History of the Redwood Empire Route

In the late 1800s both the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway had great interests in building lines north from San Francisco to Humboldt County to transport lumber. The Southern Pacific Railroad controlled the southern end of the line from Willits to Marin and Schellville, while the AT&SF controlled line south from Eureka through Humboldt County. Both railroads planned to build a line north, the AT&SF starting with a boat connection in present-day Larkspur, California, and the Southern Pacific, starting at its interchange in American Canyon, north through Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties to finally terminate in Eureka, California. As plans went forward it became clear that only one railroad would be profitable serving Mendocino and Humboldt Counties, so the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe entered into a joint agreement, and in 1906 merged 42 railroad companies between Marin and Humboldt Bay to create one railroad line stretching from Sausalito to Eureka. Completion of the project was disrupted by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; plans and right-of-way documents were destroyed in the subsequent fire. After a time-expedient "punt" of the route through the unstable Eel River Canyon, construction was finally completed in October 1914 when a golden spike ceremony and celebration was held to mark the accomplishment.

The railroad service became popular; an early daily NWP timetable shows 10 passenger trains each way, plus dozens of freights. The rail line soon replaced steam schooners as the main means of getting lumber from Humboldt County to market. Rail service to inland areas facilitated local development of the lumber industry.

In 1929 the AT&SF sold its half-interest to the Southern Pacific, making the NWP a full SP subsidiary.

The Southern pacific era

Passenger service boomed until the 1930s, when improved roads and highways made traveling and shipping by motor vehicle more accessible, and by 1935 both freight and passenger service slowed to a crawl because of the Great Depression. With the onset of World War II, freight shipments rose while passenger service stayed roughly the same. Freight service on the NWP picked up heavily again in the 1950s as a large increase in the demand for lumber came about due to the post-war housing boom.

Branch lines were dismantled during the 1930s. The Sebastopol branch became redundant following purchase of the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad in 1932, and California State Route 12 adopted the former alignment between Leddy and Sebastopol. The Trinidad extension reverted to a logging line after NWP service ended in 1933. Sonoma County's River Road adopted the former alignment of the Guerneville branch from Fulton to Duncans Mills after rails were removed in 1935. During March 1958, with the exception of the tri-weekly Willits-Eureka Budd Rail Diesel Car passenger service, all mainline passenger service was discontinued. The “Budd car" made its last run in 1969.

1964 flood damage

The catastrophic Christmas flood of 1964 destroyed 100 miles (160 km) of the railroad in Northern California, including three bridges over the Eel River, and permanently changed the topography of the area. The line was closed for 177 days while 850 men rebuilt the railroad through the Eel River canyon. In the years following the 1964 flood, the rail line was less reliable due to increased landsliding in the Eel River Canyon; but freight traffic remained high until the 1970s, as improvements to US Highway 101 cut hauling times, making trucking competitive with the rail line.

Sales and shortline development

In 1984, the SP sold the north end from Willits to Eureka to the Eureka Southern Railroad. Under the reporting marks EUKA, the Eureka Southern operated revamped tourist train service as well as promising reliable freight traffic. In 1989, the North Coast Railroad Authority was founded by the California Legislature under the North Coast Railroad Authority Act to save the NWP from total abandonment.

In 1992, what was left of the Eureka Southern was sold to the NCRA, who operated it as their "North Coast Railroad" until late 1996, when severe flooding of the Eel River led to widespread landslide damage and destruction of roadbed. As a result, the north end of the NWP has not been in active service since 1996.

Beginning in the late 1980s, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District began to purchase sections of the NWP's south end from the Southern Pacific Railroad. The SP began to lease the line to the California Northern Railroad in 1993, until the entire south end was purchased by a combination of the GGBHTD and Marin and Sonoma Counties, which operational control was merged on April 30, 1996 with the NCRA.

In 1996, the California Northern Railroad lease was terminated, and the NCRA took over operations of the line between Schellville and Willits. The "new" NWP ran from 1996 until 1998 and ran both freight service and occasional passenger excursion service from Santa Rosa and Healdsburg to Willits. Despite the new operations, the line was plagued by a series of harsh El Nino storms.

In May, 2006, NCRA announced that it had selected a new operator for the revamped freight line. The winning bidder was NWPCo, Inc., led by CEO John H. Williams who had been instrumental in setting up Caltrain service on the San Francisco Peninsula. In June 2011, the Northwestern Pacific reopened the line and began operations over the section of track between Lombard and Windsor, California. Service consists of about three trips weekly over the line. The railroad has hauled grain for dairy and poultry farms in Sonoma County, and lumber products out of Windsor and Schellville. Occasional construction trains for SMART have also been an integral part of NWP carloads. At Lombard, the railroad exchanges freight carloads with the California Northern Railroad in American Canyon.