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Historic train reopens in scenic California redwoods after tunnel collapse

By Laila Kearney

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A historic train that has ferried tourists and residents through Northern California redwood forests for generations will resume service on Saturday after a caved-in tunnel derailed the operation earlier this year.

Train owners spent months rebuilding the tunnel, which collapsed under the pressure of a massive rock, forcing the closure of the California Western Railroad, which had run continuously for 128 years, train manager Robert Pinoli said.

"This is living, breathing history," Pinoli said, adding that train staff was excited the popular tourist attraction was ready to roll again.

The train, known as the Skunk Train, operates on 40 miles of railroad that connects Fort Bragg on the Mendocino Coast to the city of Willits, inland in Mendocino County on the highway 101 corridor.

It uses a 1925 M-100 railcruiser, which is believed to be the only such train in use today, in its collection of vintage locomotives, Pinoli said.

The train carries roughly 50,000 passengers each year and generates $20 million in annual tourism spending in Mendocino County, Pinoli said.

Tourism, Mendocino's primary industry, produced $124 million for the county in 2008, according to the most recent study available from the Center for Economic Development at California State University, Chico.

The Skunk Train received its nickname in 1925, when the California Western Railroad began using gas-fueled railcars, instead of steam-powered engines, and potbellied stoves for heat.

The combination of smells from the gas and stoves created an aroma similar to skunk spray, Pinoli said.

"The old timers said that these rail buses were like skunks," Pinoli said, adding, "You could smell them before you could see them because of their pungent odor."

Noted American merchant Charles R. Johnson funded Skunk Train in 1885 to transport logs and carry families and workers who setup logging camps along the railroad route.

The train was operated for many years by a union lumber company and was sold in the 1960s to Arizona-based Kyle Railways. A group of local investors have owned the train since purchasing it in 1996.

Today, residents who live along the remote Skunk Train route still ride the train to and from home, Pinoli said. The train will unload at individual homes and campsites.

"If you can believe it, in 2013, people still depend on this railroad to get in and out of their summer homes or their year-round homes," Pinoli said.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb)

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