Humboldt County, California by Amtrak

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Matthew H Fish

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After a year in which I mostly took local trips around Oregon, I took a long distance trip to California by Amtrak, first by the Amtrak Coast Starlight, and then by Thruway bus. I made a video of it, which even at 25 minutes, basically only shows the outline of the trip:


One of the things that is most notable about this trip is that while it is less than 100 miles between Redding, California (a stop on the Coast Starlight) and Arcata, California, it requires over 450 miles of travel to get between them, because a traveller has to go to Martinez, California in the San Francisco Bay area, and then use a Thruway bus to travel northwards for around 280 miles. At one time, Greyhound offered a bus down Highway 101 from Portland to San Francisco, but since this is no longer possible, this route is the only way to avoid travelling over the rough mountain road from Redding to Arcata. Whether it is the best solution to that problem is up for debate.
Even though this video is about Humboldt County and Amtrak, it also shows many other things tangential to that. One of the things I tried to capture in this video is the contrast between the sprawl of the suburban North San Francisco Bay area and the truly remote communities of the far north of California. This video attempts to portray just how different the worlds are, but I don't know if it succeeds.
I can say a lot more about it, and will also post more videos of Humboldt County, but it would probably make more sense to answer specific questions.
(Edit: I guess I should probably add some context that is obvious to me, but of course not everyone knows. Humboldt County is a large (100 miles by 50 miles, so a little smaller than Connecticut) county, with a population of around 130,000 people, located in Northern California. It is hard to reach due to rugged mountains. It has beautiful natural scenery, especially its massive stands of old growth Redwood trees. It is also one of the major centers of the US Cannabis industry. For all of those reasons, and more, it is cut off from much of the world around it. Describing all the demographics and history that led to it being where it is today would take a while, but the main point is, while its not tiny, and seems to not too far from major transportation routes, it is kind of in a world of its own).
 
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Matthew H Fish

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Not directly Amtrak related, but I want to post another video of Humboldt County.


This is Eureka, the largest city in Humboldt County. In fact, after leaving the San Francisco Bay area, Eureka is the most populous city along the Pacific Coast---with 24,000 people.
One thing I say in this video, and it might be a bit of an exaggeration, is that at one point in the late 1800s, the Eureka area was almost the equivalent of the San Francisco Bay area---with lots of money from natural resources. And also, a lot of railroads, bringing in supplies and taking out natural resources (mostly timber). Over time, the isolation of the area and its rough terrain mean it didn't grow---currently, there are around 100,000 people living close to Humboldt Bay and something like 130,000 in all of Humboldt County. The railroad tracks are unused and in some cases are overgrown and ruined to the point that they are unusable. There is always some talk about bringing rail transit back to the area, but it would be a massive infrastructure project for an area with a small population. Even bringing commuter rail to the end of Sonoma County is years away, it seems like Eureka will be served by Thruway for a bit longer.
As a vacation destination for people taking Amtrak, its possible, but the long Thruway trip makes it difficult. As I showed in the previous video, its a 7 hour trip from Martinez, so despite it being a beautiful and interesting place, the immediate Bay Area makes a lot more sense for most travellers.
 

Willbridge

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There once was bus service across the mountains between Eureka and Redding. Here's the schedule from the Pacific Greyhound Lines system timetable effective September 19, 1932.

Humboldt Motor Stages ran a Dly ex Sun round-trip between Eureka and Burnt Ranch. It met a Dly ex Sun round-trip between Weaverville and Burnt Ranch operated by Redding Weaverville Stage Company. Then there was an overnight layover in Weaverville. Reading Weaverville then operated a Dly trip between its namesake cities. Looking at the schedule, I think there was a lunch stop in the westbound trip.

The stage lines probably had mail contracts, so the stops may have been lengthy. From my limited experience, I imagine that a night in Weaverville was a memorable experience, especially on a Saturday night.

1932 PGL Eureka--Redding  001.jpg
 

Willbridge

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Traveling to or through Eureka:

Western Greyhound Lines inherited the Pacific Greyhound Lines / Oregon Motor Stages service to the southern Oregon / Northern California coast. On spring break in 1967 my girlfriend and I rode their "Redwood" which was through from Portland to San Francisco via Salem, Albany, Corvallis, Eugene, Reedsport, Coos Bay, Bandon, Brookings, Crescent City, and on down US101 to San Francisco. It left Portland at 12:45 a.m. and arrived in SF at 10:50 p.m. the same calendar day. That made it a daylight trip through the redwood country. When we crossed the state line there were 13 passengers on the bus. It was a beautiful trip, with forest and ocean scenery and later I never met anyone who regretted doing it once.

There were two other Portland<>SF Greyhounds via Eureka in the 1960's and 1970's. One went overnight between Portland and Eureka, the other all day on that segment. The 6:45 p.m. departure (sometimes adjusted to a bit later) carried the Portland daily newspapers for those who didn't find the Coos Bay World sufficient. The Oregonian Star Edition was the first edition of the morning paper and the Oregon Journal Northwest Edition was the last edition of the evening Portland paper. Country circulation has been especially hard hit by the internet, so add that as another reason for the disappearance of so many intercity bus routes.

To give an idea of how rugged the route was, when the 55 mph speed limit came into effect, Greyhound only had to add 15 minutes to the PDX<>SF schedules. They had to add two hours to the hot I-5 PDX<>SF trip.

Adding to the isolation - in 1972 I made a trip for the Ports Division of ODOT with stops at each port south from Reedsport. At Port of Coquille River the port commissioner was late to meet us. His wife served my wife and me tea in their beautiful near-mansion. He apologized when he arrived late, in waders, carrying a big salmon that he had been fighting. It was the best excuse I ever saw for being late. That night at Port Orford we found that there was one faint tv signal from Coos Bay, one FM signal from Eureka, and then the SF and PDX high power AM stations. In the morning, the town druggist who was also on the ports commission taught us how to make Russian Tea with Tang. In Brookings we learned that someone had to die before a berth in the harbor would be available. Oregon boat taxes were much lower than California's.

As you may surmise, that was one of the best parts of my job. The people in that region like it, but it's understandable that they may feel passed over when compared to the basic network that they once enjoyed.
 
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We did a road trip through this area in 2016. North on the 101 to the Russian River Valley, to check out a few wineries, then over to CA 1, and up the coast through Ft. Bragg. then on 101 through Eureka and Redwood National Park, to Crescent City. Then we cut over to Grant's Pass and Klamath Falls to check out Lava Beds National Monument. From there we went to Mt. Shasta, then Lassen Volcanic National Park. From there we went to Red Bluff in the Central Valley, and then back on the Interstates to the Bay area. There were some nice places there, and I'd like to go back, but I can't see any practical way to visit the area without driving a car.
 

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Traveling to or through Eureka:

Western Greyhound Lines inherited the Pacific Greyhound Lines / Oregon Motor Stages service to the southern Oregon / Northern California coast. On spring break in 1967 my girlfriend and I rode their "Redwood" which was through from Portland to San Francisco via Salem, Albany, Corvallis, Eugene, Reedsport, Coos Bay, Bandon, Brookings, Crescent City, and on down US101 to San Francisco. It left Portland at 12:45 a.m. and arrived in SF at 10:50 p.m. the same calendar day. That made it a daylight trip through the redwood country. When we crossed the state line there were 13 passengers on the bus. It was a beautiful trip, with forest and ocean scenery and later I never met anyone who regretted doing it once.

There were two other Portland<>SF Greyhounds via Eureka in the 1960's and 1970's. One went overnight between Portland and Eureka, the other all day on that segment. The 6:45 p.m. departure (sometimes adjusted to a bit later) carried the Portland daily newspapers for those who didn't find the Coos Bay World sufficient. The Oregonian Star Edition was the first edition of the morning paper and the Oregon Journal Northwest Edition was the last edition of the evening Portland paper. Country circulation has been especially hard hit by the internet, so add that as another reason for the disappearance of so many intercity bus routes.

To give an idea of how rugged the route was, when the 55 mph speed limit came into effect, Greyhound only had to add 15 minutes to the PDX<>SF schedules. They had to add two hours to the hot I-5 PDX<>SF trip.

Adding to the isolation - in 1972 I made a trip for the Ports Division of ODOT with stops at each port south from Reedsport. At Port of Coquille River the port commissioner was late to meet us. His wife served my wife and me tea in their beautiful near-mansion. He apologized when he arrived late, in waders, carrying a big salmon that he had been fighting. It was the best excuse I ever saw for being late. That night at Port Orford we found that there was one faint tv signal from Coos Bay, one FM signal from Eureka, and then the SF and PDX high power AM stations. In the morning, the town druggist who was also on the ports commission taught us how to make Russian Tea with Tang. In Brookings we learned that someone had to die before a berth in the harbor would be available. Oregon boat taxes were much lower than California's.

As you may surmise, that was one of the best parts of my job. The people in that region like it, but it's understandable that they may feel passed over when compared to the basic network that they once enjoyed.
Travel by Greyhound and other intercity carriers back in the mid-twentieth century was a great way to see the country…most main and even some secondary routes offered multiple schedules, making it possible to travel over interesting routes all in daylight, and stopping over at night. Stopovers were allowed, usually at no additional cost. When they came out with the “Ameripass”, it was a backpacker’s Heaven, at one time allowing 99 days of unlimited travel for only $99., IIRC😎
 

Matthew H Fish

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Traveling to or through Eureka:

Western Greyhound Lines inherited the Pacific Greyhound Lines / Oregon Motor Stages service to the southern Oregon / Northern California coast. On spring break in 1967 my girlfriend and I rode their "Redwood" which was through from Portland to San Francisco via Salem, Albany, Corvallis, Eugene, Reedsport, Coos Bay, Bandon, Brookings, Crescent City, and on down US101 to San Francisco. It left Portland at 12:45 a.m. and arrived in SF at 10:50 p.m. the same calendar day. That made it a daylight trip through the redwood country. When we crossed the state line there were 13 passengers on the bus. It was a beautiful trip, with forest and ocean scenery and later I never met anyone who regretted doing it once.
My first visit was a similar story--- in 1998, at the age of 19, I decided I wanted to see more of the country, so I bought a Greyhound ticket from Corvallis to San Francisco. I still remember parts of the ride---including the driver stopping so we could watch the sunset. But honestly, most of it was a blur, I hadn't gone south of Newport/Waldport, so it was just hundreds of miles of little towns and rocks. And even though this was in the 1990s, this was still technologically a different era--- no cell phones, no debit cards (at least not for me), no google maps, change in my pocket to make a phone call. So all of the towns on the south Oregon and north California coast were a blur to me, especially since it got dark somewhere in Del Norte County.
I don't remember a lot of the details of the trip, but I do remember what it was like when the world was still unknown, and where I could head off with just the money in my pocket.
 

Matthew H Fish

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There once was bus service across the mountains between Eureka and Redding. Here's the schedule from the Pacific Greyhound Lines system timetable effective September 19, 1932.
There still is bus service, and it is a little less difficult, but not by much. Currently, it involves taking a bus from Arcata to Willow Creek, from Willow Creek to Weaverville, and from Weaverville to Redding. And at least one of those routes is currently cut down to only MWF service. A rider has to start at something like 7 AM, and it takes 5 hours to get to Redding. Then they would be in Redding at noon, waiting over 12 hours for either the northbound or southbound Coast Starlight. It is something possible if you are a young person looking for an adventure, but obviously it isn't part of a large-scale transportation strategy.
 

Willbridge

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My first visit was a similar story--- in 1998, at the age of 19, I decided I wanted to see more of the country, so I bought a Greyhound ticket from Corvallis to San Francisco. I still remember parts of the ride---including the driver stopping so we could watch the sunset. But honestly, most of it was a blur, I hadn't gone south of Newport/Waldport, so it was just hundreds of miles of little towns and rocks. And even though this was in the 1990s, this was still technologically a different era--- no cell phones, no debit cards (at least not for me), no google maps, change in my pocket to make a phone call. So all of the towns on the south Oregon and north California coast were a blur to me, especially since it got dark somewhere in Del Norte County.
I don't remember a lot of the details of the trip, but I do remember what it was like when the world was still unknown, and where I could head off with just the money in my pocket.
Your story reminds me of something else outdated from my 1967 trip. I cashed an Oregon check for $10 in a Bank of America branch in Crescent City. I wonder what the chances are now.
 

Willbridge

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Ahhh, the Old Days of "The Float"!!!😉
Speaking of floating, we should pause and give thanks that the earthquake that hit Humboldt County this week did not result in a tsunami. Crescent City in that region was badly damaged by one in March 1964. When our bus offered a break there three years later, things had been cleaned up, but there were still closed businesses and other symptoms.
 

Willbridge

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From the Railway Guide for June 1916:

I've been looking for Humboldt County service by coastal steamers. So far, every five days the San Francisco & Portland Steamship Co. (UP system) called at Astoria and then sailed to SF and LA (San Pedro). The more glamorous Great Northern Pacific Steamship Co. service sailed non-stop between Astoria (Flavel) and San Francisco. The Pacific Alaska Navigation Co. sailed right past on the run from Tacoma and Seattle to San Francisco. So did Pacific Coast Steamship Co. from Seattle and Victoria to San Francisco, Los Angeles (San Pedro), and San Diego.

But,,, Pacific Coast Steamship Co. sailed the 226 marine miles between San Francisco and Eureka every four days. The SS City of Topeka featured a social hall, smoking room, table d'hote dining, first cabin class and third class. Berths and meals were included. And the ship was fitted with a wireless telegraph. Leave SF at 11:30 a.m. Contact agent at Eureka for departure time.

And... North Pacific Steamship ran a Portland, Coos Bay, Eureka round-trip every five days. And they also ran a San Francisco, Eureka, Coos Bay, Portland route every five days. They were allied with the Hill lines. via the SP&S.

I also found that the California & Oregon Coast RR reached 15 miles southwest of Grants Pass but showed "under construction" to Kerby and Takilma and then "proposed" to Crescent City. The Northwestern Pacific (SP) went through Arcata to Trinidad. So, Crescent City won the prize for most isolated.

So, coming back to the thread. today's isolation likely feels familiar.
 

Matthew H Fish

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Ahhh, the Old Days of "The Float"!!!😉
One thing about memories of the past, especially memories of travelling, is that people tend to insert things anachronistically. If I try to remember what it is like to look at a departure board in the 1990s, my mind will probably insert a LCD flatscreen or at least a CRT monitor, when in most cases, it was probably a dot matrix display. Same thing with travelling and paying by check---I realized that when I travelled, I probably did bring a spare checkbook along with me, but its hard to remember that because I started carrying ATM cards at least 20 years ago, and the last time I even regularly paid bills or rent with checks was ten years ago.
 

Matthew H Fish

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Continuing our tour of Humboldt County, here is Scotia and Rio Dell--one of the areas affected most heavily by the quake. This video was taken about two weeks and uploaded a few days before the earthquake.
Humboldt County has different economic bases --- farming, tourism, fishing, timber (and in recent decades, cannabis), and this is a timber area outside of the main population center around Humboldt Bay.
From a transit point of view, this is an example of a town that is large enough that it should have regular transit access, but is not quite large enough to get the ball rolling. There is a "city" bus line in Humboldt County that goes for 50 miles, between Scotia and Trinidad. On the central part of the route, between Eureka and Arcata, it goes every 30 minutes. Between McKinleyville and Fortuna, it goes every hour. And between Scotia and Trinidad, it goes four times a day. So in this area, transit is mostly for appointments for people who don't have other ways to travel...not for daily work or school commuting. But this is a town of 4000 people, which is certainly big enough that it could be connected.
The earthquake also demonstrated why this can be a problem---the area isn't large enough to have its own real grocery store. Normally people can drive, but in the event of an earthquake that damages roads or cuts off gas supplies, things become much more difficult.
 
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I get the feeling a lot of the people who move there, have moved there for just that isolation, but in a milder climate than some other places one could get that isolation.
 

Matthew H Fish

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I get the feeling a lot of the people who move there, have moved there for just that isolation, but in a milder climate than some other places one could get that isolation.
And as is often the case when that happens, they end up recreating a city or a suburb, just with less services.
One man living on a mountain and driving a pick-up truck is an adventure. When everyone in the San Francisco Bay area decides they want to move to the woods, what you get is a gigantic highway through the woods to accommodate all the people wanting to live a wilderness life.
 

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And a final video in Humboldt County, in Arcata.
Arcata has a population of under 20,000 people, but it is still the largest city on the Pacific Coast for...690 miles, until Port Angeles (which isn't really on the Pacific Coast, exactly). Humboldt County doesn't have a single population center, and Eureka and Arcata, about 10 miles apart, share different facilities. Notably, Arcata is the home of Cal Poly Humboldt, (the former Humboldt State University), and has a college culture. Stereotypically, its a big cannabis town, and while that is real, it also discounts a lot of the culture and natural beauty of the area.
From a transit standpoint, this is where the Amtrak Thruway bus ends its route, where the bus lines come in from Redding, and where the bus comes in from Crescent City. The last two are "local" bus lines that travel somewhere on the order of 100 miles. Also, as discussed previously, at one time the Crescent City -> Arcata bus would have been part of a Greyhound route, but now is one in a series of local bus routes.
Also, this is a point where I have to touch on something politically and socially contentious, because its kind of unavoidable. Arcata and Humboldt County has a large transient population---some people who are really trapped, and some people who are probably having an "experience" before they move back to Maryland and finish their accounting degree. And I am of two minds about this, because some of the reactions to poverty and homelessness can be really demeaning and dehumanizing---the fact that someone is poor doesn't make them a threat. But also, I am annoyed at the attitude that transit (short and long distance) is a last resort, only for poor and desperate people, and therefore anything goes. Outside of the Arcata Transit Center, which is a nice, functional building, there are a line of tents pitched. I know that people need some place to live, but I also wonder why ground transit is just assumed to be the natural place for it---no one could do that at an airport!
I hope that last paragraph doesn't cause too much of a derail...
 

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And finally, this shows the route backwards, starting in Humboldt County, going back to Martinez, and then north on the Coast Starlight. The problem with making a video like this is that because of conditions, it is hard to capture large parts of the trip. Hundreds of miles get compressed into a minute. I hope it does give an idea of how long the bus ride is. Also, there isn't much in Sonoma County, which is a story in itself. Sonoma County has a lot of people, around half a million, and it is kind of part of the Bay Area and kind of not---and because of the geography, it is separated from the Bay. I don't know how technically feasible a train line would be, and I think right now automobile traffic is still going from Sacramento to there by a two lane road on the north side of the bay.
Then I am in Martinez for four hours. Martinez actually looks like a pretty fun place, but not for a tired traveller on a December night. But I would suggest that any travellers who find themselves there in the spring or summer, can find some fun things to do.
Then on the trip north, it was very scenic in the mountains, but, of course, a lot of it is obscured. Still, as you can hear, we are having fun.
 

Willbridge

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You might be interested in the attached draft schedules for Southern Oregon Amtrak Thruway buses. They illustrate some possibilities and some problems. As you might guess, the Redwood Line would be an alternative for your trip. And, of course, there are other ways of doing this.

It's a mystery to me as to why ODOT has been content to have the Cascades bus service end at Eugene. I would understand if they didn't want to go out of state, and I understood that at one time they wanted to shield Greyhound Lines from competition, but GL has little left now.
 

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Matthew H Fish

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It's a mystery to me as to why ODOT has been content to have the Cascades bus service end at Eugene. I would understand if they didn't want to go out of state, and I understood that at one time they wanted to shield Greyhound Lines from competition, but GL has little left now.

I think that, as with a lot of possible transit options, it is a chicken and egg problem. Because there hasn't been bus service for a long time, people don't even consider it seriously. And for them to consider it seriously, they need a bus line--- but without demand for buses, the state isn't going to offer it.
There are also some logistical problems, in that it is hard to make a bus line convenient for everyone, so whether people in Roseburg, for example, would change their travel plans based on a once-a-day bus is something to be considered.
In general though, I agree. It seems easy enough to extend service. Especially since there is already Bend->Ontario POINT service, along a much less populated corridor.
 

Matthew H Fish

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Another thing to consider is that the larger cities in Oregon outside of the Willamette Valley are about as large as the smaller cities in the Willamette Valley. I spend a lot of time in small town Oregon, so for me I would love a nice comfortable bus where I could take a trip to Roseburg or Brookings or Klamath Falls...but does it make a lot of sense to spend resources on a 3 hour long bus trip from Eugene to Klamath Falls, a city of 20,000 people, when the same resources could be used to add more frequent intercity bus service to places like Woodburn or McMinnville?
 

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I visited Humboldt County again, a few weeks ago, in April and the beginning of May. I took the long route there again, but since I have already recorded it, I don't have too much to say about it. (Although I did take some videos around Martinez on the way back).
Anyway, this is Fortuna. This is the first stop by the Amtrak Thruway bus since Garberville, 50 miles to the south. In-between the two, it passes through the Avenue of the Giants, a beautiful place without many settlements.
Fortuna is a city of about 10,000 people, and you can stop there on your Amtrak route north. In many places, Fortuna, with its old downtown, railroad museum, Redwood grove, and riverfront path, would be a good tourist destination. But most people going to Humboldt County would be more interested in Arcata and Eureka, so there aren't a lot of specific reasons to end your trip a dozen miles early in Fortuna. Still, if you are curious what it is like, this video shows it!
 

Willbridge

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I visited Humboldt County again, a few weeks ago, in April and the beginning of May. I took the long route there again, but since I have already recorded it, I don't have too much to say about it. (Although I did take some videos around Martinez on the way back).
Anyway, this is Fortuna. This is the first stop by the Amtrak Thruway bus since Garberville, 50 miles to the south. In-between the two, it passes through the Avenue of the Giants, a beautiful place without many settlements.
Fortuna is a city of about 10,000 people, and you can stop there on your Amtrak route north. In many places, Fortuna, with its old downtown, railroad museum, Redwood grove, and riverfront path, would be a good tourist destination. But most people going to Humboldt County would be more interested in Arcata and Eureka, so there aren't a lot of specific reasons to end your trip a dozen miles early in Fortuna. Still, if you are curious what it is like, this video shows it!

Enjoyed the visit. In June 1968 a college friend and I rode the deadhead NWP train, the only RDC owned by the SP, from the yard to the Eureka station. We had all his college stuff crunched into his T-bird, so couldn't ride the revenue trip. The tri-weekly service between Eureka, Fortuna and Willits lasted until the May 1, 1971 dawn of Amtrak.

At Willits, there was a Greyhound Lines connection to San Francisco. This was left over from Pacific Greyhound Lines, the SP subsidiary used to replace rail service. A look at the October 1944 Official Guide shows that the NWP line had daily overnight service between San Rafael and Eureka, with a sleeping car. It made all stops, including Fortuna. It had a PGL bus link to San Francisco with a note stipulating that the bus southbound would hold for late trains.

In 1944 there also was a promotion for PGL buses in daylight from Eureka through the redwood country of Oregon and California, linking up with the Rogue River in Grants Pass. Through ticketing was available for the two-night trip between San Francisco and Portland.
 

Willbridge

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Here's a map of the area that you've been covering. This is especially interesting because it's just before the State Trunk Roads program got underway, so it shows some proposed lines, including the start of the Grants Pass <> Eureka rail line that was never finished and the start of the Cascade Line, completed in 1927. Almost all of the lines shown had rail passenger service, although some were only mixeds.

1917 SP Oregon 002.jpg
1917 SP Oregon 001.jpg
 

Matthew H Fish

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The tri-weekly service between Eureka, Fortuna and Willits lasted until the May 1, 1971 dawn of Amtrak.
I am kind of wondering about the economics of that! Depending on the route, it would be 120 miles between Willits and Fortuna...with no intermediate stops, and at the time, Eureka, Fortuna and Willits must have been smaller than they are now. So given the distance, roughness of terrain, and small size of the communities...I wonder how a train trip was feasible economically.
...which might explain why it is a former trip.
I don't know how correct I am on this, but I have heard that in the late 1800s/early 1900s, that the Humboldt Bay area was expected to be as big and important as the San Francisco Bay area, so a lot of infrastructure was built in anticipation of that, but the area settled down to be more of an outpost than an urban center.
 
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