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North Coast Incline Railways

One of my favorite discoveries studying history is how creativity and ingenuity solved problems, like moving really BIG things. Incline railways were one such invention. These rail lines had nicknames for their many parts—they were “sidehill railroads” using “gravity systems” to run “log slide engines” and “dropping machines.” Basically what the systems accomplished was moving logs or lumber in really steep terrain.

When logging started on the North Coast oxen and horses pulled logs on skid roads to sawmills, or rivers where logs could be floated to the mill. Next came Donkey Engines, stationary steam engines on skids with rotary gears and cable attachments. Logs could then be mechanically pulled to one spot next to a railroad where they were loaded to go to a mill.

Railroads were great, when they arrived, if land was flat and the grade gentle, but the North Coast was full of mountains. Raising costs, and rising terrains, led timber barons to consider a new sort of railroad. It was expensive to blast tunnels or design switchback tracks to gain elevation and darned if those redwoods didn’t like to grow on ridge tops. So to save miles of track building engineers figured out that they could lay out tracks that just went straight up hill for miles. Inspired by tramways designed for mining underground they adapted the idea for logging. By the 1890’s strong wire cable rope was available for the job.

Engineers imagined a system to lower flat cars loaded with logs down a very steep railroad grade while empty cars were pulled back to the top, where logs were waiting. Put a special Donkey Engine or a stationary locomotive on top of the ridge, invent a good braking system, and find a crew unafraid of heights. Workers joked it was a rare sensation to find oneself standing up while lying down hanging on for dear life as they rode the empty flatcars up the hill.

The mightiest incline ever built in the West was near Yosemite. The starting point was the Merced River and the end was 3,100’ up hill. It took 8,300’ of spooled cable and a 76% grade to get there. In later years there were inclines longer in length but never that steep. Grades of 60% and 70% were not unusual on inclines in Oregon and Washington. Can you imagine how big a spool of wire needed to be to wind up 1,300’ of steel cable? They were massive.

Loma Prieta Lumber Company south by Aptos had an incline with a 600’ gain in elevation in one mile. Know that ski resort in the Sierra at Incline Village? Sierra Nevada Lumber Company started there an incline railway there to lift cars of finished lumber 1,800’ to the Sierra crest so they could be slid down to Nevada in the east.

Humboldt County had 28 inclines for eight different logging companies and one became a tourist attraction. California Barrel Company had a 5,400’ incline that crossed what is now Highway 299 on a trestle. Cars could pull off the road near Lord Ellis Summit to watch loaded flatcars flashing by overhead in the 1930’s. There were eight inclines south of Scotia from 3,200’ to 6,700’ long. Bear Harbor had one 1,900’ long that rose 600’ at a grade of 31%. With a complicated design rails separated to four tracks at midpoint to allow ascending and descending cars to pass one another.

Here on the Mendocino Coast Caspar Lumber Company had four inclines. Called Bouten’s Tramway two were on the north fork of Caspar Creek and near Berry Gulch. A third was on the north side of Big River near McGuire’s Hill near Highway 20 and a fourth incline was near Parlin Fork on Three Chop Ridge.

As a concession to the laws of physics if a grade was steeper than 35% the crews chained the logs down so they didn’t fall off the rail cars head first. There were bumpers on each end of the flat car beds. This was a high maintenance operation as there was a lot of friction on the wire cables. A broken line sent logs and men flying through the air. Incline railways were used from the 1890’s to the 1940’s. Their routes to are invisible to us today as timber has regrown and covered the incline track beds.

If readers would like to know more about incline railways try reading (f you can find the out-of-print jewels) “Logging Railroads of the West” by Kramer Adams, “Redwood Lumber Industry” by Lynwood Carranco, and “Mallets on the Redwood Coast:Caspar Lumber Company” by Ted Wurm.

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