Just days after the auction closed on March 13, Friends of No. 9, the organization formed by the Mill Valley Historical Society, Friends of Mt. Tam, Marin History Museum and others, learned that its $56,240 bid won the auction.
“We were just elated,” MVHS President Eric Macris says of hearing the news. “People from Mill Valley have been trying to do this for 65 years. It’s the real deal – it’s the only big piece of the equipment left from the Mountain Railway. It would be a wonderful, iconic thing for our town.”
That elation was tempered by the reality that winning the bid was likely the easiest part of the endeavor.
“It’s a huge project – we’ve got to move, restore and relocate this locomotive,” Macris says, noting that the organization must take possession of the steam engine by the end of September. “This is going to take some years, and a lot more fundraising, community support and hard work. This is an incredible opportunity.”
To that end, the people hoping to turn the dream of parking the Heisler No. 9 in Mill Valley into a reality have launched a “Steam Locomotive Project” fundraising campaign. While the money needed for the winning bid has already been raised, many more thousands of dollars – some have estimated it at $500,000 – are required to move the engine, store it, restore it and eventually place it somewhere.
The Mt. Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway opened in 1896 to take mostly tourists – many of them famous folks like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and John Muir – to the top of Mt Tam. Most of those tourists came to Mill Valley via ferries from San Francisco.
The railway gained its famous “Crookedest Railroad in the World” moniker because its eight-mile route snaked up 281 curves from its origin at what is now the Depot Bookstore & Cafe to its final stop at the Tamalpais Tavern, which also included a hotel, restaurant and dance pavilion, atop the mountain’s East Peak.
The railway extended to Muir Woods in 1907, the year before the redwood tree-laden forest became Muir Woods National Monument. With business booming, the Mt. Tam railway owners bought the new Heisler Engine No. 9 in 1920 from manufacturer Heisler Locomotive Works in Erie, Pennsylvania.
But just four years later, with business down and new roads being built to accommodate the automobile, the company sold the engine to the Siskiyou Lumber Co. for $9,750.
The devastating fire of July 1929, which burned for three days across 2,500 acres and destroyed 117 homes, was the death knell for the railway. The Heisler No. 9 continued to work on other lumber railroads until 1950, when it was sold to the Pacific Lumber Co. in the Humboldt County town of Scotia. When Pacific Lumber ended its steam train operations, it put the locomotive on display outside company headquarters.
“This is a huge part of Mill Valley history, but also much more than that, as both railroads and logging were a big part of the history of the whole West,” Macris says. “The Heisler represents all of that.”
The Heisler No. 9 has remained in Scotia ever since, despite repeated efforts by Mill Valley community leaders and history buffs to reclaim it, including an unsuccessful campaign by the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce in 1953. Local historians like Fred Runner and Ted Wurm made a number of presentations to Scotia town leaders over the years, complete with old-time footage of the railway, to convince them to sell the last remaining remnant of the Crookedest Railroad in the World.
But in recent years, Scotia leaders grew concerned about the growing security and liability costs associated with the engine, and the substantial revenue needed to restore it. In recent years, they put a fence around it to protect it from the public before deciding to put it up for auction.
Macris says they don’t yet have the answers to the long-term questions about the locomotive, particularly whether it will end up atop Mt. Tam’s East Peak near the existing Gravity Car Barn exhibit, elsewhere along the Mt. Tam Railway’s old route or somewhere else. He says it’s unlikely that it would be placed on the Depot Plaza, where the replica open-air Gravity Car represents travelers’ return trip from the top of Mt. Tam to downtown Mill Valley.
“We want to make it as accessible to the public as possible but also safe and protected from the elements,” he says, noting that several governmental agencies, including the City of Mill Valley, the County of Marin, the Marin Municipal Water District and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, will likely need to weigh on such a location.
“We’re going to need a lot of fundraising and support to get this done,” Macris says. “But I know this community – we’ll get it done.”
The 411: Donate to the Friends of No. 9’s fundraising campaign here, or to the Mill Valley Historical Society at 375 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941. MORE INFO.