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FreightWaves Classics: Northwestern Pacific Railroad served Northern California

A freight train of the "new" Northwestern Pacific Railroad. (Photo: Jamie Miller/NWPRR)

In the late 1800s the California counties north of San Francisco had relatively small populations compared to the rest of the state. While their populations have grown, what was true in the late 1800s is still true today.  

Back then, before decent roads were constructed and before there were trucks built that could haul freight, steam-powered schooners were used to haul timber to market. 

A Northwest Pacific Railroad train moves through rugged terrain. (Photo: Northwest Pacific Railroad Historical Society)
A Northwest Pacific Railroad train moves through rugged terrain. (Photo: Northwest Pacific Railroad Historical Society)

However, a rail line could compete with the steam schooners to serve the freight and passengers in the region. The Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) as well as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF) sought to build rail lines north from San Francisco to Humboldt County in order to transport lumber. 

The Southern Pacific controlled the southern end of the line from Willits to Marin and Schellville;  the AT&SF controlled a rail line south from Eureka through Humboldt County. Both railroads made plans to build a rail line north – the AT&SF would begin with a steamship connection at what is today Larkspur, California – while the SP would begin building at its interchange in American Canyon and then moving north through Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties to  terminate in the city of Eureka. 

However, as plans became more detailed it was evident that only one railroad would be profitable serving Mendocino and Humboldt counties. The two railroads decided to work together; in 1906 they merged smaller railroad companies between Marin and Humboldt Bay, creating one rail line that would run from Sausalito to Eureka. However, project completion was severely disrupted by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; plans and right-of-way documents were destroyed in the fire that ravaged parts of the city after the earthquake. 

Despite the setbacks, construction on the rail line was completed in October 1914. A “golden spike ceremony” and celebration were held to mark the end of construction on this day 107 years ago.

At Chain Rock Bridge near the northwestern California city of Eureka, the last 200 feet of track of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP) was dedicated. 

A bottle of champagne was broken on the rails by Alice Palmer. Then her father, NWP president W.S. Palmer, drove a golden spike into the ground. There were speeches and photos, and then the new rail line was ready for business.

The NWP had a significant role in the growth of the region, facilitating the transportation of lumber milled from the area’s redwood trees. The extension of the NWP line (known as the “Redwood Empire Route”) to Eureka helped make it the timber capital of California.

The railroad's logo. (Image: Northwestern Pacific Railroad)
The railroad’s logo. (Image: Northwestern Pacific Railroad)

NWP railroad service was successful; an early NWP timetable listed 10 passenger trains each way, plus dozens of freights daily. The rail line soon replaced the steam-powered schooners as the primary mode to transport lumber to market from Humboldt County. 

The AT&SF sold its half-interest to the Southern Pacific in 1929; the NWP became a subsidiary of the SP at that time. 

A map of the NWP service area. (Image: Northwest Pacific Railroad Historical Society)
A map of the NWP service area. (Image: Northwest Pacific Railroad Historical Society)

The 1930s-1950s

The AT&SF’s sale of its half-interest in the NWP was timely. Passenger service had done well since the line opened in 1914, but by the 1930s, better roads and even highways had been built in the region. Traveling and shipping freight by motor vehicles became much easier. In addition, the Great Depression slowed both freight and passenger use of the railroad. Economic conditions caused construction of new homes to drop precipitously and construction of other buildings also slowed significantly, causing the timber industry to scale back.

To cut costs during the Depression, a number of branch lines were dismantled. The Sebastopol branch became redundant in 1932 after the NWP bought the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad. California State Route 12 was built on what had been the rail line between the towns of Leddy and Sebastopol. In 1933, the Trinidad extension reverted to a logging line after NWP service ended. Sonoma County’s River Road was built in 1935 along the former Guerneville branch from Fulton to Duncans Mills after the rails were removed.

Like most railroads, World War II significantly increased freight shipments on the NWP; however, passenger service never really recovered. In the 1950s, freight shipments increased further; the post-war housing boom caused the demand for lumber to skyrocket. 

Except for the tri-weekly Willits-Eureka passenger train, passenger service ended in March 1958. That run ended in 1969.

A NWP caboose. (Photo:
A NWP caboose. (Photo:

1964 Flood and the 1970s

A major flood occurred at Christmas in 1964. It destroyed 100 miles of the railroad’s track, including three bridges over the Eel River. The flood was so devastating that it permanently changed the area’s topography. The line was closed for almost six months; 850 men worked to rebuild the railroad through the Eel River Canyon. 

In the years after the 1964 flood, there were numerous landslides in Eel River Canyon; these hurt the railroad’s reliability. However, freight traffic continued at high levels until improvements to US Highway 101 in the 1970s made trucking competitive with the rail line. 

A North Coast Railroad freight train moves along NWP tracks. (Photo:
A North Coast Railroad freight train snakes along NWP tracks. (Photo:

Shortline development

The Southern Pacific sold the north end of the rail line (from Willits to Eureka) to the Eureka Southern Railroad (EUKA) in 1984. The Eureka Southern carried freight and also began tourist train service. 

The California legislature passed the North Coast Railroad Authority Act in 1989. The North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) was established to save the NWP from total abandonment.

Starting in the late 1980s, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (GGBHTD) purchased segments of the NWP’s southern end from the SP. Then the SP leased the line to the California Northern Railroad in 1993. This was followed by the purchase of the entire southern end of the rail line by the GGBHTD and Marin and Sonoma counties. These entities then merged operational control of the rail line with the NCRA on April 30, 1996. 

The Eureka Southern was sold to the NCRA in 1992; the Authority operated it as the “North Coast Railroad” until late 1996. There was severe flooding of the Eel River with widespread landslide damage at that time; the rail line’s track and roadbed were destroyed. The northern end of the NWP has not been in active service since then.

The California Northern Railroad lease was terminated in 1996; the NCRA began to operate the rail line between Schellville and Willits. Between 1996-98 the NCRA ran freight service and occasional passenger excursion service from Santa Rosa and Healdsburg to Willits.  

A "new" NWP train hauls fiber optic freight. (Photo: Andrew Roth/NWPRR)
A “new” NWP train hauls fiber optic freight. (Photo: Andrew Roth/NWPRR)

The new NWP

The NCRA selected a new operator for the revamped freight line in May 2006. NWPCo, Inc.  reopened the line in June 2011. The new Northwestern Pacific began operations over the section of track between the cities of Lombard and Windsor. The NWP has hauled grain for dairy and poultry farms in Sonoma County,  and lumber from Windsor and Schellville. At Lombard, the railroad exchanges freight carloads with the California Northern Railroad.

The “new” NWP is much smaller than the “old” NWP, but train service continues in a rugged area of northern California.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.