The station in Fort Bragg is crowded with excited families, couples, a Boy Scout troop, and gangs of friends. As we climb aboard the Skunk Train, I take a window seat in one of the restored passenger cars. We’re on our way up the Noyo River, and deep into the redwoods.
We pull out of the station, and, over the loudspeakers, the train’s historian fills us in on the history of the train and the logging industry. Originally known as the “Redwood Route,” the 40-mile-long track between Fort Bragg and Willets, California, was built in 1885 to haul redwood logs to mills in Fort Bragg. The train soon became a vital link for farm families and ranchers, and still makes stops at camps and cabins along the route. Eventually, the line became known as the “Skunk Train,” for the smell of gas-powered passenger motorcars, and the crude oil burning in pot-bellied stoves that kept passengers warm.
A few miles later, I step out onto the open platform car, and the air is cool, then warm, then cool again as we pass through the shadows of giant coastal redwoods, some over 300 feet tall. On the steep hillsides, massive stumps, a dozen feet high, are surrounded by younger trees. The ancient stumps were so heavy with water that they could not be budged by teams of men with axes and horses, so fallers climbed up, cut slots, installed plank platforms to stand on, and somehow still managed to maintain their balance while sawing.
Interlacing details about the railroad, the historian shares stories about life in the camps, and delivering the mail by train. Eventually, his talk ends, and the open air car becomes a stage.
“I hear the train a comin’, it’s rolling round the bend. And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when. . . “ By the time Greg Shindel is through the second line of Folsom Prison Blues, half the car is singing along. Shindel, the world’s only official Train Singer, knows how to work a crowd. His bushy mustache and mischievous blue eyes compliment his conductor’s uniform, and his guitar and repertoire of over 80 train songs keeps us laughing and singing as we roll along the rails. By the time we reach our lunch stop at Northspur, he’s rocking Ozzie Osborne’s Crazy Train.
After a picnic hamburger, I take a short walk around the old apple company station. Pine cones, redwood bark, the smell of damp earth, and the aroma of faraway campfires bring back memories of family camping trips. Overhead, a hawk calls, and I watch a woodpecker knock against a trunk as it pries insects from the bark.
On the way back to Fort Bragg, the Train Singer makes his way through the cars, serenading sleepy riders with songs about hobos, wailing train whistles, and yearning hearts.
The Skunk Train is a time capsule, even for half a day, and as I make my way from the station and through town, I can almost smell the old saw mills and hear the lumber being loaded onto ships bound for San Francisco. Victorian buildings line Main Street as they have for a hundred years, and as the town changes with time, its redwood bones remember.