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Mount Tamalpais - The Crookedest Railway in the World

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.

All this and more you can read in the book, “The Crookedest Railway in the World.”
Ted Wurm and Al Graves book on the Mt Tam Railway

Mount Tamalpais train on its way from the top down to Mill Valley

Click photo above to see a slideshow of
the Mount Tamalpais railway

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.

Mount Tamalpais No.7


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.

May 1988 issue of the Western Railroader

Click photo to read the e-book



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 adobe pdf here

Train on its way up to the top of Mount Tam. trains were pushed up and "pulled" down. Train approaching the top of Mount Tam Tavern at the top of Mount Tam Shay leaving the hotel at the top of Mount Tam Mount Tam Shay in Mill Valley Mount Tam Shay on one of the 281 curves Mount Tam train on the way down – engine at the front The Gravity Train leaving the tavern at the Top of Mount Tam Chevy pickup truck along side Shay locomotive #7 Shay locomotive engine No. 7 at the summit of Mount Tamalpais, circa 1923 View of the Tavern at the top of Mount Tam from an aircraft, circa 1920 Mount Tam Railroad Depot at Mill Valley The first tavern at the top of Mount Tamalpais Train leaving the Tavern at the top of Mount Tamalpais, circa 1920 Mount Tam Railroad Depot in Mill Valley