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Skunks, Motorcars, Railbuses and Doodlebugs

Model of a Railbus

Different names; essentially the same type of motive power – a diesel or gas electric engine powering an attached passenger unit or combine. The picture right of one of our models gives you the idea.

Doodlebugs were developed by several manufacturers at the behest of lines who were tired of the expense of a full steam train (with at least 5 crew, lots of operating expenses, etc...) on lightly patronized branch lines that they were (usually) petitioning the ICC to abandon anyway. They were gas-electric, or diesel and required a two-man crew and most important were inexpensive to operate.

Doodlebugs have historic significance, because their early development (in the 1910 – 1920 period) led several of these manufacturers (notably GE and EMC, later the EMD division of GM, and for a time the largest loco manufacturer on the planet, although now eclipsed by GE) to try their hand at diesels based on the experience they gained. And the diesel is arguably the single most important railroading development of the 20th century.

How the "Skunk" got it's name

The Motorcars owned by the California Western Railroad (CWR) were diesels and their exhaust smelled – some said like a skunk – and the name stuck. Another explanation is that the CWR Motorcars used to take freshly caught fish from Noyo harbour in Fort Bragg to Willits where it was put on an express train to San Francisco. And you know what the smell of the odd bit of rotting fish smells like ………The first M-80 – she was built by Mack Truck as a demonstratorThe first M-80 – she was built by Mack
Truck as a demonstrator - was driven
across the country under her own power
.Club member Deb Smith, who is an engineer on the CWR Motorcars, says there is a third (official?) explanation ….. “The first Motorcar, M-80 had a gasoline engine (not diesel) with very, very poor carburetion. So, its exhaust was stinky. Worse than that for the nose, however, was the coal-burning stove on board for heat. Coal was not readily available in this area, and so most people were not familiar with its stink while burning. Apparently the combination of those two smells, wafting up the Noyo River Valley on the afternoon breezes off the ocean, caused quite a noticeable odour. People would sniff the air, and say "Here comes the Skunk!" since they could smell it before they could see or hear it, just like a skunk.”

There is a fourth version of how the Skunk got its name.

It’s quite a bit different from the first three. The full story can be found in the two pictures below which hang near Dinky, a restored loco, in the back of the building that houses the Deli Café in Fort Bragg. Here’s a quickie version.

The full story of Fred Goranson and the first Skunk

The full story of Fred Goranson
and the first Skunk

Fred Goranson is on the left standing in front of the first Railbus

Fred Goranson is on the left standing
in front of the first Railbus

“Frederick N. Gorenson (Fred to everyone who knew him) went to work in 1907 for the two-year-old California and Western Railroad and Navigation Company (CWR) as a steam locomotive engineer. In 1909 Fred got married and had three children.

In 1925 the CWR acquired a new Mack Railbus powered by a gasoline motor. Fred was asked to be its first engineer. Given two weeks to master the new machine he mastered it in one.

His family asked Fred how he liked the new Railbus. He said it was fine but “it smelled like a damn skunk”. This was nothing new to the kids as he said the same thing about anything that smelled funny to him. The kids thought it funny that their dad had “to drive a skunk”. The kids spread the word in school and soon the whole community was using “the Skunk” to refer to the new acquisition.”

Thanks to website visitor, Don Taylor there is now a fifth version of how the Skunk got its name. He told us in an e-mail:

"I lived along the Skunk tracks for some years. I used to walk the tracks to go fishing or to visit friends at Irmulco. I watched many logging trains pass through our ranch. There are many places along the tracks that people are unaware of today. There was even a hospital or infirmary down close to the old Boy Scouts Camp Noyo. Any way I wanted to tell you that the skunk smell (name) came from a diesel truck fitted with train wheels that the loggers used to travel to and from their work location not from the use of stoves in the passenger trains. This truck came long before the passenger era."

After we received the above e-mail we received another from Doug Todd:

"My great grandfather is buried in the Caspar cemetery. My grandfather came to Caspar to split rail before they built the mill. My father, who was born in Caspar (at home) always maintained that the Skunk name came from the use of diesel, a new technology at the time."

Take your pick, version one, two, three, four or five.

CWR M80 crossing one of the 37 A-Frame bridges

The CWR Railbuses

One of the CWR railbuses, M-200, still exists and is still running but not on the Skunk Line. She has been completely restored and she runs on the Niles Canyon Railroad (out of Sunol not too far from San Francisco). Click here to see details.

M200 at Willits

Click the picture right to see the
photo gallery of M80 M100

Click the picture left to see the
photo gallery of M200 M300

M100 Renovations

M100 is currently (August 2011) undergoing major surgery. The ball bearings in her transmission have become ovoid and they are being replaced with modern roller bearings. These photos were taken in the Fort Bragg engine house.

The Enginehouse geniuses did a super job renovating her from top to bottom and end to end including giving her a new yellow coat of paint so that she looked as she did in her prime. She was back running and then the original diesel engine, notwithstanding the love and care lavished on her gave up the ghost.

M100 hoisted for her transmission to be removed

Not to worry. A new, well rebuilt, engine has been acquired from Nevada and it is in the process of being installed. Check out the photos in the gallery taken by webmaster Roger Thornburn. We’ll let you know when she returns to work.


Click the picture right to see the
photo gallery of M100 repairs

The M300 was built by American Car & Foundry in 1935, Order #1432, as Seaboard Air Line RR 2026, part of a three car order, 2024 thru 2026. She was sold to the Aberdeen & RockfishM300 - built by American Car & Foundry in 1935M300 - built by American Car & Foundry in 1935 as 106. In 1951 and was purchased as Salt Lake Garfield & Western M.C.3 to replace their electric cars. Finally, in 1963 she became part of the CWR roster where she was numbered M300. So (in 2011) she’s 76 and still rolling along. Not bad eh? The pictures left show her in her earlier “colors”.

Railbuses on Our Layout.

Our layout will be open to the public on a daily basis. Over half of the main lines (each 370 feet long) are on the outside. To ensure reliable running and obviate the need for frequent track cleaning – a necessity we found at our previous outdoor layout – we are converting to battery power to the extent that the $$$ allow.

Battery is stored in trailing combine car

Click this photo to see them all

Club member and electronic guru Jim Smith has converted our Club’s silent Doodlebug to a Doodlebug with authentic sound and powered by a battery. Doodlebug is our third motive power to become “independent”.
You adjust the Doodlebug’s speed via the control situated under one of the diesel exhausts. The on/off switch is located under the awning of the trailing combine car which has been equipped with roller bearing wheels. Jim reckons that the battery, located in the trailing combine, will “last” for about four hours. This battery conversion did not include radio control – the layout needs a small number of locos that we can just switch on and leave to run – this is the first of those.

M80 at the Fort Bragg Depot M80 at Fort Bragg M80 at the Fort Bragg Depot CWR M100 in the Fort Bragg Depot M100 out in the woods M100 climbing the hill to Summit M100 at Willits M100 in Fort Bragg M100 boarding passengers in Fort Bragg M100 engine M100 chain driven transmission M100 transmission part M100 transmission being repaired M100 drive train minus the transmission you can see the gears that the chain drive fits onto M100 transmission back in place M100s new pressure valve The rebuilt diesel and the M100 with the engine compartment empty The rebuilt diesel for the M100 M100 showing her empty engine compartment Looking down underneath the M100 M200 when she was part of the CWR Roster M200 at Willits M300 at Fort Bragg M300 at Fort Bragg M300 at Fort Bragg M300 at Ranch on the Fort Bragg to Willits line M300 in Willits Control mechanism is stored in the doodlebug luggage compartment Doodlebug rolling down the east side of the Barn Doodlebug taking the curve outside the barn Jim's ingenious key for setting the speed of the doodlebug