Choo-choo Fantasies

Exposing this east-west rail nonsense before it gathers steam

By Ryan Burns for the Northcoast Journal

May 24, 2012

Inside his carpeted Eureka offices, attorney Bill Barnum stood before a large map of the city and pointed to the upper right corner. “See who the author is?” he asked. The map, a handsome, sepia-colored lithograph, was created in 1938 by J.N. Lentell, a civil engineer and surveyor who first came to Humboldt County in 1891. All these years later, the map still fills Barnum with joy. “This is one of the most fun things you’ll ever look at if you really care about local history,” he said with a grin.

Gazing at the framed print, Barnum spoke whimsically about the city’s rugged early industrial days, when all you needed to succeed was hard work, an idea and the money to see it through. Pointing to a rectangle near downtown he said, “My great-great-grandfather is the guy who founded this one, the Gross tract.”

Barnum, 57, is deeply enamored of the past. “The history of things really imparts to me a lot of meaning,” he said.

For several months now, Barnum has been meeting regularly with a group of likeminded men — conservative, middle-aged history buffs who want to resurrect a 19th century idea and transform it into a reality here in the 21st. They’re promoting the notion of building a new railroad east from Humboldt Bay, 125 miles up and over the coastal mountains to connect with the national rail system in Gerber, south of Red Bluff. The idea dates to the late 1800s, and the route they imagine for the line was first reconnoitered in 1909 by J.N. Lentell, the man who drew Barnum’s beloved map (see sidebar).

Barnum himself advanced this idea more than 20 years ago. Then chairman of the Humboldt Bay Alliance for Economic Development, he advocated the project as an alternative to the landslide-plagued Eureka Southern line, which ran north-south. That line was later wiped out by storm damage in the winter of 1998-99 and remains severed with no credible plans for restoration on the horizon.

Before the sounds of one train fantasy had faded, another came roaring in. The east-west train idea has been gaining steam in recent months, with fuel provided by Eureka kazillionaire Rob Arkley. In a March 1 radio interview on KSLG he described himself as a one-man engine. “I have done a fair amount of work on this and spent my own money and dealt with people at high levels.” He said he’d spoken to Union Pacific Railroad reps, private equity fund managers, “the Chinese,” and government officials in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C. A spokesman for Union Pacific would say only that the company has been approached about a potential rail project.

Later that month Arkley went on KINS and declared that the project will not only turn Humboldt Bay into the first green port in the world, it will revitalize the entire region. “This is 1,000 to 1,500 union jobs, wealth being created in this county unlike anything we’ve seen; our kids will stay here; we will have our future again.”

Now, local governments are climbing aboard, with the City of Eureka donning the engineer’s cap. On Feb. 23 the City Council voted unanimously to pursue community development block grants from the state to pay for a feasibility study. The city has also hired former Harbor District CEO David Hull as a consultant to help gather political support from neighboring counties. The county Board of Supervisors has agreed to hear a presentation on the feasibility study. And Arkley suggested in a radio interview that he’ll ask the public Headwaters Fund to pay for that study.

On April 12, government and business leaders were invited to an economic development forum put on by the Humboldt Economic and Land Plan (HELP), a shadowy, Arkley-backed group. There, Eureka City Manager David Tyson said that while he was once a skeptic, how’s now a believer.

In Humboldt County, where the economic glory days of large-scale timber production are fading from memory and where our geographic isolation has only increased in recent years, this idea is enticing. Imagine our port bustling with business from the global marketplace. Ships loaded with Asian goods docking in our harbor, the freight being loaded onto eastbound trains. Goods from the American heartland arriving via rail and getting crane-lifted onto ships bound for Shanghai, Osaka and Cartagena. Our own goods flowing outward to the world. And jobs. Everywhere, jobs.

It’s an alluring fantasy. Unfortunately, the challenges facing such an endeavor are so monumental, the money required to realize it so astronomical, that the east-west train is likely to remain mere fantasy for many, many years.

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