Mount Tamalpais - The Crookedest Railway in the World
If you lived in the Bay Area at the time when the CWR finished the Skunk Line from Fort Bragg to Willits in 1911 there were a lot of places to go for a day trip or a vacation that you could reach by train and the many ferries that criss-crossed San Francisco Bay. Many trips used the ferries and trains of the NWP. One very popular day trip was to the top of Mount Tamalpais.
To get to ride to the top of Mount Tam (which you can get a terrific view of when you go south on Route 101 through Marin) in 1911 you would take a ferry (owned by the NWP) to Sausalito and then take a local (owned by the NWP) to the town of Mill Valley. You would change trains in Mill Valley and board the one of the cars of the Mount Tam railway (that was owned by the NWP) that were pushed up the top of the 2,600 foot hill by a Shay or a Heisler.
The railroad climbed from the town centre of Mill Valley up Mt. Tamalpais (or as kids affectionately call it, Mount Apple Pie) from 1896 to 1929. The line was dubbed ‘The Crookedest Railroad in the World’ for the 281 curves that were needed to climb the top of 2,600-foot peak. Official service on the railroad began on August 23, 1896. At that time the round-trip fare from Mill Valley was $1, and from San Francisco, $1.40, including the Sausalito ferry and train connections. There were two steam engines, the original 20-ton Shay (#498) and a 30-ton Heisler (#2) and there were also six open, canopy-top observation cars, one half-enclosed former San Francisco cable car, and two flat-cars.
One of the highlights of the trip was taking the midnight gravity train back to Mill Valley.
And what was the gravity train? Some downhill trips were made on engineless gravity cars – cars that were pushed off at the top and careened to the bottom. A typical gravity car could carry 29 passengers (plus the gravity-man) on six rows of wooden seats. At the start of each descent, passengers were told the ride would be a safe one. The maximum official speed permitted for the gravity cars was 12 miles per hour but many attested that “it was a hell of a lot faster than that.” The gravity car rides made the railway famous. You can ride the gravity train yourself – here’s a short movie of the ride. Be patient, the gravity train ride is at the end of the movie.
In a sidebar as part of an article which appeared in the September 1987 edition of Trains magazine on page 43 about a distinguished train photographer named Ralph W. Demoro who lived in Oakland was a piece about the Mount Tam railway. Demoro was, apparently, a great railfan and took many photographs of the trains in and around the Bay Area. Click the image left to read the sidebar.
The May 1988 issue of the Western Railroader (Number 534) was devoted to “Gravity Railroading on Mount Tamalpais.” Click on the cover of this issue you see here and an e-book of this issue will open. A pdf version can be downloaded here