Questions about the Albion Lumber Company’s miles of railroad on the Mendocino Coast have been popping up at the Kelley House Museum recently. Here’s a review of how this little-known railroad came to be, what it did, where it went, and what remains for us to see.
Albion’s first steam sawmill was built in 1854. It burned in 1867 and was rebuilt. It burned again in 1879 and was rebuilt, again. To bring logs out of the woods and down to the mill, the sawmill owners built a narrow-gauge railroad in 1881 with rails forty inches apart. The cars were loaded in the woods, then pulled along the rails by horses to the riverbank, where they were dumped and eventually floated downriver to the mill when sufficient seasonal rains allowed.
Steam locomotives replaced horses in 1885 and railroads for log transport were extended three miles upriver to Brett, then on to Railroad Gulch. In 1889 a 1,200-foot-long wharf brought the rails right to the ocean’s edge. A few years later the lines reached Keene Summit in Comptche eleven miles inland. The mill burned down yet again in 1900 but was immediately rebuilt.
By 1902 it was the owner’s intention to continue the tracks on to Boonville to bring lumber, freight and passengers from the interior of the county to the coast. The railroad was then named the Albion and Southeastern. A mill at Wendling (now called Navarro), twenty miles inland, wanted to be a customer. In 1904 a branch from the South Fork to the North Fork of the river was completed to Clearbrook.
In another name change the Albion and Southeastern became the Fort Bragg and Southeastern in 1905. Then in 1907 everything was sold to Southern Pacific Railroad, to supply materials for their railroad expansion in Mexico. Tiny locomotives were replaced by bigger ones because loads became heavier and roadbeds steeper. Track was extended as Navarro Lumber and Stearns Lumber along today’s Highway 128 made use of the rail line.
In 1908 tracks reached Comptche. Expansion continued and by 1921 there were twenty-five miles of track now administered by Northwestern Pacific Railroad on the coast and in Anderson Valley.
In 1922 seven more miles of track were built on the North Fork, tracks extended from Keene Summit to Dutch Henry Creek, and spur lines stretched toward Dunn. But the dream of building the rail line on to Healdsburg and connecting to the outside world never happened.
Once Southern Pacific’s railroad expansion was done there was less demand for materials and the Albion mill sawed its last log in 1928. The railroad also ended service that year. By 1930 the mill and railroad were gone, and everything was scrapped by 1927.
Today, rail enthusiasts can park about eight miles out the Comptche Ukiah Road at a wide spot on the south side of the road and see the road down to Clearbrook Junction beyond the lumber company’s gate. Other old railroad grades can be seen at the Keene Summit gate on Flynn Creek Road; along Comptche Ukiah Road from Tom Bell Flat on both sides of the river driving east towards Comptche; and along Flynn Creek Road south of Keene Summit on the west bank of the creek.
The one and only publication on the Albion Railroad was written by Stanley Borden in 1961 and appeared as Vol. 24, No. 12, Issue No. 264 of “The Western Railroader.” This booklet’s thirty-two pages contain details about the railroad’s equipment and locomotives, maps, and excellent photos.
Visit the Kelley House Museum Thursdays through Sundays from 11am to 3pm. 45007 Albion Street, Mendocino. 707/937-5791. Historic walking tours can be booked at our website kelleyhousemuseum.org.