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When Fort Bragg Had a Real Railroad

One hundred years ago you could get on the California Western Railroad in Fort Bragg at 8:15 in the morning and ride the train to Eureka and arrive at 7:30 p.m. Two different trains provided Pullman service between Fort Bragg and San Francisco on any given day. The Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, and Western Pacific lines honored all such Pullman tickets and checked your baggage for transfer to all points on their tracks. “Any information regarding your trip gladly furnished,” read the weekly notice of departures and arrivals in Fort Bragg’s newspaper.

As for local service, the trains running between Fort Bragg and Willits stopped at South Fork, the Company Ranch, Alpine, Northspur, and Irmulco. Three trains ran daily to Ukiah and Santa Rosa. You could ride the iron horse to Longvale and Dos Rios as well. The trip all the way to the Bay Area included stops in Cloverdale, Healdsburg, and Petaluma along with Ukiah and Santa Rosa. Two of the trains that ran from Fort Bragg to Sausalito possessed sleeping cars.

Fort Bragg in 1921 proved a bustling burgh. Not only did the coastal mill town thrive, but nearby mill communities like Glen Blair boasted a moving picture house. Tom Mix in The Texican played there in November. 

At the Grand Hotel in Fort Bragg, an optometry specialist saw patients for three days in mid-autumn. Archdeacon Lee preached at St. Michael’s on “The Church and the Armaments Conference.”

One could purchase winter fireplace wood or stove wood for $2.00 and $2.50 per tier, respectively. The property on the northeast corner of McPherson and Alder Streets was for sale. The price, in correspondence with the City Assessor’s valuation, stood at $2,466.

Not everyone on the Mendocino Coast lived in prosperity. Every bit of farming and ranching equipment was for sale by Mrs. Anna Ferguson at the old Thurston ranch near Elk. She offered up all horses, cattle, hay, grain, chickens, potatoes, and all her household goods. Her ad in the Fort Bragg paper stated, “Will sell at sacrifice.” The reason for the sale, “on account of death of husband.”

At the inland hub of rail activity, the town of Willits saw its fair share of illegal activity a century ago. In one November week Sheriff Ralph Byrnes and Constable Morgan Whitcomb (a relative of this writer) arrested Shorty Count and John Isaacks for bootlegging. Each defendant received a fine of $200 and spent sixty days in the county jail. The Sheriff also nabbed Red Mehan on a similar bootlegging charge. Red must have possessed fewer bottles of illicit whiskey. His fines totaled $100 and the judge suspended his sixty day jail sentence on the condition of a year’s probation.

All of the winning cars at the 1921 Apple Show races used Zerolene motor oil. The Standard Oil product earned its name because it still flowed freely at zero degrees.

The coast, the state, the nation, and the world were only two years removed from a deadly influenza pandemic, but by 1921 late fall health concerns turned to more standard illnesses. A paragraph in a local newspaper advised and advertised how to avoid catching the most frequent of late year maladies. “Some persons are subject to frequent colds while others seldom if ever have a cold. You will find that the latter take good care of themselves. They take a shower or cold storage bath every day in a warm room, avoid overheated rooms, sleep with open or partly open windows, avoid excesses, over eating, becoming over heated then chilled and getting the feet wet. Then when they feel the first indication of a cold they take Chamberlain’s Cough Remedy without delay and it is soon over.”

The Chamberlain brand dated back to the 1870s. At one time the patent medicine labeled itself, “Chamberlain’s Colic, Cholera and Diarrhea Remedy.” Advertising for the suspect elixir claimed, “It has been used in nine epidemics of dysentery with perfect success.”

A hundred years ago, Fort Bragg possessed a chiropractor. C.C. King practiced in the Shafsky Building from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. then in the evenings from 7 to 8. No specific services existed for soldiers who had returned from the ‘War to End All Wars” without arms or legs or with wounds unseen on the surface, but Fort Bragg had constructed a hospital just six years before. Even a fellow on crutches could make the short walk from the hospital to the depot.

Preparing for a long ride on the train? If sweets were your treat in the holiday season of 1921, you could pick up a box of Pig ‘n Whistle Candy from Ray’s Sweet Shop in Fort Bragg before you boarded. Prescriptions could be filled a mere block from the depot at Baum’s Pharmacy on the corner of Main and Laurel Streets.

Not all railroad trips went according to exact plan a century ago. A freight car loaded with redwood ties derailed near Alpine in 1921, flipping so that it blocked the track. With passenger trains about to depart from Fort Bragg, general manager C.A. Curtis did not waste time. Rather than unload the ties and righting the freight car on the tracks, he ordered a block and tackle crew to roll the loaded car over an embankment. The passenger trains went through with only a moderate delay. A wrecking crew waited until the following Sunday to lift the car back on the tracks.

In those days, the railroad company hosted the occasional free luncheon at Eagle’s Nest alongside the Noyo River for all its employees and their families along with the employees and families of the Union Lumber Company. In part I know this because one of my uncles worked as a brakeman on the railroad in the 1920s. 

An interesting note about the Union Lumber Company (ULCO). At mid-year in 1921, Union Lumber Company cut wages by five cents an hour at its mill and throughout its timber camps. The lowest common laborer earned $3.30 per day then at ULCO. On the other hand, ULCO lowered the price to rent a cabin in its logging camps and near its mill from $1.25 per day to a single dollar.

Those were not purely idyllic times. However, there was a true railroad then, one that hauled freight and passengers from the coast inland then north to Eureka or south to the San Francisco Bay. It proved far more than an amusement; rather, an integral part of everyday life.

4 Comments

  1. Scott Taubold,Ph.D. December 2, 2021

    I believe the Mendocino Railway could perhaps not duplicate these previous services, however provide a lot of good options for transportation in the near future after repairing tunnel #1.

    • LJ December 2, 2021

      Dream on

  2. Joe Hansen December 4, 2021

    And in 1921 what is now known as Eagles Hall was Labor Temple aka Comrades Hall, built by the Socialist Party circa 1916, where on any Saturday night those passing by could hear The Internationale being sung . . . in Finnish! In that year Enoch Nelson, a former IWW activist and member of the fledgling Communist Party left Fort Bragg with a few other locals for Soviet Karelia, an ethnically Finnish area near the Finnish border to work on a collective farm there, but in 1938 locals here were informed that he had died of liver disease. In the 1950s under Khruschev the truth came out: he had been murdered in the purges of the time. (“The Nelson Brothers: Finnish-American Radicals of the Mendocino Coast” by Allen Nelson, published by the Mendocino County Historical Society)

  3. Gary Swanson December 4, 2021

    Very well written Malcolm

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