Odd Old News: Building the Northwestern Pacific Tracks South to Ft. Seward

1901 map of the NWP tracks.

1901 map of the North Western Railroad tracks. [Image from Poor’s Manual of the Railroads of the United States]

Nuggets of old news served up once a week by David Heller, one of our local historians.

The construction of the Northwestern Railroad up the Eel River canyon was a time consuming, massive endeavor employing thousands of workers to lay the track and bore the needed tunnels. The 1890’s and early 1900’s were a very good era for surveyors as numerous plans for railroad lines were reported in the news, and surveyors were out in force across Mendocino and Humboldt Counties. As early as 1894, surveying stakes were in the ground as far south as Phillipsville along the South Fork of the Eel River, though that route plan never came to fruition.

Supplying the construction sites and workers was a large task in itself. Warren A. Bechtel was the superintendent of the construction in the early days of his business empire, and was credited with the first use of the steam shovel to dig the bed for RR tracks.

Steam shovel at Island Mountain in 1915. [From Humboldt Room Photograph Collections at the HSU Library]

As we have previously reported, shipping supplies upstream on scows and barges was employed for awhile. Besides the better known Poison Oak and the Laurel, the Pepperwood Klipper plied the waters of the Eel River at a record setting pace…for slowness. Carrying heavy mill equipment upstream at an “astounding” one mile a day, the “Klipper” was pulled by a donkey engine and cable taken 1000 feet up the river and anchored.

Dynamite was an essential tool in the arsenal of the builders, and many tons of earth were simply blasted into the river. The comment section of that post has much more information about the damage to the Eel River done by building and maintaining the railroad over the years.

As we will see, the completion of the NWP track section south to Fort Seward heralded the end of the era of using river craft to supply the railroad builders. But first, this week’s Odd Old news takes a look at the logistics of moving dynamite to the railroad site, and how Eureka was spared being “blown off the map” when a shipment of 50 tons of dynamite was offloaded on the docks.

Twenty-five Tons of Explosive Shipped to Ft. Seward for Construction Work
Humboldt Times
Fifty thousand pounds of blasting powder, enough to blow Eureka off the map, were yesterday morning shipped to the construction camp a few miles north of Fort Seward, it will be used in grading the right-of-way between Fort Seward and Island Mountain. The shipment consisted of 2000 cans, each containing 25 pounds of the powerful explosive. It arrived late Tuesday night on the steam schooner North Fork and the following morning was discharged at the warehouse of the Northwestern Pacific railway company. As there is an ordinance against that amount of explosive remaining in the city over a certain amount of time, it was loaded on freight cars late the same night and yesterday morning forwarded to its destination. The powder formed only a portion of the North Fork’s cargo. c Had a fire started on the North Fork, Captain John Nelson and his crew would have “mysteriously disappeared.”

Making a 40 ft. Fill at Ft. Seward Calif.

“Making a 40 ft. Fill at Ft. Seward Calif.” [Humboldt Room Photograph Collections from the HSU Library]

Barges Which Cost Several Lives Are Abandoned When Rails Are Put Down
Humboldt Times
Since the first of July the merchants of Eureka have had their trade territory considerably enlarged through the fact that the Northwestern Pacific railway since that date has been accepting freight consigned to McCann, the present passenger terminal of the road, located 5 1/2 miles south of South Fork. A still bigger addition to the trade territory was made the first of the week when the railway began accepting freight consigned to Fort Seward, 25 miles south of South Fork. Under present arrangements, the freight for McCann and Fort Seward is placed in the same car when loaded at the local warehouse. The car is taken to McCann by the regular freight train and the local freight there discharged, the car being then taken on through by the construction trains.
Enables Progress
While the routing of freight through to Fort Seward from this city means considerable to local merchants, its greatest value lies in the fact that the railway contractors are better enabled to get in their supplies. Large quantities of these supplies are being sent forward to A. C. McLean at Fort Seward and to W. A. Bechtel. Bechtel is superintendent for the Utah Construction company and in addition to having some 2000 men employed on the construction work south of Island Mountain, has recently established a camp on this end of the big tunnel and at Alderpoint. Owing to the June rains very little could be done on the work there, as it was impossible to haul in supplies, but now that the trains carry them to Fort Seward and the roads are open for freighting to Alderpoint, the work will go forward very rapidly until the fall rains set in.
R. R. Replaces Barges
Two years ago the railway contractors were hauling supplies up Eel river from Shively under the greatest difficulty. Boats pulled by horses were tried, barges built and even the scows “Poison Oak” and “Poison Ivy” were constructed at an enormous expense. After making one or two trips the effort was abandoned and the scows now lie nearly buried in the sand and gravel of the stream they tried to navigate and failed, as far as practicability is concerned. A number of men lost their lives in these efforts to conquer the Eel and haul in supplies to the railroad crews which were pushing the work forward.
Pack Mules Were Used
Later a wagon road was built along the south side of Eel river from Fort Seward down to near Dyerville. The load was blasted out along the bank and at intervals was built upon the gravel bars. Meat and supplies were hauled into the camps by wagon and pack mules from Fort Seward. Now all this is done away with and the remainder of the road will be built by men who obtain their camp supplies by rail from Eureka and Dos Rios. It is a far cry from the present times and conditions to those obtaining two years ago. Those not in close touch with the rapid progress being made can hardly realize that freight ran now be shipped to Fort Seward from Eureka.

Railroad enthusiasts may wish to visit the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society to view their photo collection.

Earlier Odd and Old News:

There are many, but here are the most recent:



  • Train depot at Ft. Seward. The depot is still standing but in disrepair.

    • Can you still access the depot? Where exactly is it?

      • You can. It’s in fine shape, actually. End of RR street… turn right at the old ‘Shell’ garage. This is the other side of the building from the image above, taken about 2 months ago.

  • The things that were accomplished in America’s early days with limited resources were amazing! Now days, it takes decades, billions of dollars and probably a few lawsuits just to get a project approved.

    • here … here.

    • The Eel River historic salmon run was sacrificed for this RR. So many externalities are unaccounted for in our way of life.

      • So it’s already destroyed… Might as well continue to use the railroad.

        You really must like diesel trucks coming to town! 1 boxcar could eliminate for trucks. Modern Railroads are the most efficient and environmentally friendly way of moving products hands down.

        Do some environmental research before assuming railroads or bad.

        By the way I’m not saying they haven’t been bad in the past.

        Remember everybody this is America! We can do everything better if we try! We can have our cake and eat it too! We can have a railroad and be environmentally safe also!

    • The results of this cob-job of a rail line through the Eel River Canyon, with over a century of impacts for less than 70 years of benefit, illustrate why higher standards are necessary.

  • W.A. Bechtel was the namesake and founder of today’s major international construction entity known as Bechtel Corporation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_A._Bechtel

  • I love this series. The trains were still running when I first came to Humboldt in the 60s and lived in Whitlow, across the tracks.
    If the North Fork had caught fire, the explosion likely could have been evident a loooong ways away!

    • Angela Robinson

      For awhile I lived on 1st. in Eureka. The trains used to run down the middle of the street. They honked (is that the right word?) their horn at every intersection, one of which I lived on. The first night I spent there, when that thing went off, both I and my little cat jumped out of our skins. We got used to it pretty fast and slept through it soon enough.

      I later had a guest staying at my place and it woke him up and he shouted “What the f*ck!!!!”. His shouting did wake me up. 🙂 This was around ’76.

  • David,
    A friend told me of finding an account in an oral history write up (possibly for the Laytonville celebration of the US Bicentenial) of the story of why the Eel River Canyon route was chosen instead of the Sherwood Route- presumably then on into the South Fork. If Kym will forward my contact info to you, I’d be happy to provide details and contact information for searching for this, if you are interested.
    The San Francisco 1906 earthquake plays a big role in the account.

    • Funny how the earthquake set off the events that led to the route ending up where it did, and the utter mess that became in terms of maintaining the line. As if nature refuses to cooperate every step of the way 😉 it proves what a magical, dark and untamable area we live in, as the canyon slowly continues to reclaim the areas we thought we could harness.

    • Thanks B. I would love to read more. It is known that the surveyors maps and plans for the South Fork of the Eel route were lost in the SF fire, one man whose brother worked on coastal redwood (Sherwood/Branscomb and north) route said it was a gentler grade, and shorter. The way the RR’s were fighting over routes is an interesting backstory… I think Jerry Rohde is the go to guy for that story. Some financial backers were more attracted to the Eel River route because they could put in a spur to the Round Valley coal field (a future post). And, as many know, the ill-fated mega-mill at Andersonia (near Piercy), was built in hopes of the NWP route coming up through the redwood belt, not along the Eel River.

      • The version I heard had the original route going through Round Valley and traversing the slope west of Xenia to the Blocksburg area, and from there to the Eel River. Any comment?

        • That’s a new one to me Thirdeye, but though I haven’t seen it in any of the many newspaper articles I have read, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t one of the numerous plans that were afloat. It doesn’t make sense to me as the grade of the incline of the track route was all important. What I have seen is that the plan to route the track to Round Valley and up the Eel River valley was announced when the Southern Pacific Company purchased the Eel River and Eureka Railroad and its 45 miles of track in the Eel River valley in 1888. Then, in 1894, the arrival of seven prominent San Franciscans in Ukiah became the source of the gossip around town that they were there to inspect an northerly route to Round Valley “where a mountain of coal lies undeveloped”. The route from there was to go west to Sherwood in the heart of the redwoods to connect with an 18 mile stretch of track to Ft. Bragg. In 1898, it was reported that “From Bear Harbor, Pollard, Dodge and Stewart are pushing their lumber railroad into Humboldt county. Garberville is the point for which it is now making. It is more than probable that it will be extended before long into Eel river valley”.(Blue Lake Advocate, 9/18/1903).
          I made another entry for my top 5 errors in my column list, the surveying stakes were laid south down the South Fork in 1903, and not 1894 as I wrote. In 1903 surveying parties of 15-20 men were in five locations, four in Mendocino county. They were in Anderson Valley, the Hollow Tree region, near Ft. Bragg, and between Willits and Branston. Another article stated the fifth group under L. Orton had planted temporary stakes as far south as Garberville, and were going back to set permanent lines between Pepperwood and Garberville, that the contract was almost signed and the “dirt was going to fly”. This South Fork route was to go to Hollow Tree with a view to connect to Usal.
          In 1905 there was talk that the Sante Fe Line’s plan to build to the south might best avoid the bluffs at Scotia by going out the Van Duzen to hook up with the upper Eel River valley by that route, it was already to Carlotta by 1902. At this time it was common knowledge that Santa Fe would run a line down the South Fork of the Eel valley to Andersonia because of Anderson’s huge investment in his new mill. I read that the 1906 ‘nuptials’ of the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroad ended their competition, and that the missing 100 mile gap could now be filled. These are some of the plans in the papers, one paper inferred that there were a lot of ‘railroad stories’ with dubious credence, and obviously, plans that never happened.
          The earthquake and fires in San Francisco destroyed years of surveying information and plans, and one online writer described going up the Eel River Canyon as an expedient ‘punt’.

          • It appears that my source might have been confused by the Covelo coal spur proposed for the Eel River route, or it could have been an alternate description of the proposed connection from the Van Duzen to the south. I’ve wondered what that old railroad grade next to 36 east of Carlotta was about.

            Who knows what the status of the NWP line would be now had it not been punted through the Eel River Canyon.

            • Mendo Historian

              This may help to point out that before Highway 101 North to Laytonville, one would go through Sherwood Valley and Stage Coach Eureka Road to Cahto. Soon the road was made straight to Laytonville. But Cahto was first on the map.

          • David, how do I get information to you?

            • I hate to ask Kym to do anything more, but I think that she would be ok forwarding your email to her along me… I used to feel ok about putting my email in a comment, feeling more hesitant today.. Kym’s contact email is up near the top on the right side. By any chance is what you have Walter Collin’s story “What the earthquake did to Sam Anderson” in his Tales from the Redwood Coast?

        • Third Eye– I DID find two articles about Blocksburg area folks talking about the railroad possibly coming their way, so you were correct! But it was just hope and talk, and no surveying was ever done to explore that route, for the reasons given.

  • Abandoned Steam Shovel today

  • Ernie Branscomb

    I Read a book one time a few years ago written by a Laytonville Old Timer. I can almost remember the name of the book, and I’m pretty sure of the authors last name. However, Until I’m real sure of those details I will forgo divulging them. It saves a lot of corrections.

    Anyway, the book was about horse team driving. I found it fascinating. He talked about one-horse wagons, two-horse wagons, four-horse wagons and six-horse wagons, how the horses were trained, and where they fit on the team. You can never put a left side horse on the right side, and visa-versa. On the six horse team, the strongest horses are always placed next to the wagon, and the smartest horse were put in front. They had to know how to trot sideways, and not lead the team over a bluff. The dumb horses and the trainees went in the middle.

    He told a few stories about the jobs that he taken on. One of them being…. hauling dynamite from Sherwood, down by Willits, to Island Mountain. The route was, Sherwood, Strong Mountain road through Cahto, through Long Valley, then up over the Bell Springs road, then down into Island Mountain.

    The story that he told was that the grub supply wagon, that had left the day before, was supposed to take the dynamite caps, but they got left behind. They needed the caps badly, so he strapped them to the seat beside him in from of a six-team load of dynamite. When he got to Island Mountain he got roundly chewed out for being so stupid. I can only image the fright that the miners suffered as they VERY carefully unloaded and moved the caps away from the explosive. No good deed goes unpunished.

  • Ernie Branscomb

    Thank-you Dinky!!! I had the “Snider” part right. And, I knew that the title had “Team” in it. Don’t get old, your brains turn to crap.

    Link to book: https://www.amazon.com/buckskin-teambells-John-Snider/dp/B0007100U2

    • Just happens to be one of my favorite books, and I see it on the shelf everyday so it’s fresh in my mind. Haven’t read it in a couple years, but I thought it unlikely two men would have the same story. Although, you never know. In these parts one had to do whatever they had to do. I never tire of reading and hearing the old stories. People sure had some grit back then.

    • Good story Ernie. You turned me onto that book years ago and I went looking for the stage stop that is up the hill to the east of Burger Creek on the Dos Rios road. Had a real interesting talk with the woman who had the property, she was suffering from the medical procedure she was undergoing and still tossing bales of hay around. I worked 10 hour days laying RR track in Eastern Wyoming, moving ties around, and banging on spikes all day, the work convinced me it was not the career for me. I did like pushing the ‘buffalo gun’ around, which was the way you finished pounding the spikes down. The men who built that NWP would probably loved to have only worked 10 hour days.
      I love reading old obituaries and how they characterized brain health issues. “Brain softening” was my favorite phrase… it’s already like pudding, how soft can it get? (that is a rhetorical question) 🙂

      • My boyfriend’s great-grandparents owned and operated the stage stop on the Laytonville-Dos Rios road. Also, it was his great uncle who delivered that load of dynamite with the caps as described. We would love to talk history sometime, we have pictures and artifacts. Hey Ernie, thanks for showing me the well on the old family homestead 😉

        • Dinky, yes! Sorry for the late response, it would be great to connect if that is possible. There are some stories about that area that I would love to vet with long time locals, as well as hear more. I hope you find this, you can email Kym and she will forward it along. We can talk about how to do something safely.

  • Railroad did a lot of damage to people and the river. Oh well, that’s progress! Went out to Island Mountain tunnel with friends employed by Eureka Southern in the late 80’s. Beautiful country! Memorable day. Thanks Moe, thanks Jim. Thanks Dave.

  • I love these historical bits. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.