last update: 9/23/19

Hobbs, Wall & Company Railroads and Others in Del Norte County, California

Note: This page accompanies the second part of an overall history of California & Oregon Coast Railroad.


California & Oregon Coast boosters hoped to utilize Hobbs, Wall and Company's log-hauling Crescent City and Smith River Railroad to reach the main prize, Crescent City's municipal wharf and pier. Though the press occasionally labeled CC&SR as C&OC for a couple of years, there was no business relationship between the two companies, and generally speaking Del Norte main interests looked towards the sea and southward. CC&SR and its successor Hobbs, Wall railroads therfore remained forever isolated from the outside world. It did share Del Norte County with at least three other rail operations at one time, or another, however.

'Del Norte's railroads have never been fully explored in print, something that, given the overall topic at hand, required my remediation. To this point in time, the result has been figurative Swiss cheese - history that is full of holes and better described as a jumping-off point for further research. There is still much to be learned from Del Norte County newspaper microfilms in particular. In these regards, there is a certain beauty in publishing on the Web, because unlike in the case of physical works, virtual ones are not written in indellible ink, and thus are concordantly subject to immediate revision as new facts come to light.

Please email me if you have any intelligence to add.

E. O. Gibson
May, 2019

If California & Oregon Coast operations out of Grants Pass were obscure, railroad circumstances down in Del Norte County were doubly so. The line's projected tidewater terminus was Crescent City, which at roughly 2000 souls, was the largest, and other than tiny Smith River, the only real town in the county. Crescent City was one of those many Pacific Coast lumber producing suburb / ports tied economically to San Francisco by the sea. Had it somehow managed to fulfill its plans, C&OC would have been the long way around to San Francisco, and by the time construction began in earnest in 1915, the county was already focused on the prospect of more direct southern ties via Northwestern Pacific and the sea.

Finding backers for what was, at very best a shaky proposition, was a problem. One promoter hook was to emphasize the economy of railroad utilize roughly the last twelve miles of Hobbs, Wall & Company's Crescent City & Smith River Railroad to gain access to the municipal wharf at Crescent City. Primarily a log-hauling affair, CC&SR straddled the distinction between private and public carriers, and although it carried revenue passengers and freight, it rarely bothered to report to the State Railroad Commission. Most of what we know about the railroad comes from gleaning the summaries of these reports, where we learn that after passenger and revenue freight service finally ceased in 1910 or 1911, everyone could only conclude that CC&SR was an industrial carrier. By then, Hobbs, Wall had a second railroad, 1907-incorporated Del Norte Southern which had begun to run rails into the timber tracts southeast of Crescent City under the guise of a common carrier intending a hook-up with NWP. In practice, DNS was less of a common carrier than in-betweener CC&SR..

What would eventually become CC&SR was either the first, or second railroad in Del Norte. Hobbs, Wall & Co. predecessor Hobbs, Pomeroy & Co. erected its first mill on Elk Creek on Crescent City's eastern edge shortly after Jacob Wenger's Crescent City Mill & Transportation Company constructed its Lake Earl Mill four miles north of Crescent City in 1869. Initially, Winger employed ox-drawn wagons to deliver cut lumber to the waterfront, where he began work on a wharf. Exactly when he completed his replacement mule-powered pole road (wooden poles used as rails) is unclear, but it may have been after Hobbs, Pomeroy constructed its own mile-long, similar affair down Third Street from its mill to Wenger's dock.

Hobbs, Pomeroy & Co.'s supply of logs were floated down Elk Creek from holdings 2-3 miles upstream. In 1873 the partnership changed to Hobbs, Gilmore & Company, and in 1881, to Hobbs, Wall & Company, which by 1883 had begun enlarging the mill. Elk Creek was largely logged out by this time, so during the next year the company began laying tracks northward towards new holdings east of Lake Earl. The initial segment amounted to five miles of steel 40 pound rail, one tiny Baldwin saddle tank locomotive and ten log cars - Crescent City & Smith River Railroad. Some of the redwoods being harvested were well in excess of 20 feet in diameter, but the mill's saw could only manage ten-footers, so prior to loading onto the rail cars, woodsmen usedcblack powder to blow up the logs into manageable pieces. This was the same year that a new Wenger's Mill went up following the destruction of the original by fire. CC&SR constructed an approximately two mile long branch from the new mill to its main line to bring in logs from the forest. Presumably, CC&SR also laid down short branches as needed to directly serve Wenger's logging activities. The railroad's sole locomotive must have been very busy.

By 1889, CC&SR was more than double its old size, now 10.5 miles and nearing its future crossing of the Smith River. The reported mileage did not explain if this was the main line, or a combination of main and short term woods branches. A second locomotive of identical modest proportions to the first appeared that year, and revenue passenger service in its solitary passenger-baggage combination car probably began at this time, as well, earning the company $261 for the year in the process. Passengers contributed $3,000 to the coffers during the next year. The railroad also began running to Camp #2* on its new 2.6 Fort Dick branch, north of Lake Earl. The branch remained in place until local timber was depleted sometime in the late 1890's, as near as can be determined. *Prior to 1900, camps were identified by name, with the name of the 2nd camp being currently unknown.

CC&SR did not deliver its first report to the State Railroad Commission in 1896, presumably at the demand of the latter, which had been chastened by a previous year's San Francisco Call article the previous year characterizing it as "A Derelict Commission" for allowing eleven public carrier railroads to sidestep the reporting process. Its contents disclosed that the road had crossed the river to reach Smith River Corners sometime between 1892 and 1895, and total mileage now stood at 16.35, including the Fort Dick branch. Overall, the lumber business was good. HW&C had enlarged its mill, which also included a box factory, in 1890 to handle 40,000 feet of spruce, or 50,000 feet of redwood per day. Out in the woods, the company had been one of the redwood country's pioneer users of Dolbeer Patent bull donkeys and cables. The railroad was accordingly prospering and claimed to have an almost unbelievably low operating ratio of 46.75%. Some of this might be attributable to Hobbs, Wall loose accounting practices that recorded income and expenses for its mill, logging, general store and railroad all in one ledger. Managers, and presumably several employees were assigned to the company at large, as well, so how accountants figured strictly railroad financial data was known only to them.

CC&SR employed 69 cars (pairs of disconnect trucks) to haul logs in 1896. It enjoyed the advantage loading its export lumber using the CCT&L wharf, whereas many of its competing coastal mills were located alongside "dog hole" ports, inlets too small and treacherous to allow docking facilities. At these places, lumber could only be loaded via cables from overlooking bluffs onto ships anchored in deep water, cumbersome and often risky propositions, that often had to suspend operations for days or weeks at a time during prolonged foul weather. Dog hole steamers, as they were called, were shipwrecks waiting to happen, and succumbed in droves. Crescent City's harbor was also largely unprotected, but boasted a much more efficient loading process during favorable weather.

Although the freight side was doing well in 1896, cracks had already formed in the passenger business. As General Manger J. Marhoffer lamented, patronage was quite fair, while the novelty lasted, [but] has fallen off to such an extent that the daily train had to discontinue for a period of six months (January 1 to July 1, 1896), the expense being greater than the income. The meaning of "daily train" probably meant that the road's little combination coach-baggage car was merely coupled to a train of loggs. Reportedly, the railroad typically ran two trains per day during much of the period. No timetables have surfaced, so far.

By the Turn of the Century, CC&SR's raw log loadings up significantly over 1896, 16 million feet verses 13 million feet. Redwood logs certainly would have composed nearly all of this traffic, as reserves of old growth spruce were already severely diminished by the earlier date. Though passenger traffic had continued to slide downwards, revenue freight and merchandise recorded the worst showing. Had passenger trains operated the entire 1895-96 fiscal year (instead of only six months), the passenger count would have been roughly 5500. By the turn of the century it stood at about 3300 and income per passenger had decreased to little more than half of the earlier date. To compensate for declining revenue, the state railroad commission in 1899 had granted a fare increase from 50 cents to 75 cents for a one way ticket between Crescent City and Smith River. Evidently, this substantial increase was not enough to cover rising costs. Freight traffic - a minuscule 738 tons - was less than two-thirds of 1896. CCM&T, its main customer, may have been running out of lumber by then. Similarly, CC&SR revenue from Smith River Corners had declined to a point that it was no longer viable to maintain the river bridge south of town for the safe passage of common carrier traffic. After June 6, 1900, only log trains ran over the span, but for no more than a few months. Closure of the bridge had a predictable effect on passenger traffic. By 1903, passenger earnings were down 60% over 1900.

Otherwise, 1903 was another good year. Hobb, Wall bought out CCM&L, and the Winger mill now became Hobbs, Wall and Company Mill #3. The connecting line to the wharf still was mule powered, but within a couple of years, Hobbs, Wall replaced its wooden rails with steel rails and set the mules out to pasture with the purchase of three additional locomotives. Possibly, Hobbs, Wall converted own horse railroad at the same time. A second passenger car also arrived, early in the century, perhaps to accomodate the travelers bound for Lake Earl that heretofore rode on the top of the lumber cars. Total mileage was reported in 1907, and again in 1908, as 16.75, but just exactly what collection of trackage constituted this amount is open to speculation. The Fort Smith branch surely was gone by then, but in the period following the Wenger purchase, CC&SR augmented its roster with three used locomotives and appears to have built at least three new branches, the longest one being along the south bank of the Smith River into the vicinity of today's Hiouchi

The company also owned extensive timber holdings on Howland Hill, east of town, as well as on the Mill Creek drainage to the south, east of today's Highway 101. In 1907 it organized a new railroad, Del Norte Southern, to exploit the area. DNS was organized as a common carrier (and reputedly ran one special passenger train to establish this) that proposed to build down to a connection with NWP somewhere in the vicinity of Trinidad. This merely was a ploy to condemn right-of-way through a recalcitrant land owner's proerty land which stood in the way of Hobb's timber holdings. Mill Creek Basin grades ran as high as 7-9%, and only two designated employees were allowed to work on these steep stretches.

DNS initially ran about two miles eastward from the Hobbs, Wall and Company Elk Creek Mill to Camp 10, at the west foot of Howland Hill. Conventional rod locomotives were adequate to this task, but when logging operations extended up the hill in 1911, newly constructed Shay locomotive #6 took over to tackle the steep slopes, where a series of switchbacks were employed to bring the railroad eastward to Camp 11. This line proved to be merely the first spur, since DNS's trunk line continued southward to a point near today's Highway 101 where Hobbs, Wall established Camp 12, and then turned eastward towards the Mill Creek drainage. By 1915, DNS had an aggregate 20 miles of track, of which 13 miles were main line, and was in the progress of adding two more. How the 13 miles were apportioned between the new DNS mileage and existing former CC&SR is unknown. The Lake Earl mill closed in 1912 or 1913, but the data are absent regarding the later status of the two branch lines that fed it. The mill's closing suggests that the timber north of Crescent City had played out, which leads to a possibility that CC&SR was moribund, with its rails gradually being harvested for reuse on DNS's push to the Mill Creek basin.

Concurrent with DNS's appearance came increased hoopla up in Oregon over California & Oregon Coast. After years of various false starts, missteps and ownership changes (as covered in the North End section), the railroad finally achieved Waters Creek, 15 miles from Grants Pass, in 1915. During the lead up to what turned out to be the last spike, the Twohy Brothers (now in control at the Oregon end) enthususiastically, but quite wrongly, concluded that the Crescent City extension was a sure thing, ignoring the sub-optimal timing of NWP's completion the previous year, and Del Norte's concordent reorientation towards the south. By then, NWP was a wholly-owned subsidiary of SP, so there was no hope that C&OC could be used as part of a lower-cost alternative route to the Bay Area.

During this time, Crescent City was actively pursuing Federal funding of a proposed breakwater that would make docking at the wharves less risky during inclement weather. This was a big deal for local commerce. During the winter ships sometimes were forced to hold outside of port for days and occasionally weeks, due to heavy winds and swells. The Army Corps of Engineers issued a report favorable to the project in late 1915, but contingent upon completion of C&OC. Otherwise, Corps investigators concluded that there was insufficient potential traffic in Del Norte to justify an expenditure. Consequently, this led local businessmen to campaign for private and public funds to complete C&OC in order to get what they really wanted - their breakwater. Unfortunately, no governmental or private entity subsequently coughed up a dime. So, for the time being, both projects stood at a standstill. The Army Corps continued to insist upon a railroad, whereas everyone else, including potential rail investors, was more inclined to think that an improved port would obviate the need for a railroad. Coastal steamers continued their dominated freight and passenger trade competition SP between major West Coast ports well into the 1920's.

Beyond that, by then a parallel, public highway parallel to the planned right-of-way, had already been in discussion for five years as a cart-before-horse concept to forstall potentially high C&OC rates. Auto stage service over the primitive existing road had been in operation for a couple.

Beyond all of this there were constant rumors floating around of potential railroad competitors. Northwestern Pacific and Southern Pacific were the primary subjects of speculation, but hints of Gould and Hill Lines interest circulated as well. SP appeared to be an imminent reality in Del Norte after the completion of its branch from Eugene to Coos Bay in 1916, when company officials freely admitted that they were considering extending the line all the way down the coast to a connection with NWP. Once the results of their preliminary survey were in, however, no more was heard of this.

Other speculative projects came and went, so many that an industry trade journal commented in 1920 that, A conservative estimate of the railroads which have been built of paper along this coast, and touching Crescent City and other points north, places the valuation of printer's ink used as equalling the amount necessary to construct a first-class railroad clear through from Eureka to Portland.

Although Del Norte never did benefit of an "outside" railroad, two modest affairs did develop in the 1920's, but both were short-lived. After the war, the Army Corps relented on their railroad preconditions for the Crescent City Harbor breakwater project, which eliminated the finacial roadblock that stood in the way. After a false start with another contractor in 1921, project managers hired the Portland contracting firm of Kern & Kibbe to undertake the breakwater's construction, which included quarrying the required rocks and transporting them to breakwater. Three coastal quarries to the north, between Crescent City and Point St. George, provided the raw materials. For transport, K&K's standard gauge railroad employed a geared Climax locomotive and borrowed one of Hobbs, Wall's little locos to work the quarries and give the Climax a little help with the heavy trains. The initial phase was completed in 1926, and it is unknown if K&K or others utilized the railroad to undertake succeeding improvements and additions that continued well into the 19330's. The second railroad was the product of the California & Oregon Lumber Company desire to exploit its holdings on Rowdy Creek, immediately east of the town of Smith River. C&O's predecessor Brookings Lumber Company, whose mill stood in its namesake town (earlier: Chetco), had intended to run south of the border prior to World War I, but financial difficulties got in the way. C&O followed through and by 1922 was running trains of logs over its Smith River & Northern to a huge, new Brookings mill. It's owners also hoped to extend operations down to Crescent City, but the old CC&SR bridge and tracks were two decades gone from Smith River by then. After only three years, it was apparent that the expansion project was overly grandiose in terms of current receipts and potential income. Hobbs, Wall purchased one of SR&N's Shays during C&O's liquidation sale..

In the war and postwar meantime, Del Norte Southern gradually extended further into the Mill Creek basin. As of 1917, it employed the Shay, six rod locos, 80 disconnect log trucks and 120 flatcars to extract logs from the woods, a goodly amount of equipment for what was by then a reported a mere of eight miles (presumably main track, excluding spurs) of railroad. CC&SR, except for the Mill to the wharf connection, evidently was completely out of service by then. By 1924, DHS mileage had reached to its fullest extent of 10 miles, plus about another dozen miles of feeders. It's final camp, named #12-1 out of a superstitious aversion for the logical number, had been laid out a couple of years earlier at what is now the Rellim Demonstration Forest, immediately east of Highway 101. In 1925, or thereabouts, Hobbs, Wall began operating the railroad under its own name, although DNS was not disincorporated until 1930. At the same time, Hobbs, Wall began disposing of its now rather ancient little teapots in favor of a fleet of used Shay locomotives. The first one arrived as Hobbs, Wall (or DNS?) second #3 in 1925, followed by second #4 in 1926 and second #1, the in 1927. Sometime in this period, DNS Say #6 became the second #2.

Post 1923 data is scanty on the Internet (see Preface), so it is presently unclear about the extent of Hobbs, Wall operations leading up to the company's closure. Did the conversion from rod to Shay locomotives come as a result of new inroads into the forests, or merely as a need for replacement locos? Did the mill and its railroad operate continuously during the Depression? Some indications are that they did not.

In the mid-1930's the redwood industry became immersed with labor troubles in its union mills, but non-union Hobbs, Wall escaped them, though the its mill workers soon organized. When they joined the CIO in 1939, the company promptly shut down the mill for "repairs". Later rumors claimed that the shutdown came at the behest and financial support of other mill owners who were engaged in a full court press to stem union influence. This may be so, but the more likely overriding concern was that Mill Creek's dwindling and increasingly remote reserves did not jive well with the prospect of higher wages. As it played out, management claimed that they were shuttering the mill "temporarily" for repairs, and few people was the wiser until the company began selling off its assets.