Scotia Bluffs, railroads and mud slides

Scotia Bluffs

I grew up in Rio Dell, across the river from these very bluffs.

When I was a kid, trains still ran the tracks though slides were frequent in the winter and would shut everything down for a while.  I don’t remember anything as drastic as this photo shows, though I do remember hearing at least one tremendous crash in the middle of the night and waking to see that the bluff had shifted and slid and the tracks were covered (again). After a slide, ‘dozers and other big equipment would arrive to clear the mud and other debris and then the trains would come again. 

Unfortunately those days are over.  Mud slides plagued the rail line (among other problems, I’m sure) and it just got too expensive to maintain.  But the tracks are still there and if you can get over there, you’ll find fossils in the bluffs. Shells and snails and all kinds of improbable things…

Well, I thought I would add a current photo and found this on wikipedia instead. 

Scotia Bluffs

Scotia Bluffs form a 2-mile (3-kilometer) series of gray sandstone cliffs along the north bank of the Eel River near Rio Dell, California.



The course of the lower Eel River changes from northeasterly to westerly as it encounters a resistant formation of fossiliferous upper Pliocene marine sandstone 15 miles (25 kilometers) inland from the Pacific Ocean. River turbulence has created deep pools beneath steep sandstone cliffs on the northeasterly bank. Tributary streams, including Nanning Creek, cut steep, narrow canyons through the cliffs. The southwesterly bank of the river is an alluvial plain extending to the estuary. The community of Rio Dell occupies the bank opposite the cliffs.[1] The cliffs expose abundant remains of ancient clams and sand dollars.


Pacific Lumber Company built a railroad across the face of the cliffs between 1883 and 1885 to transport lumber to Eureka, California. This alignment was followed by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad to avoid bridging the lower Eel River. The rail line maintained an elaborate series of benches, retaining walls, and trestles approximately 50 feet (16 meters) above the river during low summer flows, and the cliffs extend 75 to 500 feet (25–150 meters) above the track. These trestles and benches have been frequently damaged by floods and by massive blocks of sandstone falling from the upper cliffs. Rail service was interrupted in 1907, 1913, 1933, 1938, 1942, 1946, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1964 and 1971. A railroad bridge crew was assigned to work exclusively on the Scotia Bluff trestles from 1916 through 1959. Flood waters reached track level in 1955 and were 11 feet (3.3 m) over the railway in 1964. Three trainmen were killed when engine 184 was swept into the river by a 17 January 1953 landslide off the bluffs.

12 Responses to Scotia Bluffs, railroads and mud slides

  1. nan says:

    I am living across from those tracks now–have been here for a few months. My neighbor tells me that during the winter, there are still slides off the cliffs in the winter that make an awful noise when they come down. Have seen people hike those tracks–and plan to do the same. Looking at this photo I can see how much the cliffs have worn away since then.

  2. Kym Kemp says:

    There are amazing fossils there. Our school has been several times and never failed to find beautiful ones.

    • lynette77 says:

      Isn’t that something?

      When I was a kid, our elderly neighbor told us she remembered seeing ships come up the river past the house and as far as Pacific Lumber in Scotia, where they would load them with lumber and head back out to sea.

      I don’t know much about the diversion of water currently going on with the Eel, but imagine has changed the river drastically…

      • Jim Garrison says:

        I also heard this story when I was a kid. Sadly, I have discovered that it is mostly untrue. PL started operations in Scotia in 1882. They began building the rail line around the bluffs in 1883 after being stymied by Lorenzo Painter in a bid to purchase a right-of-way through Rio Dell. The line was completed in 1885. If they did ship logs down the river, they didn’t do it for very long before they had a railroad. If they could have sailed ships up the river that far, why build a railroad at all? Also, we have photos from the 1880s of the Eel, and it looks just about the same as it does now with regard to depth. The only time the Eel River would have had enough water to take a timber schooner all the way to Scotia would have been during a significant flood, which would make it impossible to get up-river. Additionally, where are the photos? One trip to HSU’s website shows us that these folks were camera-happy. Shouldn’t there be at least a shot of one of these ships docked at Scotia?They were lashing logs together and rafting them downriver in the early days, but they didn’t transport finished lumber that way. Before the train, I believe they were stuck with wagons and barges. Hopes this helps and doesn’t sound too smart-allecky! 😉

        • Lynette M says:

          Not to smart allecky at all :). I grew up at the end of Gunnerson Lane -which was right above the foot of Edwards drive, which lead to the River. Genevieve Edwards told us in the mid 70s that she remembered ships coming up to Scotia-but your point about no photos is well taken.
          We’ll have to see what other info we can dig up…

  3. Nadananda says:

    how to I get to read the rest of this post? Appreciate your writing. Imagine that if you had grown up in Rio Del you have seen quite a change in the area, not only in the population and expansion of the area but also in what people are concerned about, talk about and think about.

  4. dont know how I got to this site…but
    I heard the Rail was built here b/c the landholder of the Rio Dell area at the time was holding out for a large sum of money. Too bad people had to die, including the railroad.
    I still hang my head, that Humboldt doesn’t have a viable rail. I know its a pipe dream, but if Humboldt Bay were connected to Redding, commerce would flow!

  5. luther says:

    Great delivery. Great arguments. Keep up the good spirit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: