What were you doing 81 years ago?
If you’re Bill Provines, it was your first day on “the best job I ever had.” Provines, now 98, worked summers as a fireman for the Mt. Tamalpais & Muir Woods Scenic Railway—in the sweaty cabs of steam engines that twisted and turned while taking elegantly dressed tourists to the top of Mount Tam. And Provines remembers it all, in vivid detail.
Today, walking from sun into shade in Mill Valley’s lower Blithedale Canyon, he recalls the sound he heard as his train rolled through this turn: “The clanging of the bell reflected off the corner of that building and straight into the cab where I sat.” In a grove of trees near downtown Mill Valley, he draws his toe along a ridge of cement and stirs up another memory. “This was the edge of the service pit, where they would climb under the locomotives to work on them.”
As he walks, he brings to life a world long gone. Of his first day on the railroad: “Over there was where they parked engine number four. Benson Thomas taught me how to ‘fire’ that morning. He was only a few years older than me, but he knew his stuff. His uncle invented the gravity cars we ran on the mountain. Benson Thomas was a genius—wonder what happened to him?”
“Anyway, we left here and headed for the top,” he goes on. “Thomas got off at the summit, saying he had business to take care of. He asked if I’d be OK. Charlie Stocker, the white-haired engineer, said, ‘I’ll keep an eye on him.’”
Provines remains proud of his work in the gritty steam engines of the railway. He spent summers from 1926 through 1929, while still a student, working seven days a week in the hot, cramped cabs and “loved every minute of it,” he insists. Specifically, he loved the “somewhat sweet smell of the warm fuel oil,” the “heat that’d come off the boiler” and the “pulsing of the engine you’d feel as it worked its way up the mountain.”
At age 18, Provines was responsible for controlling the steam pressure required to power a Shay locomotive up the steep mountain. “If you were careless or inattentive, that quaint-looking steam locomotive could become a bomb with enough force to leave a crater in the mountainside or, in no time at all, rip through a train station,” he matter-of-factly recalls.
Provines came from a railroading family. His father was an engineer on the line that brought passengers from Sausalito to Mill Valley. A favorite memory: riding with his dad in a steam locomotive cab on a night run from Sausalito into Willits. “I was but a young boy in the dark, yet I remember the roar of engine surging through the night, Dad at the throttle, a warm orange glow from the firebox, and the steam heat mixing with the night air as we raced through the darkness.
“I’ve never forgotten it,” he adds. “Railroading is the kind of thing that gets in your blood.”
Fred Runner is a historian for both the West Point Inn and the “Crookedest Railroad in the World.”