Mill Valley & MT. Tamalpais Scenic Railroad

This page is made possible by a founding donation in honor of Richard Torney.

In August 1896, the Mill Valley and Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway began operating from the downtown Mill Valley railroad Depot to the top of Mt. Tamalpais. It operated until 1930, nearly 35 years. In 1907, a spur to Muir Woods was added, and later the name was changed to The Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway. The railroad gained the name “The Crookedest Railroad in the World” due to the 281 curves in the eight and ½ mile track. It is often referred to as the Mountain Railroad.

Browse videos below to take a trip back in time, with interviews and original films. Also see current activities to remember the railroad.

Take a 1917 ride in a gravity car
Video of the railway, featuring interviews with four residents that remember their experiences on the train
Dore Coller original song with videos of the historic train ride
KPIX news story about the acquisition of Engine No. 9 in 2018 
 Learn about the historic Engine No. 9, on its way back to Marin County.  

Listen to residents tell their stories.

Bill Provines was a fireman on Shay locomotives and brakeman/gravity car man on the gravity cars while he was a college student in the 1920s. Listen especially to his experiences on the Mountain Railroad in the Oral History recording starting about minute 41:47. transcript
Jean Barnard visited as a child in Mill Valley with her aunt Ruth White (Boerike) and later became Mill Valley’s mayor. Listen to her memory of the train traveling past Ralston and Ruth White’s hdome, the Garden of Allah starting at minute 43:28.
Eleanor “Dolly” Jenkins was the granddaughter of John Cushing, early doctor and founder of the Blithedale Hotel. Dolly’s father was Sidney Cushing, one of the founders of the Mountain Railroad. She recalls the train’s beginning and how it passed by the Blithedale property, at minute 36:54

Image Gallery

  • In the beginning (1896) the railroad to the top of Mt. Tamalpais was called the Mill Valley and Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway. The name was changed in 1913 to The Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway when the company re-incorporated with new investments and plans. 
  • For reasons of simplicity, and because the residents of the time did, the railroad is often referred to as the Mountain Railroad. 
  • The railroad operated from 1896 until 1930, almost 35 years.
  • Construction of the Railroad:
    • In December 1895, Articles of Incorporation were filed and in February 1896, capital stock for the railroad was subscribed, reaching $45,600 (that would be $1,536,000 today). 
    • By February 11, the first spade of dirt was dug and three miles of trees and brush had been cut. Citizens began to protest the cutting of trees and spoiling the beauty of Corte Madera Avenue.
    • On February 28, nearly 200 men were working and one mile of roadbed was ready for rails.
    • Angry citizens defended their property with shotguns. A citizens’ committee, headed by George Marsh, Michael M. O’Shaughnessy and Maurice Windmiller, obtained an injunction against the work of the railroad.
    • The Railroad quickly won the court fight and immediately, 300 men went to work to prevent another injunction. Big bonfires were lit so that work could proceed all night.
    • Due to poor working conditions and low pay, workers protested

After only six months of construction, the railroad was completed on August 18, 1896 and on the 22nd, the first passenger train made a run to the top of the mountain, a trip for Mill Valley residents. The official grand opening was August 26th.

The railroad began here at the Depot, heading into Blithedale Canyon after crossing Throckmorton Avenue and winding its way through buildings to reach Arroyo del Corte Madera del Presidio Creek, which forms the bottom of Blithedale Canyon. There, the railroad followed the creek through trees and across a series of bridges for approximately 1½ miles, before it began its steep climb to the top of Mt. Tamalpais. You can walk the first 1½ miles of the route using the 2022 Walk Into History Guidebook

  • The entire route from the station to the top of the mountain was 8.25 miles.
  • There were 281 curves, thus the name “The Crookedest Railroad in the World.” If joined, the curves would form 42 complete circles.
  • There were originally 22 trestles over creek beds. Over time they were filled in.
  • The trip up originally took 90 minutes, but that time was cut to 70 minutes by the end of the first year. The descent took 50 minutes.
  • The average grade was 5%; the route never exceeded a grade of 7%.
  • Originally, the engines pulled the train up the mountain but they soon changed to pushing, which was safer (the locomotive acted as a backstop to prevent runaway coaches) and more comfortable for the passengers as the smoke did not interfere with their view or cover them with soot. As there was no turnaround at the top of the mountain so coming back down the mountain, the engine was “face forward”.
  • The Mountain Railroad was extremely popular. 
    • 23,000 passengers rode on it during its first year (1896.) It became a well-known tourist attraction in the Bay Area and indeed, nationally.

In July 1898, Scientific American published an enthusiastic cover story on the Tamalpais engineering marvel.

Famous passengers

  • In 1923, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes’ inventor) took the train to the Tavern at the top of Mt. Tam with his family. He wrote, “In all our wanderings we have never had a more glorious experience (than that one day on Mt. Tamalpais).”
  • Jack London rode the train to the summit at least twice circa 1900, and photos he took of the Tavern and train are in the Huntington Library’s collection.
  • Susan B. Anthony rode to the summit in September 1896, where she spoke to a “captive audience” about women’s suffrage.
  • Thomas Edison’s East Coast film crew shot what are believed to be the first motion pictures filmed in Marin in March 1898.  View a film here (YouTube) or here.
  • The Scenic Railway started in downtown Mill Valley and terminated at the East Peak of Mt. Tamalpais, where the “Tavern of Tamalpais” hosted day and overnight guests. Another film by Thomas Edison shows the train at the Tavern as it starts its return trip down the mountain. The Tavern of Tamalpais (sometimes called Summit Tavern) opened in 1896 as a combination hotel and restaurant. It was so popular that it was greatly enlarged in 1900 with the addition of 30 guest rooms. A phone line was connected. A dance pavilion was built where today’s parking lot is, with a walkway that went over the tracks connecting it with the tavern. This Tavern burned in 1923 and was replaced with a smaller facility built of stucco and tile in 1924, which remained in operation until World War II, when the mountain was closed to civilians. After the war, it fell into disrepair and was razed by the MMWD in 1950. Evidence of the foundations can still be seen.
  • The opening of the railroad’s branch to Muir Woods National Monument in 1907 led to the construction of the Muir Inn, a resort owned and operated by the railway management. The first inn, located where Alice Eastwood Camp is now, burned in 1913. It was rebuilt lower in the canyon. The road that goes from near Mountain Home Inn to Alice Eastwood Camp today is the old railroad line into Muir Woods.
  • A popular stop on the Mountain Railway was the West Point Inn, built in 1904 and still open to the public.  The elevation is 1,785’ and this was the westernmost point of the railroad. (Thus the name of the Inn!) 
  • Gravity cars were added in 1902 and used initially to bring railroad crew and passengers from the summit and Mesa Station (Double Bow Knot area) into Mill Valley. Operating only by gravity, they coasted down the mountain and were advertised as the “longest roller coaster ride in the world”. They became the most beloved feature of the railroad. 
  • The gravity car only required a gravity man who sat on the right at the front of the car and operated the double brakes.
  • Each gravity car carried a 30-gallon water tank to reduce friction between the wheels and tracks (this was also true on the locomotives). 
  • Ultimately there were 32 gravity cars. Each car could carry 29 passengers and the “gravity man” on six rows of wooden seats.
  • They were frequently used on the line to Muir Woods after it was extended there in 1907. 
  • Gravity cars were towed up the mountain, usually trailing below the backward pushing engine.
  • Bill Thomas, the railroad’s master mechanic, is considered the designer of the gravity cars. 
  • The cars were built in the maintenance shops located on the edge of what is now Miller Grove. 
  • The maximum speed permitted for gravity cars was 12 miles per hour. (Sometimes this was disobeyed, but likely only when a railroad crew member was traveling alone.)
  • The July 2 wildfire in 1929 on Mt. Tamalpais came within two blocks of the Mill Valley Depot and more than 100 houses burned on the slopes above the town. The last train carried 65 passengers to safety through smoke. The fire damaged the railroad and although the tracks were repaired and the railroad was back in operation, the enterprise was officially abandoned in the summer of 1930.
  • The growing popularity of the automobile in the 1920s was the real reason the railroad was abandoned in 1930. After the Panoramic Highway from Mill Valley was constructed in 1929, connecting with the toll road to the top of the mountain, tour buses started making the trip to the top of Mt. Tamalpais.

Engine No. 9 is the last remaining piece of original equipment on Earth from the Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway. Purchased in 1920 and put into service in 1921, it was the last locomotive added to the Railway. In March, 2018, a group of individuals and Marin County organizations, including the Mill Valley Historical Society, placed the winning bid in an auction for a 97-year-old Heisler steam locomotive that had been sitting outdoors on the town square in Scotia, California, about 200 miles North of Mill Valley. It is currently being restored, and plans are underway to relocate it back to its original home somewhere along the path of the mountain railway.

Additional Resources