To do so, Friends of No. 9, the organization formed by the Mill Valley Historical Society, Friends of Mt. Tam, Marin History Museum and others, submitted a winning auction bid of more than $56,000 to acquire the last remaining locomotive from the “Crookedest Railroad in the World” that ran from Mill Valley to the top of Mount Tam until 1924.
The elation of that moment – “people from Mill Valley have been trying to do this for 68 years,” MVHS President Eric Macris said at the time – was tempered by the time, money and effort required to move, restore and relocate the massive, 36-ton, aging locomotive.
That work began immediately after the auction, and the critically important foundation – fundraising – is kicking into high gear as Friends of No. 9 launches an end of year GiveLively fundraiser with a goal of $50,000. The first phase is the restoration of the locomotive and has a budget of $250,000.
“No. 9 represents not just an era, but the rare attraction that promoted wilderness preservation at the beginning of the 20th century,” Fred Runner, the executive director of Friends of No. 9,” said in unveiling the fundraiser. “It carried the first tourists to Muir Woods at a time when providing easy public access to a wilderness park was a new idea and before most people could afford an automobile. We know John Muir rode the railroad to Muir Woods at least 3 times and was treated like a rock star when he visited.”
“We need your help!” he added. “Restoration is underway. We have completed the removal of hazardous asbestos and are beginning to repair areas of weather-damaged metal on the 99-year old locomotive. Your donation will enable us to continue this next phase of restoration and have us closer to bringing the No. 9 home. We’re hoping you will consider making an end-of-year donation to help bring the No. 9 back home to Marin.”
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 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, in downtown Mill Valley or elsewhere along the Mt. Tam Railway’s old route.
“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.”