In a breakthrough that appears set to lower the temperature on a long-fraught issue, Mayor Jim Wickham and Vice Mayor Urban Carmel, along with members of Friends of No. 9 and the Mill Valley Historical Society, have proposed a 5-year agreement to place the historic locomotive “Engine No. 9” in front of City Hall in Downtown Mill Valley. 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. 

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 new proposed home.

Since the Friends of No. 9 acquired the train in 2018, they have sought a home for it, with the Depot Plaza serving as its primary target.

The various stakeholders have arrived at a proposal to place the 30-foot engine at City Hall – in the open space formally used as a driveway for the former police station, currently home to the City Manager’s office. Owners of Mill Valley Market, Sweetwater and representatives from the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce support the location and its connection to the history of City Hall, fire station and train maintenance yard that once serviced the trains. 

Let’s remind ourselves where we were six months ago.

Mill Valley residents, most of whom have a deep, profound love for the Depot Plaza, were caught between a rock and a hard place about what exactly to do with the impending additional space at the southern end of the plaza..

Train lovers, history buffs and a few former councilmembers had sought to bring the Engine No. 9 Locomotive to the beloved centerpiece of our town, in celebration of the train’s rich history in the 94941.

Others, including some very vocal ex-councilmembers on the other side of the debate, pushed to have to train located elsewhere.

The city conducted a survey, receiving more than 1,800 individual responses, more replies than the city ever received on any issue in recent memory, according to officials. The Parks & Recreation Commission directed staff to explore three options: leaving the plaza as open space with additional picnic tables or to consider the possibility of putting Engine No. 9, or some additional public art. The first recommendation would provide another opportunity to remind ourselves that longtime local architect and civic leader Richard “Dick” Jessup and others spearheaded the idea to transform the former train station-turned-bus station at the center of Mill Valley’s downtown into the plaza, a community gathering place that remains the home of chalk drawings, fledgling two-wheel pedaling, scooting, eating and relaxing.

The community dialogue before and after the survey was extremely polarized, with Nextdoor doing what it does best: heightening the intensity. At the time, Mark Chavez, a longtime local attorney and Mill Valley resident whose office is just a few hundred yards from the plaza, sought to quell the enmity. “We need to de-escalate the conflict on this issue. Let’s not allow this process to degenerate further – this isn’t a quest to achieve a victory.”

But as often happens when things go quiet for a while and people have have a chance to engage directly without the sharp words and megaphones, a compromise appears to have been struck.

“As a fourth generation Mill Valley resident, I understand the importance of honoring our history,” Mayor Jim Wickham said. “We are happy to have been able to find a temporary home for the locomotive that will help future generations learn about Mill Valley’s rich past.”

Restoration of the engine is underway and has been paid for entirely by Friends of No. 9 and its supporters. Friends of No. 9 will continue to raise funds to cover the costs of moving and installing the engine. They will also cover the costs of maintenance and insurance for the 5-year agreement. They estimate that they will be able to complete installation by the end of 2024.

“We are pleased that so many community leaders, both public and private, understand how critical it is to bring Engine No. 9 home to Mill Valley,” Mill Valley Historical Society Past-President Eric Macris said.

The 36-ton steam engine is 30 feet long, 9 feet wide and 11 feet tall. It was built at Heisler Locomotive Works in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1921 and shipped to Mill Valley soon after. It was used on the Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railroad, the fabled “Crookedest Railroad in the World,” until 1924.

The City Council will consider the recommendation and agreement for the location of Engine No. 9 at an upcoming Council meeting in June.

For those just catching up on the plaza drama, the City of Mill Valley the plaza extension possibilities rose up from the city’s Downtown Project, a multi-year infrastructure project that seeks to improve the overall flow and safety of cars, bikes and pedestrian travel in the downtown area.

“The plaza location would be wonderful, and I wish the whole community would have had a chance to see the beautiful display design we developed with our landscape architects,” longtime local resident Mill Valley Historical Society Member Eric Macris said in a note to supporters. “The City Hall proposal is the better way forward – a view shared by all the folks I get to work with on this project.  We hope the City Hall proposal will bring the whole community together, rather than divide people. And, working with our world-renowned landscape architects (based here in Mill Valley), we can create a display at City Hall that will be enchanting, fun and educational. The display will transform what is today an under-appreciated public area into a beautiful gathering space that will enhance and enliven the downtown.”

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