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Trip Report – Redwood Valley Railway

Getting to Redwood Valley Railway

The Redwood Valley Railway is a 15” gauge miniature railroad located in Tilden Regional Park, near Berkeley, California.

Tilden Park is comprised of over 2000 acres high above San Francisco Bay, and wind-driven fog from the bay can sometimes cause visibility problems. It was just such day when I visited!

My GPS unit was in charge as I drove from urban Berkeley, up, up and up Claremont Avenue, as it narrowed and became more twisty. As the car climbed, I noticed I was getting into the clouds, and now my wipers were working to keep the windshield clear, as the trees were now shedding drops of wind driven water. I continued to climb into this windy soup, and finally reached Grizzly Peak Boulevard, which at first seemed to be a more level road than Claremont. But that didn’t last long, as I started to climb again, in and out of thick fog. I began to wonder if Redwood Valley Railway would even be open on such a day.

Suddenly I was at the small parking lot near the railroad, where I had to drive through twice to find a spot as someone backed out. It was amazing to me there were so many cars here on a day like this! Stepping out of the car, I quickly determined my light shirt and shorts were not a good clothing choice as the wind pelted me with cold raindrops. My disappointment about the weather faded quickly as I heard an approaching steam whistle. I got my equipment ready and headed into the park just as Oak #7, a 2-6-2 Prairie type locomotive, brought its train to the open-air boarding platform.

Redwood Valley Railway History

The Redwood Valley Railway was founded in 1952 by Western Pacific mechanical engineer, Erich Thomsen. Mr. Thomsen was a career railroad man, and he was also an early railroad preservationist. He was alarmed at how many steam locomotives were being scrapped in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and was instrumental in saving a number of them, some of which found homes at the California State Railroad Museum and other operations. Some of these locomotives are static displays and some are still operating today.

Erich Thomsen started building the miniature railroad in 12 inch gauge, but was not satisfied with the performance with growing passenger counts. He studied the problem and decided to convert to 15 inch gauge, because the car seats were could be the ideal size that would fit two average adults on a seat. In 1968, the railroad was changed to its present 15 inch gauge.

All four of the railroad’s oil-fired steam locomotives were built in the Redwood Valley shops. Mr. Thomsen based the designs of his steam engines loosely on Baldwin Locomotive models built in the 1875 – 1910 era.

The Redwood Valley Railway locomotive roster:

#4 – Laurel – 2-4-2

#5 – Fern – 4-4-0 

#7 – Oak – 2-6-2  

#11 – Sequoia – 4-6-0 

#2 – Juniper – a gasoline-hydraulic “diesel” locomotive

Erich Thomsen died in 1995, and today the railroad is under the care of his daughter, Ellen Thomsen, who is a hands-on part of the operation.

I had attempted to contact Redwood Valley Railway before my visit but did not receive any replies, so I just showed up, hoping for the best. The area near the boarding area and a wooden bridge that passes over the entrance to the Golden Gate Live Steamers Club are the only portions of the line that are readily accessible to the public.

After getting a number of shots in these areas I asked a volunteer about how I might be able to see more of the railroad. He advised me to go to the ticket booth, and ask to see Ellen Thomsen, the CEO. Sounded easy, and it was. The young lady in the booth phoned Ellen, who appeared a few minutes later. I gave her my card and my story, and soon I was following her through what looked to me like a “secret passage” that got us into a whole different world. We made a number of turns as I followed her down some interesting paths. Soon we were at a wonderful area of the Redwood Valley Railway that afforded views of the train passing from both directions. I went to work with my cameras, and Ellen resumed work on a track project nearby.

I was able to reposition cameras all afternoon up and down the line, and later at some other behind-the-scenes locations. The problem was, like all of the Grand Scale railroads I’ve covered, I stood out like a sore thumb to the happy, waving passengers. Perhaps camouflage next time…


Locomotive Fern is steaming inside the Redwood Valley roundhouse – Yard Goat Images Photo

As I was moving around the site, I noticed some action at the roundhouse and headed over there. Fern was steamed up and Chief engineer Paul Hollidge was busy trying to find out why the locomotive was making an occasional “snapping” sound. Paul told me the Fern had just been rebuilt and he was making sure all was well before retuning the locomotive to revenue service. Inside the roundhouse, Fern was on a raised track but he wanted to get under it, so he was going to move it to the shop building over the locomotive pit.

After running Fern out of the roundhouse, Ellen Thomsen joined him to discuss the locomotive, and she also operated the turntable. Paul moved the locomotive back and forth between the turntable and the car barn for the benefit of our cameras before attempting to move it to the locomotive shop. I say attempting, because the track to the locomotive shop is 3% grade and the wet rails proved too much. Paul jumped out and applied sand with a nifty little hand operated sander. That did the trick and Fern was soon out of sight.

I spent a little more time capturing video of the regular train before calling it quits because I was just too wet and cold! While the weather wasn’t ideal during my visit, I think you will be pleased with the dramatic footage of two of the Redwood Valley locomotives operating on a foggy day. I always say, the weather doesn’t need to be perfect to get stunning footage. I hope to visit the Redwood Valley Railway again sometime, and plan to be better prepared!

See the Redwood Valley Railway in action!

It was fun editing the video for our story about Redwood Valley Railway, and I’m very pleased with the finished work. You can find it on our Grand Scale Steam! DVD, along with chapters at two Wisconsin sites, Whiskey River Railway and the fantastic steam and diesel operation at the Milwaukee Zoo.

If you’re into Grand Scale, check out these DVDs as well – ATT & NW Friends Weekend and Wisconsin Steam Stories. I’ve also written some blogs about Grand Scale – Grand Scale Steam in Wisconsin and Trip Report – ATT & NW Friends Weekend.

You can order Grand Scale Steam! on our website.


Steve Mitchell,


Yard Goat Images DVD - Grand Scale Steam!

Yard Goat Images DVD – Grand Scale Steam!

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