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Steam Engines, Lumber Mills & Magnetic Wig-Wags

A photo exhibit by Charles Givens of seven historical railroad logging operations, along with text panels and accompanying memorabilia, is now on display at the Mendocino County Museum in Willits. It offers a rich glimpse into the “movers and shakers,” both mechanical and human, that formed the stories, highways and byways of Mendocino, Lake, and Humboldt Counties. The exhibit is part of the Redwood Empire Railroad History Project, a collaboration between the Mendocino County Museum and Roots of Motive Power, Inc. Roots of Motive Power, a volunteer organization devoted to steam power and logging history, has a rich collection of train and timber equipment large and small, including tools, models, and photographs.

Our era is not the only one that has undergone rapid technological and cultural change. The invention of the steam engine in the early 18th century ushered in forces of radical transformation throughout the land, as railroads crisscrossed the country and people and goods began to move about more rapidly. The logging trade and the railroads that arose to transport the downed trees to lumber mills were an essential part of the economy and history of rural Northern California. The show documents a near-bygone era when steam trains chuffed up the Willits Grade with the aid of helper engines, steam blew out of ingeniously designed whistles, crossing signals clanked, and passengers warmed their hands over pungent coal stoves.

Charles Givens had his eye on this catalyst of change from a young age. Born in San Jose, he took his first photo of a steam train in 1947 and quickly became an aficionado. After a long stint working at a San Jose paper, he went on to publish model railroad magazines and run a hobby shop, all the time traveling extensively throughout California and the Northwest to document the railroads that fascinated him. Givens photographed seven logging railroad operations in Mendocino, Humboldt and Lake Counties: the Bear Harbor & Eel River Railroad, the California Western Railroad (also known as the Skunk Train), the Caspar, South Fork & Eastern Railroad, the L. E. White Lumber Company (in the Elk/Greenwood area), the Mendocino Lumber Company, the Pacific Lumber Company, and Lake County Lumber and Box (the only railroad ever to operate in Lake County).

Givens’ photos, in both color and black and white, manage to be artistic and educational at the same time. Along with the text panels, one for each of the seven railroad companies, an informative view is offered into a crucial arc of history, roughly spanning the mid-19th through the entire 20th century. This era saw extensive logging of redwoods and other forests as well as expanded European settlement and economic development. The railroads carried these changes as surely as they carried lumber and human passengers. Many of the highways and byways that we presently travel were initiated by railroad logging operations, including Route 20 that presently runs between Willits and Fort Bragg.

The Caspar Lumber Company operated from 1861 to 1955, except for the Great Depression years of 1931-34. Givens’ photos of the mill it operated are among his most evocative, even giving rise to comparisons to Dutch painters. Gears gleam, wooden surfaces take on a burnished glow and machine wheels seem to turn before our eyes. A 1956 photo taken just after the mill’s closure, “South Fork and Eastern Locomotive #4 a Week Before Scrapping,” captures the poignancy of decline: a detached rail car sits in a yard among wood scraps, tarnished yet still somehow proud.

Northwestern Pacific Railroad, an amalgamation of as many as 60 different railroad companies, operated from 1907 to 2007. The railroad extended from Larkspur in Marin County all the way up to Eureka and employed several different types of narrow gauge lines in addition to standard gauge. Trains initially were steam-powered, assisted sometimes by mules and oxen, until the 1950s when the company switched to diesel electric propulsion. Helper locomotives were employed to lug trains over the Ridge Summit between Ukiah and Willits. The latter was a transfer point where crews changed. With the decline of the logging business, the company sold the north end of the railroad in 1984 to Eureka Southern Railroad. Passenger service ended in 1971 with the advent of Amtrak, although short passenger routes have remained in scenic areas such as the Eel River Canyon.

The Skunk Train, also known as California Western Railroad, transported its first redwood logs from Fort Bragg to Willits on July 4, 1912. Its name was derived from the fulsome emissions emanating from gas outlets used to run the train, as well as from coal stoves passengers used to keep warm. As redwood freight declined in the 1980s, the company shifted to providing passenger service. The only railroad of the seven still in operation, it traverses 40 miles, crosses 30 bridges, and burrows through two mountain tunnels as it connects the coast and the county’s interior.

A number of artifacts from railroad days gone by round out the exhibit. They include a yellowed railroad schedule, a lovingly preserved conductor’s shirt and cap, and a gleaming, table-lamp-size copper whistle. Whistles operated by forcing steam through a constricted orifice and passing it by a sharp edge. Fashioned of various shapes and sizes, whistles were used to issue warnings, mark time, and send out orders.

The most user-friendly artifact is no doubt the “magnetic wig-wag,” an electric crossing signal that will ring bells, literally, for those of a certain age. Consisting of a swinging black and white circle with a red dot in the middle mounted on a steel crane, it once was a common sight at railroad crossings. Today fewer than 90 are still in use. Visitors are able to push a button and set the mechanism in motion, initiating a satisfying clanking that echoes through the museum.

In this era it seems that rapid change is our only constant. It is good, then, to look back at another time when the natural and cultural landscape was equally transformed by our human invention, before we uncover where we can travel next.

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