-step project to honor the Mt. Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway, dubbed the East Peak Railroad Project, was approved by the State.

Hogue approached Berkeley metalsmith Jerry Coe with the idea of building a gravity car replica, and though Coe later said it would have cost $80,000 of standard rates for all parts and time worked, he couldn’t resist the $25,000 challenge.  “It was a one-of-a-kind project, it benefited an important state park, and Hogue was an excellent salesman for the project (and became a good friend during the following year as we consulted on the progress of the project),” wrote Coe in the very thorough and interesting story of his building of the replica, which is transcribed on Coe’s Web Page, Downward Bound: Or, How I Built the Gravity Car for Mt. Tamalpais.

In December of 1995, Hogue and volunteers from the Mill Valley Boy Scouts laid sixty feet of standard gauge track on the East Peak, near the Plank Trail that takes hikers the last few hundred feet to the summit of the mountain, and visitors nowadays can see the tracks as they approach Mt. Tam’s highest point – the fire lookout tower.  The gravity car replica was completed just a few days before August 18th, 1996, one hundred years to the day after the last spike of the Railway’s tracks was driven into the ground.  Coe wound up his story, “The gravity car was carried to the summit of Mt. Tam by a vehicle with a hydraulically articulated flatbed that allowed for safe loading of the 3,000 pound gravity car without a forklift in under ten minutes time.”  Sadly, Hogue did not live to see the culmination of his dream and efforts.  He died a few months before the centennial.

August 18, 1996, was a memorable day in Mill Valley.  The Friends of Mt Tam hosted a hike up the 8 miles that used to be the train’s path, with special events at three points along the railroad grade:  the starting point, which was the railroad depot in downtown Mill Valley, West Point Inn and, appropriately, ending at the East Peak, where the sparkling, brilliantly-recreated gravity car awaited.

Almost immediately, Friends of Mt Tam mobilized for the next part of the project, the planning for and building of the Gravity Car Barn and Museum.  On June 20, 1998, groundbreaking for the barn was held on the East Peak.

 

Funds from a Volunteer Enhancement Fund Grant given to the Mt. Tamalpais State Park have been used to create an interpretive display for the Barn and old railroad grade.   Construction of the Barn began in August of 2005, and  the Barn was completed in 2008.  At this time, fundraising continues for the completion of the interpretive display and the possibility of bringing the #9 Heisler back to Mt.Tam.