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Oral History Spotlight: She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain

Mt. Tam's "Crookedest Railroad in the World"

In this series, we spotlight oral histories from our collection. The Mill Valley Oral History Program is an ongoing collaboration between the Mill Valley Historical Society and the Mill Valley Public Library. We gather the stories and opinions of individuals from the community and preserve them for posterity. You can explore this collection of over 250 interviews by visiting us in the History Room at the Library. A growing number of interviews are also available online.

In this post, Library Assistant Hannah Waldschmidt traces the history of Mill Valley’s old Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Scenic Railway.

For more than 30 years, the Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Scenic Railway was an iconic feature of Mill Valley’s physical and cultural landscape. As William Provines recalls in his Oral History, the railway “was a focal point for people who lived here, and it also attracted thousands of people from all over the world,” turning the sleepy little town of Mill Valley into an international tourist destination.

While the railroad no longer operates today, recent community efforts have brought this once-famous attraction out of obscurity and back into the spotlight. Just last year, the Friends of No. 9, in association with the Mill Valley Historical Society, raised enough funds to purchase the last surviving piece of Mill Valley’s old Scenic Railway. The Pacific Lumber Co. No. 9 locomotive was the final engine to be added to the Scenic Railway’s fleet, and has been on display in at the Scotia Museum in Humboldt County since 1950. But thanks to the efforts of the Friends of No. 9, the engine is finally on its way back home to Marin.

In light of these exciting developments, it’s an ideal moment to take a deeper dive into the history of Mill Valley’s unique railway.

Billed as “the world’s longest roller coaster” and “the crookedest railroad in the world,” the scenic railway operated out of Mill Valley from 1896 until 1930, carrying riders on a breathtaking tour up to the scenic heights of Mt. Tamalpais and down into the lush canyons of Muir Woods. All this spectacular natural beauty lent the railway its allure, but also posed challenges for its construction. The steep grades of Mt. Tamalpais required a creative workaround in the form of the Double Bow Knot, a stretch of switchbacks in the train tracks named for their resemblance to the curves of a bowtie. According to Fred Runner in his book Images of Rail: Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway“all the curves, if connected, could have made 42 complete circles, an average of five per mile.”

Engineering challenges were not the only obstacles to the railway’s construction. As Eleanor Jenkins, daughter of railroad co-founder Sidney B. Cushing, remembers in a 1977 interview: “there was a lot of difficulty in building the railway. The people up Blithedale Canyon were bringing suits to try to stop construction.” Mill Valley residents worried that the noise from the train, as well as the tourists it would attract, would ruin the town’s tranquil beauty. Tensions escalated to the point where a group of local homeowners, feeling helpless against the power of the Tamalpais Land and Water Co. “threatened workmen with guns and barricaded streets.” (Anne Goldsmith, Mount Tamalpais and Mill Valley Scenic Railway)

Mill Valley homeowners were not the only people with complaints about the developing railway—in the Spring of 1896, construction was halted by laborers striking over the harsh working conditions. They had to spend their winter sleeping in tents at the foot of the mountain, and were required to walk as many as two miles up the mountain to work (Goldsmith).

Eventually, however, the animosity settled, and the railway finished its construction in August of 1896. Complaints about noise created by passing trains abated as the sounds of the railway echoing through the canyon became a defining feature of Mill Valley’s unique charm. Mr. Provines fondly reminisces: “When the train was going up the mountain, you could stand down in Lytton square and hear the sound of the exhaust. The sound was reflected off the sides of the banks, and it increased and decreased as the train went around the curves.”

Protests over the influx of tourists were also quelled by the economic advantages brought by the railroad’s popularity. Mill Valley’s real estate values rose, and both year-round residents and college students on break found ample employment opportunities on the railway. According to Mr. Provines, “the Tamalpais railroad, being a tourist attraction, was one of the best advertising things Mill Valley ever had. Muir Woods was another.” In fact, the railway’s early investors are credited not only with “reveal[ing] to the public the natural wonders of Mt. Tamalpais”, but also with establishing Muir Woods as a National Monument (Goldsmith). After William Kent, the son of railway founder A.E. Kent, first visited Muir Woods (then known as Redwood Canyon), Kent “fell in love with the area and purchased the canyon,” and construction on a special railway branch to the woods began in 1906 (Goldsmith). Shortly thereafter, Kent would donate the property to the Federal government, making it the 10th national monument in the country.

As the railway’s fame grew, tourists and celebrity guests flocked to ride the famous gravity cars, have their picture taken at the foot of the Double Bow Knot, and enjoy spectacular views alongside a meal at the mountaintop Tavern of Tamalpais. Among the Tavern’s notable guests was suffragette Susan B. Anthony, who gave a speech there to the California Women’s Suffrage League in 1896. In March of 1898, Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope film crew came to visit the railway and shoot what were “possibly the first moving pictures in Marin County” (Runner).

Unfortunately, before long the railway’s golden years would come to a close. While the railway was once the only means of reaching the peaks of Mt. Tam (save for a long and strenuous hike!), the advent of the automobile—along with the construction of Ridgecrest Boulevard in 1926—provided a faster, cheaper way for tourists to make the journey. Instead of paying $2.00 per person for a round trip on the railway (the equivalent of more than $50 today), sightseers “could pile five or six people into an automobile, and for fifty cents they could run up to the top of the mountain and back -- and they wouldn't have to take a day to do it" (Provines). This meant a sharp decline in traffic—and in income—for the railroad. Combine this with the beginnings of the Great Depression, ten- to twenty-year-old railway cars in increasing need of repair, and the fire that ravaged Mill Valley in July 1929—and the costs of the railway just became too much to maintain. The last train to Mt. Tamalpais ran on October 31, 1929, marking the end of an era for Mill Valley.

All of the works cited in this article are available in the Mill Valley Public Library Lucretia Little History Room.

Books:

Fred Runner, Images of Rail: Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway, (Arcadia Publishing, 2009).

Anne Goldsmith, Mount Tamalpais and Mill Valley Scenic Railway, (San Francisco State University, 1978).

Oral Histories:

Oral History of Eleanor ‘Dolly’ Jenkins, (Mill Valley Public Library, 1977).

Oral History of William Provines, (Mill Valley Public Library, 1973).