Train tunnel No. 1 on the old California Western Railroad has endured a lot of punishment since it was hacked out of the rock east of Fort Bragg by Chinese and Italian laborers a century ago. There have been earthquakes, landslides, broken timbers and even an oversized boxcar that got wedged inside and had to be cut up and removed in the 1970s.

But now it is facing a threat that could shutter the 128-year-old rail line and Mendocino County's beloved tourist attraction, the Skunk Train.

Sometime overnight between April 12 and 13, a 40-foot length of the tunnel collapsed for reasons still unexplained, dumping thousands of tons of rock onto the track, rubble that Skunk Train officials say they cannot afford to remove.

"What happened, I don't know; even the geotechnical engineers don't know," said Robert Pinoli, vice president of Mendocino Railway, which runs the train. "Was there a shift in the mountain? Was it a small earthquake?"

The railway is launching a campaign to raise the estimated $300,000 it will take to remove the largest blocks of rock sitting on the rails, offering special "Save Our Skunk" passes and opening a fundraising campaign through the website Kickstarter.

Unless that tunnel is reopened, Pinoli said, the future of the railroad is bleak.

"We can do tunnel repairs, but this is far larger than anything we have ever encountered before," Pinoli said.


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The 40-mile historic railroad connects Fort Bragg and Willits, winding along the redwood-lined Noyo River and passing through two mountain tunnels. The collapse came in the tunnel just three miles outside Fort Bragg.

The 13-by-16-foot tunnel, lined with huge redwood beams bracing walls of 3-inch-thick redwood planks, now suddenly ends about 300 feet from the eastern end at a tangled pile of boulders and rubble. At the center is a huge, square chunk of rock, at least 15 feet across.

The best estimate is that once the rocks are hauled away, the cave-in will leave a cavern more than 50 feet wide, 40 feet long and 30 feet high. That's about the size of the Skunk Train's headquarters building in Fort Bragg.

After the collapse, railroad crews did their best to remove the rubble, Pinoli said, but after hauling out at least six dump-truck loads of rock, they concluded the scale of the damage was so great, they would need outside help.

Bids are coming in, he said, but it appears the remaining work will cost more than $300,000 and require several weeks.

The privately run company won't release its financial information, but Pinoli said its reserves are drained after suffering a series of expensive blows. Heavy rains in 2006 caused mudslides that cost a great deal to clear, he said. A 2011 manhunt for an armed killer hiding in the woods along the tracks dragged on for more than a month and cost the company $200,000, none of which has been reimbursed by the law enforcement agencies that used the tracks and trains for the search.

With the tunnel shut down, the railway is able only to run a short jaunt from the Fort Bragg end of the line to Glen Blair along Pudding Creek, just a few miles through the woods. All of the company's train equipment was in Fort Bragg at the time of the collapse, so there is no way to run trains on the remaining 36 miles of track on the Willits side of the line.

Passengers on Friday's shortened run seemed sad they couldn't take the full ride. Several said they had no clue that the line was operating a reduced schedule until they stepped up to the ticket window.

"I had wanted to do it for a long time, so I was disappointed when I found that it wasn't the full thing," said Wendy Rogers, a college professor in Southern California who was touring Northern California to see the rhododendrons bloom.

"I just love to be on the trains, and I don't have that much opportunity in regular life," she said. "And when you have the old train, the scenery is right next to you."

Wes Keyson brought his wife, Nancy, from Orangevale, near Sacramento, to celebrate her birthday. The couple seemed excited as they got off the morning run, though they had hoped for a longer excursion.

"It brings back memories of years ago when trains were the big mode of transportation. ... We've got to come back when it's all the way and do it again," Nancy Keyson said.

The name "skunk" came from the distinctive smell of oil-fired potbelly stoves used to keep passengers warm in self-propelled passenger cars added to the line in the 1920s. The rail line still owns those original "rail buses," but no longer runs the stinky stoves. The skunk name, however, has stuck.

The Skunk Train is the county's top tourist attraction other than parks, said Scott Schneider, president and CEO of Visit Mendocino County, "and not having that will certainly have an effect" on the tourism economy.

The train carries more than 40,000 passengers yearly, mostly in the summer, and the vast majority of those stay at least one extra day in the area, boosting revenue for hotels, shops and restaurants, railroad and tourism officials say.

"It's definitely an economic engine for us," said Lynn Kennelly, executive director of the Willits Chamber of Commerce. "People come from all over the world to ride that train."

So important is the railroad that tourism-based businesses are discussing a plan to add a dollar or two to customers' bills to help fund the tunnel cleanup, Schneider said.

The railroad, meanwhile, is reaching out to fans and railroad buffs to raise money. Besides the Kickstarter campaign, it also is offering yearlong "SOS" passes for $300 and $750 each, and a lifetime pass for $1,885; the latter number picked in honor of the year the railroad was founded. They sold three of the lifetime passes in the first 12 hours, Pinoli said.

Schneider said Visit Mendocino County will use its marketing muscle, including a social media operation, an outside PR firm and national press contacts, to promote the passes and Kickstarter campaigns.

Local train historian Tony Phillips says he's concerned about not only the loss of a rare nugget of railroad history, but of the heartbeat of Fort Bragg itself. With the timber industry nearly extinct, he said, there is little else to bring business to the small town.

"You take the Skunk Train away, you ain't got Fort Bragg," he said.

Even in its diminished state, the Skunk Train still seems to have the power to move people.

Kim Easly had brought her train-obsessed 5-year-old son, Zarian, from their home in Oregon to ride -- and even the 4-mile route delivered. "It's still a train ride," she said, watching Zarian frolic on the train platform. "Next year, we'll come back and do the same one."

GETTING THE TRAIN
BACK ON TRACK
Here's how train buffs and other fans of the Skunk Train can help, according to the Mendocino Railway. Find details at www.skunktrain.com.
Visit Fort Bragg and Mendocino and take a short ride on the train for $20 adults, $10 kids.
Donate to the upcoming Kickstarter campaign.
Buy an SOS (Save Our Skunk) pass. Prices start at $300.