Where Was That Railroad, Anyway?

The Albion River Railroad was incorporated in 1885. It started out as a logging railroad to supply logs to the Albion Mill. The locomotives were brought in by sea and the rail line started at Tidewater Gulch, 3 miles up river from the mill. From there, the logs were floated to the mill and the finished lumber was sent out by ship. By 1891, the rail line reached Keene's Summit, some 11 miles inland. In 1902, the railroad was sold and was incorporated as the Albion and Southeastern Railroad. Plans were made to extend the line to the Wendling Redwood Shingle Co. mill on Soda Creek, some 20 miles inland. In 1903, the rails were extended from the Albion wharf to Brett, formerly called Tidewater Gulch.

It was not easy to extend the line from Keene's summit, because the ground was steep. There was a 3% grade and two switch-backs had to be constructed. When a train reached a switch-back, it would stop, the brakeman would get off and throw the switch, and the train would proceed in the reverse direction. In 1905, the rails reached the Wendling mill which had recently been purchased by the Stearns Lumber Company. Telephone and telegraph lines were built to connect Albion and Wendling at this time.

In 1907 the railroad, now owned by the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific, incorporated as the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Albion Branch. At this time, the Southern Pacific was building a railroad in Mexico and they needed large numbers of ties and timbers. They bought the Albion Lumber Company in August of 1907, and extended the railroad branch from Clearbrook Junction, some 6 miles inland, toward Comptche. In 1908, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad made an agreement with the Stearns Lumber Company to build the Floodgate Extension and lay tracks from Wendling to Christine on Mill Creek. A work force of over 100 men and 80 mules finished the extension in June 1908. The town of Christine was located just south of Clark Road near its intersection with Highway 128 in Anderson Valley. The Stearns Lumber Company built a logging railroad spur up Floodgate Creek. They had been logging the land around their mill using gravity rail cars and steam donkey engines.

In 1914 the Navarro Lumber Company was formed and they purchased the Stearns Lumber Company. The mill site was first called Wendling's Mill, then Stearn's Mill and then Navarro Mill. The town of Wendling and the Navarro Mill became known as Navarro. The old town of Navarro at the mouth of the Navarro River became known as Old Navarro.

In 1915 the Navarro Lumber Company began building a logging railroad up Mill Creek from the end of the Northwestern Pacific's tracks at Christine. At this time, they bought a double-truck Heisler logging locomotive from the New York & Pennsylvania Redwood Company. This locomotive became Navarro Lumber Co. Engine Number 2.

RRlocomotive

In 1920, the Albion Lumber Co. purchased the Navarro Lumber Co. and more land and timber rights along the NWP's right-of-way. The Southern Pacific needed more ties and timbers for the railroad they were constructing in Mexico. In 1922 there were seven miles of logging railroad on the North Fork of the Albion River, three and a half miles on Dutch Henry Creek from Keene's Summit, three miles in Perry Gulch and two short logging lines just south of Dunn.

There were no locomotive turntables on the railroad, so the trains went in the forward direction when they were going away from Albion and reverse when they were returning. They would reverse direction when they encountered switch-backs, however. In 1923 the AV Fire bought a Model TT Ford truck which they equipped with railroad wheels and there were turntables for this vehicle.

This railroad history was condensed from an article by Stanley Borden in “The Western Railroader,” December, 1961. It surprised me that there are so many conflicting accounts of this early history, but Stanley Borden obviously did his homework and researched court records and newspaper articles. I believe his account is fairly accurate. However, the Northwestern Pacific RR Historical Society, Inc. has a map of the Albion Branch which has some significant errors. The town of Christine was located on the west bank of Mill Creek, but their map shows it a mile east of Mill Creek. They also show the Navarro Lumber Co. railroad going up Lazy Creek, not Mill Creek. I have walked for miles along Mill Creek and its tributaries, mapping the route and taking pictures of old trestles. I estimate that there were some 10 miles of track along the Mill Creek drainage. I don't believe any rails were ever laid in the Lazy Creek drainage.

RRmap

According to Stanley Borden, Navarro Lumber Co. Engine Number Two suffered a runaway and was wrecked beyond repair in 1918. Oscar Newman, the engineer, and the rest of the crew all jumped and they were unhurt. The train ran away when not enough hand brakes were set on a log train coming down a steep grade. I found what's left of the wreck near the intersection of Mill Creek and Hungry Hollow creek, some 6 miles up stream from the Mill Creek bridge on Highway 128. However, I talked to Donald Pardini and got a different account of the accident. Donald's father, Earnest, was the fireman on the train's last ride. According to his account, the train was loaded with tan bark and was supposed to go all the way to Albion where the load would be sent out by ship. At the time, the railroad camps had hand crank phones connecting them to Navarro and Albion. Oscar called up the boss in Albion and said that there was ice on the rails and he wouldn't be able to leave for a while. The boss reportedly told him that the ice would be melted by the time he got up steam, and to come on in. I think Donald's version of events is correct. It is likely that Stanley Borden only heard management's side of the story.

Stanley Borden's article notes that the Southern Pacific railroad finished its project in Mexico and the Navarro Mill was shut down in 1927 and the Albion Mill was closed in 1928. The government required the railroad to make one round trip a day from Albion to Christine to fulfill their license agreement. These last runs were made with their Model TT Ford truck, Motor Car Number 7. It cost the railroad $4 for a round trip with the Model T and $45 for a round trip with a steam locomotive. The railroad stopped operation on January 16, 1930. In 1937 the rails, locomotives, cars and mill machinery was sold as scrap and the locomotives were used to tear up the tracks. I have heard stories that the boiler from the wrecked Navarro Number Two was pulled out at this time to be used as an apple dryer fire box. I have also heard that the running gear was pulled out in 1922. The cab was left in the creek bed and when I first saw it 40 years ago, it was intact, upright and showed little damage from the crash. When I saw it a couple months ago, there were a few scattered pieces of metal in the creek.

The first railroad cut on the Navarro Lumber Co. line can easily be seen running parallel to the north edge of Holmes Ranch Road less than a tenth of a mile from Highway 128. It is between Handley Cellars Vineyard and Holmes Ranch Road. It is over 10 feet deep in places and it was dug in 1915 with teams of mules dragging a kind of scoop shovel called a fresno.

After 100 years, the evidence of the railroad is fading away. I think it's important to document it while we can.

Trestle below Hungry Hollow switchback [May 27, 2014].
Trestle below Hungry Hollow switchback [May 27, 2014].

One Response to "Where Was That Railroad, Anyway?"

  1. Mike Glasson   July 29, 2019 at 6:07 pm

    My Great grandfather , Palmer Holmes Shaw was supposed to be an engineer on the Navarro Mill Railroad in 1888. So that would be the old mill at or near the mouth of the Navarro River. I have a builder’s picture of that engine with notes from Great Grandma about his supervising the building of that engine at the Rix and Firth builders in San Francisco. My quest is to find proof , other than her notes that he was actually an engineer on that Railroad . Would you have any info about that earlier mill and Railroad that would prove her story. I can , of course find no records from that mill. I have seen a couple of pictures of that engine working in the woods but he is
    not in them , and they are not dated. Can you help me with other photos or stories or leads to continue my research. One of the family stories is that a girl was killed by that train on an excursion or holiday run . After that time frame I can only find him working as engineer on stationary steam plants. I am wondering if that is why he left the mill. I would appreciate any help . Thank you so much. Mike Glasson , stonefly@surewest.net , 916-955-8477

    Reply

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