The Historic Engine No. 9 Seeks a Home in Mill Valley

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival in Mill Valley of Engine No. 9, a Heisler steam locomotive that is the last surviving piece of the Mount Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway, which was founded in 1896 and ceased operating in 1930. The historic engine, recovered at auction in 2018, is currently being restored. In the meantime, the Mill Valley Historical Society has unveiled a life-size model of the engine in Mill Valley, where they hope it will one day have a permanent home. 

no 9 train
Photo courtesy of  The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

The Mount Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway once took tourists from Mill Valley to the East Peak of Mt. Tam, and to Muir Woods when a spur was built in 1907. For many who rode the rails, it was their first time experiencing the awe of being in an old-growth redwood forest — critical, says Mill Valley Historical Society President Eric Macris, for generating public support for the permanent protection of the park, which was granted in 1908. “Imagine, back in 1896 when the railway was built, nature was still something to be conquered it,” Macris says. “The railroad really was the beginning of environmentalism in Marin County.”

the tavern of tamalpais
1902 — Engine Shay No. 3 about to depart the Tavern of Tamalpais, the grand destination near the summit of Mt. Tamalpais. Courtesy of Fred Runner/Ted Wurm collection.

Engine No. 9 was in service from 1921 until 1924, when the railway experienced financial hardship after the Tavern of Tamalpais at the top of the mountain burned down, and it took more than nine decades for a coalition of local residents to return it to Marin County. “It was sold in 1924 for $9,750 to make a quick buck, and it began working in logging until the early 1950s,” says Fred Runner, president of the nonprofit Friends of No. 9 organization spearheading the restoration. At that point, Pacific Lumber Company bought it as it was on its way to be scrapped and put it on display in Scotia, California, the location of their company headquarters. “They guarded it jealously and were never interested in letting it go until things changed drastically for the town, and they realized that it was now an expensive liability, so they put it up for auction in 2018,” Runner says. 

no 9 train
The arrival of Engine No. 9 in Sonoma after it was purchased at auction in 2018.

For a price of $56,240, the group of local railroad buffs were able to purchase Engine No. 9, which is currently being restored at a ranch in Sonoma, a massive and costly undertaking that will take at least two years to finish. “We’re repairing huge amounts of corrosion that have happened as a result of the engine spending years sitting outside,” Runner says. “Right now, we’re almost finished rebuilding the tender.”

engine no 9
A life-size model of Engine No. 9 was recently unveiled in downtown Mill Valley. Courtesy of the Mill Valley Historical Society.

Once the restoration is complete, the Mill Valley Historical Society is hoping to display Engine No. 9 in Downtown Mill Valley, where plans have been proposed to expand the plaza downtown. To raise awareness about the project, the Mill Valley Historical Society recently built a life-size model of Engine No. 9 with the help of 50 local children and displayed it in Downtown Mill Valley. “There are a lot of families who are new to Mill Valley, and who don’t know that this was a railroad town at one time,” Macris says. “This was a great way to start talking to them about local history, and the model brings it a little closer to reality for the kids.”

The Mill Valley Historical Society and Friends of No. 9 are raising funds and seeking support from the community to complete the restoration and find a permanent home for the historic engine. “There are very few objects in Marin County that better embody our local history than Engine No. 9,” Macris says. “It’s really a crown jewel of local history.” 

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Lotus AbramsLotus Abrams has covered everything from beauty to business to tech in her editorial career, but it might be writing about her native Bay Area that inspires her most. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the San Francisco Peninsula, where they enjoy spending time outdoors at the area’s many open spaces protected and preserved by her favorite local nonprofit, the Peninsula Open Space Trust.