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Remembering the Mill Valley Depot and the Mount Tamalpais Railway

The history of Mill Valley and the Mount Tamalpais Railway took center stage at Depot Plaza, as new commemorative heralds of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad were dedicated on Saturday, August 25.

The glory days of Mill Valley as a railroad town were remembered on Saturday, Aug. 25.

A to unveil the new railroad logos on the Mill Valley Depot building and pay homage to the history of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad and the Mount Tamalpais Railway. These ceramic medallions, known as "heralds," portray the logo of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. They are faithful reproductions of the ones that graced the walls of the Mill Valley Depot, in the heart of downtown Mill Valley, up until the 1940s. The Mill Valley Depot today is home to the  and the , but up until 1940 it was an actual depot – a train station.

Starting in 1896, the Mill Valley & Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway made the eight-mile trip up to the East Peak of the mountain several times a day. In 1907, a spur line opened up that took passengers down to Muir Woods, and the name was changed to the Mount Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway. Known as the "Crookedest Railroad in the World," the steam train traveled eight miles up the steep slopes of Mount Tamalpais, by way of 281 hairpin curves. The ride from Mill Valley took a little over one hour to reach the top, winding through groves of redwood forests before coming out into the open high country of Mount Tamalpais.

Ted Wurms and Al Graves, who wrote the definitive history of the Mount Tamalpais Railway, The Crookedest Railroad in the World, described the first trip on the train:

On August 18, 1896, Superintendant of Construction L.R. Graves drove the last spike of the Mill Valley & Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway. Four days later, on the 22nd, the first passenger train made its run to the top of the mountain, an excursion for the people of Mill Valley.

After a trip up the mountain, and maybe spending a night at the Mount Tamalpais Tavern, visitors had the option to coast down into Muir Woods or back to Mill Valley in a "Gravity Car," an open-air train car manned by the "Gravity Man" working the brakes and powered solely by gravity. As the Gravity Car pulled out from East Peak, the Gravity Man would call out to the amusement of the passengers: "turn on the gravity!" The Gravity Car then coasted down the mountain at a steady speed of 10-12 miles per hour, on a brilliantly engineered route that had a continuous downward grade for an astonishing eight miles.

A notable passenger who took this trip was the British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who described the rail trip in Our Second American Adventure:

Our whole party went up it on the day after our arrival, and we were agreed that in all my wanderings, we had never had a more glorious experience.

As the automobile became more popular and fashionable in the 1920s, the Mount Tamalpais Railway began to lose business. The opening of the Panoramic Highway in 1929 was a death blow to the railroad, and the last train made the trip down the mountain on October 31 of that year. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad continued to operate out of the Mill Valley Depot, which was a stop for trains running from the Sausalito ferry terminal north to Eureka. The last train left the depot on September 30, 1940, after which the transportation hub was taken over by Greyhound.

The heralds of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad were removed by Greyhound shortly thereafter, and haven't been seen in Mill Valley until now. The ceremony began with an introduction by Dick Spotswood, former Mill Valley mayor and columnist for the Marin Independent Journal, who talked about the history of the Mill Valley Depot. He then introduced Mill Valley Mayor Garry Lion, who unveiled a memorial plaque that commemorates the new historical medallions. The plaque and restoration of the heralds were co-sponsored by the Mill Valley Historical Society, the Fred Drexler Trust and the Rotary Club of Mill Valley.

After the unveiling of the plaque at the Mill Valley Depot, the assembled crowd moved to the opposite end of the plaza, where Mayor Garry Lion climbed onto the replica Gravity Car and read a proclamation to dedicate this memento of the old railroad. This replica Gravity Car, which has been in the since 2009, was built by a team of community volunteers in 1990. It was designed with the help of historical knowledge from Ted Wurm and Al Graves, detailed drawings that were provided by former gravity brakeman Robert Smith, insights from former locomotive fireman Bill Provines, and the analysis of drawings and historical photographs by landscape architect Ralph Alexander, who developed blueprints for the project.

After Mayor Lion's proclamation was made, historian Fred Runner told stories about the old railroad and some of the people who were fixtures in Mill Valley history. In his book Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway, Runner pays tribute to the 34-year run of the railroad: "It was the most splendidly colorful time in Marin County's history, and it brought the tiny town of Mill Valley its first brush with international fame."

The dedication ceremony was the latest in a series of steps that have been taken to preserve the memory of the old railroad. These efforts go back to the late 1980s, when Mount Tamalpais State Park Ranger Randy Hogue began to prepare for the Mount Tamalpais Railway centennial that was going to take place in 1996. Randy accomplished a lot toward this goal, obtaining a $25,000 grant from the state that was ultimately used to build another replica of the Gravity Car. Hogue was diagnosed with cancer in late 1995 and passed away in June 1996, just two months before the August 18, 1996 centennial of the Mount Tamalpais Railway. His work was taken over by Arlene Halligan of the Mount Tamalpais Interpretive Association (MTIA), who spearheaded a 14-year effort to build the Gravity Car Barn at the East Peak of Mount Tamalpais.

The Gravity Car Barn opened in May 2009 and is now a fitting tribute to the memory of the Mount Tamalpais Railway. It was the culmination of a monumental effort to raise money, obtain the necessary permits and approvals, and get the Barn built. Today the Gravity Car Barn is a popular attraction with visitors, who appreciate the commemoration of the old railroad. It is maintained by MTIA and staffed entirely by volunteers. The Barn is open on Saturdays and Sundays, from 12-4 p.m.

The train, the tracks and most remnants of the Mount Tamalpais Railway are long gone now. When the railroad shut down in 1929, the tracks were torn up and sold for scrap, along with most of the old equipment. One locomotive that used to make the trip from Mill Valley to Mount Tamalpais, the #9 Heisler, is still in existence. It sits in front of a museum in Scotia up in Humboldt County. Efforts are underway to bring the #9 Heisler back to Mount Tamalpais and have it be part of the interpretive exhibits at East Peak.

Arlene Halligan and Fred Runner made a presentation to the Scotia Community Services District Board on June 21, explaining the story of the Mount Tamalpais Railway and the connection it has to the #9 Heisler. The board was attentive and mostly sympathetic, with one board member even changing his mind that night to support returning the locomotive to its home on the mountain. Arlene and Fred are going back to Scotia on September 19 to present the story to the townspeople of Scotia. There is still much work to be done, however. In addition to convincing the people of Scotia to approve moving the train, funds will need to be raised to transfer it to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, where it will be restored. Then it will hopefully be brought to the East Peak of Mount Tamalpais.

The Mount Tamalpais Interpretive Association is a nonprofit cooperating association that works to support Mount Tamalpais State Park. In addition to maintaining the Gravity Car Barn, they also staff the Visitor Center at East Peak, conduct guided hikes around the mountain, and present an Astronomy Program at the Mountain Theater. All of this is done with volunteers, an indication of the strong community support that Mount Tamalpais enjoys. MTIA welcomes new members and volunteers, who are invited to show their love for the mountain.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Paul Moe August 28, 2012 at 05:16 AM
Thanks to all who have brought back some of our towns great history, especially Dick Spotswood who never saw a train he did not love Paul Moe
George September 26, 2012 at 07:36 PM
Thanks for the people who remember our town's great and fun past wonders, no doubt more to come!

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