Five months after a breakthrough that appeared to lowered the temperature on an effort to bring the historic No. 9 locomotive back to Mill Valley in the future, with a proposed a 5-year agreement to place the historic locomotive “Engine No. 9” in front of City Hall in Downtown Mill Valley, that accordance appears to have fallen apart.
City Manager Todd Cusimano announced Wednesday that city officials have determined that the placement of historic locomotive “Engine No. 9” in a temporary location at City Hall is not feasible. Cusimano said the decision was made in consultation with Mayor Jim Wickham and Councilmember Caroline Joachim, who were appointed by Council in June to assess the proposal before executing a 5-year lease agreement.
“We are immensely grateful to the members of The Friends of Engine No. 9 for their commitment to preserving the rich history of Mill Valley,” Wickham said. “However, following a thorough examination of the proposal, we have reached the conclusion that it is not a viable match for the intended location.
The proposed short-term home for the steam engine was first announced in April 2023 by Mayor Wickham in collaboration with the Friends of No. 9. At their June 2023 meeting, Council authorized the City Manager to further evaluate the proposal.
“We recognize the historical significance of Engine No. 9 and extend our gratitude to the Friends of Engine No. 9 for their diligent work and commitment to preserve the locomotive and share it with the community,” Joachim said. “We will continue to support the effort to find an appropriate location for the locomotive.”
Fred Runner, among the driving forces behind the effort to get the No. 9 relocated to Mill Valley, said that the Friends of No. 9 organization is disappointed with the decision but remains vigilant in its efforts to connect the train’s incredible history with the Mill Valley community. “The community support we have received through this effort has brought us enough finding to drive the restoration effort forward,” he says. “The railway has absolutely put Mill Valley and Marin County on the map – there’s no disputing that. There’s no other town in northern California that has anything close to this. It’s a central part of Marin’s history. The No. 9 is a mountain-climbing steam engine, the last piece of rolling stock and the last piece on earth of Mill Valley’s Scenic Railway. Trains pushed passenger cars up the Mt. Tamalpais and towed gravity cars — all at the same time—from 1896 to 1929 and carried over 1,000,000 passengers without ever disrupting day to day life in Mill Valley.”
Wickham and Joachim were tasked with reviewing the feasibility of the proposed location, considering the following: Space requirements and weight distribution; Accessibility and safety measures; Impacts to landscaping; Preservation and maintenance; Historical/cultural significance; Public opinion and engagement; Insurance coverage and legal liability.
In August, they brought in Urban Forestry, an arborist firm, to provide an assessment of the site’s prominent Deodar Cedar and to evaluate the potential impacts on the health and stability of the tree resulting from the proposed locomotive installation. The firm determined that the mature Deodar Cedar had outgrown and overtaken the City Hall site as branches engulfed the City Flagpole and obscured the view of the City Hall building. Staff was given recommendations to improve the trees’ health and pruning opportunities. At the same time, the arborist noted the Catalina Island Cherry near the City Hall parking lot was diseased and in declining health. After additional consultation and second opinion, it was determined the tree’s health posed a potential safety risk due to its deteriorating state and it was ultimately removed.
“On September 5th, the City hired TreeMasters to prune the Deodar Cedar and to remove the diseased Cherry tree,” Cusimano said. “This work understandably raised questions and concerns that the Cherry tree was removed in preparation for the installation of Engine No. 9. I want to emphasize this is not the case. I also want to take responsibility for not better communicating staff’s analysis and efforts related to the removal of the Cherry tree and landscape plan.”
“Over the past two weeks, community members have voiced concerns about the scope, size and location of the Engine No. 9 project,” Cusimano added. “City staff and Councilmembers have received a petition, emails, phone calls, and records request on the project. Due to the public’s growing concerns, we expedited staff’s evaluation and feasibility of the Engine No. 9 proposal with the assistance of Mayor Wickham and Councilmember Joachim.”
Ultimately, staff and the two councilmembers “determined that the proposed location at City Hall is not feasible,” Cusimano said. “The size and scale of the locomotive is too massive for the location, and staff is concerned about the impact of the locomotive’s weight on the roots of the Deodar Cedar. There are additional concerns regarding accessibility, safety measures, insurance coverage and legal liability.”
City staff and councilmembers Joachim and Wickham agreed that the proposal at the City Hall location is not viable and they ended the feasibility analysis.
City staff will continue to work with the Friends of No. 9 to support their efforts in finding an appropriate setting for the locomotive. Unless councilmembers desire additional discussion on the matter, there is no need to bring the item to an additional public meeting regarding the placement of the locomotive at City Hall.
Since the outset of the discussions around the No. 9, there has been feverish public debate on both sides.
Friends of No. 9 bought the locomotive from the Scotia Community Services District in 2018, and restoration efforts have been underway ever since. Locomotive No. 9 was used for logging in Siskiyou and Humboldt Counties, although it never worked in Pacific Lumber Company woods. Pacific Lumber did put the locomotive on display in Scotia in the 1950s, where it remained until being purchased by Friends of No. 9.
The train is the only surviving piece of the rolling steam rail stock used to push gravity cars and passengers’ cars to the top of Mt. Tamalpais from 1896 to 1929, carrying over 1,000,000 visitors.
“No. 9 is the sole piece of remaining, original equipment of the historic Mount Tamalpais Railroad,” said Runner. “At the end of June, we remounted the restored I-beam frame members to the wheel trucks. A crane gently placed the newly painted and refurbished three-ton, V-twin steam engine into No. 9’s frame.”
The restoration has continued to the present, with Jeff and Don Millerick, lifelong metal workers and rail fans, having done much of the No. 9 restoration at their business in Sebastopol, according to the Times Standard.
Engine No. 9 is a key piece of transportation history, and opened up formerly inaccessible areas of Mount Tamalpais, inspiring conservation efforts that spurred the national environmental movement that continues today. The ride to the top of Mount Tamalpais and Muir Woods lead to local and national leaders to establish the public lands we enjoy today, including the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods, State Parks and Marin Water open space. It all began in downtown Mill Valley, steps away from Engine No. 9’s now former proposed home.
Since the early outset of discussions about the train, including a lengthy debate about the possible relocation on the Depot Plaza, the locomotive has been subject to intense debate, most recently in a Nextdoor thread.
Stay tuned for additional updates. See photos below, courtesy Fred Runner, of the No. 9, mid-restoration.