article was written for the California Blacksmiths Association
Tamalpais State Park's East Summit rises some 3,000 feet above
the Golden Gate Bridge and the north shore of San Francisco
Bay. In 1896, a tourist railway was built that led to the
summit of Mt. "Tam," rewarding sightseers with top-of-the-world
views of the entire San Francisco Bay below, the open Pacific
to the west, and (on a clear day) of the Sierra Nevada to
the east. To get back down the mountain, sightseers boarded
an exciting novelty-a gravity car-that took them on a breathtakingly
scenic 15-minute ride that snaked its way through 281 curves
before reaching the village of Mill Valley at the bottom of
the mountain. The twisting, turning descent of the railway
gave it its nickname: "The Crookedest Railway in the
World." Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of The Adventures
of Sherlock Holmes, once described the railway as "more
exciting than anything remotely like it in the world."
Gravity car leaving the Mt. Tamalpais Tavern in 1916.
In 1929, some 34 years after the railway's inception, a road
for autos and buses was built to the summit of Mt. Tam and
proved to be more economical than a railway. The unique Mt.
Tam Railway closed that same year, its rail tracks removed
and its special gravity cars destroyed or sold for parts.
May the Force Be With You...
Around 1992, State Park Ranger Randy Hogue, who had worked
at Mt. Tamalpais State Park for 20 years, came up with the
idea of having a centennial event in 1996 to commemorate the
hundredth-year anniversary of the gravity cars and the "crookedest"
railway. Hogue's aim was to bring public awareness to the
unusual story of Mt. Tam's bygone railway and also to celebrate
the natural history of Mt. Tam State Park. He wanted to build
a museum on the summit dedicated to the history-both natural
and man-made-of Mt. Tam, and he began by raising money to
build a full-scale, authentic, working gravity car. He asked
me to build it.
though funding really only covered materials and subcontractors-not
the tremendous amount of historical research and labor I expected
I would have to put into the project, I couldn't turn it down.
It was a one-of-a-kind project, it benefited an important
state park, and Hogue was an excellent salesman for the project
(and became a good friend during the following year as we
consulted on the progress of the project).
Gravity cars held 25 passengers and were built much like roller
coaster cars. They had no engines and got up the eight-mile
railway track to the summit of Mt. Tam by being towed by a
steam engine. Although hurtling downhill propelled by gravity
sounds like a potentially dangerous ride, there were never
any accidents in the 33 years of operation of The Crookedest
Railway in the World.
Gravity car on the descent to Muir Woods circa 1915.
ride down began by passengers boarding the gravity car and
sitting on its wooden-bench seats. To get the car started
on its rolling motion, passengers were asked to rock forward
and back in their seats until gravity began to roll the car
forward, and then down it went, rolling curve by curve down
the mountain, through redwood groves and past panoramas of
San Francisco and the Pacific until it reached the village
at the bottom of the mountain about 15 minutes later.
a roller coaster, however, the gravity cars had the addition
of a brakeman (known as a "gravity man"), who sat
in the front seat of the car and worked a pair of hand brakes
to maintain a safe speed. The brakeman usually kept the gravity
cars descending at an average of 12 miles per hour, but one
of the still-surviving gravity men, Bill Provines, now age
90, reported to me that he had a speedometer put on a gravity
car once and it showed 27 miles an hour. "But I know
we went faster than that," he added.
Research Begins, or, Reinventing the Wheel
I began my gravity car research by reading everything I could
find about railway carriage construction and railway history.
Nothing remained of any of the original gravity cars. I had
to build one by working only from four or five old photographs
taken between 1896 and 1925 of passengers sitting in the gravity
cars in their Sunday finery.
Jerry Coe researching railway design at the California
State Railway Museum in Sacramento CA.
blacksmithing background had included apprenticing to a shipwright
and rigger, constructing a reproduction of a two-masted square
rigger, and building carriages at Yosemite's Pioneer History
Center, but when the gravity car project came up, I had only
distant memories of these skills.
first gravity car built in 1896 seemed an eclectic assembly,
but by 1910, problems were worked out and the cars were standardized.
Douglas fir was readily available then and was used for the
structural lumber and decking. Oak was used for the seats
and everything was painted for weather protection. Originally,
the whole gravity car structure and deck were probably made
of no-knot, quarter-sawn (also called edge-sawn), 25-grains-per-inch,
fully sun-dried (one-year stickered) lumber. Today's lumber
is only stickered 30 to 90 days, and is mostly 5-6 grains
1896, when these gravity cars were being built, Bessemer-process
mild steel was readily available from the East by rail. Chances
are high that very little of any pre-Bessemer wrought iron
was used. Probably all non-cast parts, except brake handles
and brake bars in the pillar blocks, were hot-dip galvanized,
and that was probably done in 50-gallon pots right in the
gravity car workshop that existed at that time in Mill Valley.
Small-scale, hot-dip galvanizing was a common practice dockside
at the shipping wharves in those days.
A finely restored 19th century steam
locomotive at the Nevada State Railway Museum in Carson
of those days did not seek the hardest way to build something
to satisfy a purist's heart. Smiths incorporated each new
tool and device that was invented into their shops to save
time, money, and effort. Their proficiency was very high,
partly a result of the long apprenticeships they served in
those days. One of my early teachers, Earl Burnside of Modesto,
California, apprenticed in the Studebaker Wagon shop in Chicago
from 1904 to 1908 and told me that they produced one wagon
every five minutes on the assembly line, verifying the high
level of expertise available at that time.
using ergonomic principals, I easily estimated the sizes of
the gravity car's lumber, exposed nuts and bolts, benches,
and brake handles. I determined the sizes of bearings, journal
boxes, wood joinery, and the brake assembly by studying existing
period-pieces in railway museums in California and Nevada,
as well as at the Cable Car Museum in San Francisco. When
I had completed my drawings, it was time to start building
a gravity car, section by section, from the rails up: casting
the wheels, machining the axles, making the crossbars, designing
the brakes, building the wooden benches and decking, and finally,
getting it painted with historically accurate colors.
the Wheels: Pour Me One for the Road
The original diameter of a gravity car's cast-iron wheel was
22 to 24 inches, but no railroad operating in California used
such small wheels except San Francisco's cable cars and streetcars.
Cable cars and streetcars use a smaller-flanged wheel than
regular railway cars because the top of the rail is at street
level and derailment does not risk tipping the car over, as
can happen on a raised track. It was for this reason that
I cast an early cable-car-style wheel, a wooden pattern of
which was loaned to me by the City of San Francisco for casting.
The wheels were cast at the historic Knight Foundry in Sutter
Creek, California, using the wooden wheel pattern. The new
wheels were made in white cast iron, a product of melting
engine blocks and brake drums. My apprentice at the time,
Amy Westphal, went to the foundry to assist in the 600-pound
pour. Knight Foundry manager Ed Arata coordinated the operation.
Knight Foundry is a story in itself, having been in operation
since 1872 with a completely water-powered machine shop. Unfortunately,
this old foundry ceased operation in December, 1995, due to
a shortage of work (they pour a cast iron no longer in use).
Artist-blacksmith Amy Westphal making a 600-pound cast
iron "pour" at Knight's Foundry in Sutter Creek
the Axles: One Good Turn Deserves Another
John Morton, foreman of the University of California Machine
Shop in Berkeley, started me on the axle process by turning
one axle to rough dimensions and enlightening me on use of
the lathe. Morton also turned four bronze bearings for the
journal boxes. At the Nevada State Railway Museum in Carson
City, using a long-bed lathe, I turned all four axles from
4140 tool steel, 4-1/2 inches in diameter, for a press-fit
of .003 interference. The work was done under the supervision
of Chris Dewitt, Chief Restorer, who works with a three-man
crew. The Nevada State Railway Museum is a very efficient
shop. They are currently restoring three steam locomotives
simultaneously while maintaining and operating a fleet of
five previously restored engines.
Machinist John Morton turning the
axles at Knights Foundry.
At the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento, California,
the wheels were pressed onto the axles by Dennis Dougherty
and his crew. Dougherty used a 600-ton hydraulic press and
estimated 16,000 to 18,000 p.s.i. for each pressed wheel.
That's the same pressure used on the cable car wheels in San
Francisco. Dougherty's crew for my project was partly made
up of highly skilled, railway-buff volunteers.
California State Railway Museum crew
checking for accuracy and alignment after pressing the
wheels onto the axle.
The Crossbars: The "Failsafe" Mechanism
The frame of the gravity car had two, large, wooden timbers
bolted under the frame parallel to the axles. I could find
no documentary record of the rods and crossbars but they are
clearly visible in photos. I placed one crossbar of Douglas
fir measuring 4" x 12" x 96" in front of the
front wheels of the gravity car and another behind the rear
wheels. Both were set on edge so they would clear the rail
by only eight or nine inches. The crossbars went the full
width of the car, perpendicular to the track. Crossbars held
one-inch-round rods vertically mounted in pairs at each wheel.
These rods, like fingers of steel, extended downward on either
side of the rail. Thus, should a derailment occur, the rods
would fall to each side of the rail, confining the car to
the track and eliminating a runaway situation.
Preparing the cross-sectional supports at Coe Studios
for the gravity car's frame.
No photos exist of the gravity car's wheels or brake systems.
Using wooden brake bars and cast-iron shoes, I decided to
blend the present San Francisco cable-car brake system with
that of wooden freight cars circa 1896. The brake bars are
two 4" by 10" Douglas fir timbers that hang from
chains behind each axle and pair of wheels. I mortised cast-iron
brake shoes into the brake bars and lined them up with the
wheel. A 3/4-inch round bar pierces each brake bar and reaches
to a brake shaft at the front of the gravity car. The bars
are adjustable with a nut and can bring the brake shoes up
close to the wheels. Springs keep the brake bars under tension,
pressing the shoes back from the wheels. The springs were
forged from truck leaf springs-thank God they air-harden,
as it takes several reforgings to get the right spring action.
The two brake shafts, one for each axle, are mounted in pillar
blocks in front of the gravity car and transfer the movement
of the gravity man's hand on the brake handles to the brake
rods and so on. The gravity man's left hand controls the front
brake, which is "set" by a ratchet-and-pawl mechanism
to drag constantly on the descent, slowing the car. The gravity
man's right hand is on the rear or "free" brake.
Apparently, slowing the gravity car required both hands at
Forging brake handles from tool steel
at Coe Studios using a 350-pound hammer.
the Wood Joinery: The Jewel in the Crown
The gravity car's wooden structure is a rectangular frame
made of 4' by 6' Douglas fir timbers, set on edge, crown up
and out. Running lengthwise through the frame are two 3/4-inch
throughbolts that connect the front and rear coupling plates.
The decking, made of 3/4-inch poplar, is ship-lapped and nailed
over the frame parallel to the axles. Bench frames throughbolt
to the frame. I had oak lumber milled for the seats, backs,
and sides of the five benches, and stabilized them with turnbuckles
that reached the length of the benches to provide support
against racking side to side. My last addition to the gravity
car was to install a 30-gallon water reservoir underneath
the front seat and plumb it to provide water to the front-wheel
flanges to make the wheels slip on curves rather than climb
out of the rails. The water tank was refilled after each descent.
In the old days, just as the gravity man would reach down
to open up the water valve before departure, the superintendent
was known to shout "turn on the gravity!"
Gravity Man Never Forgets
The gravity car's finished framing
awaiting decking at Coe Studios.
Special-effects painter Ken Gwinn of Art Effects in San Francisco
brought the gravity car to his studio for painting. In his research
effort, Gwinn visited ex-gravity man Bill Provines, who lives
in Mill Valley. Provine's memory of his gravity car days is
very remarkable, even to the point of remembering the paint
colors in detail, with help from Gwinn's Panatone color index.
With a crew of painters and only a week remaining before the
official Mt. Tamalpais Gravity Car Centennial Celebration, set
for August 18, 1996, Gwinn and crew painted day and night to
transform the wood and metal car into a thing of beauty. Graphic
designer Steve Kowalski scanned the lettering for the car from
an early photo, then digitized it and reprinted it in full-sized
letters. Gwinn used that as a guide for hand-painting the delicate
lettering on the front panel of the car.
Which Way But Loose
Finally, after many months of research and nine months of
construction, the first gravity car built in the last 70 years
was completed. It was beautiful, authentic, and ready to be
taken to the summit of Mt. Tam. The gravity car was carried
to the summit of Mt. Tam by a vehicle with a hydraulically
articulated flatbed that allowed for safe loading of the 3,000-pound
gravity car without a forklift in under ten minutes time.
more funds are available, Mt. Tamalpais State Park will build
a small museum on the summit to house the gravity car, and
Tam visitors will be able to sit in the gravity car and watch
video footage of The Crookedest Railway In The World in its
heyday. Unfortunately, they won't be able to "turn on
the gravity" because the car will rest on 83 feet of
A sad footnote to this story is that Randy Hogue, the Mt.
Tam Park Ranger who initiated this project, passed away from
a long illness just a few months before the centennial event.
Although he didn't live to see the finished gravity car, the
gravity car project was a manifestation of Hogue's spirit.
I bolted a plaque to the gravity car that read: "This
gravity car is dedicated to the memory of Ranger Randy Hogue."
Thank you, Randy.