Possible train installation in downtown Mill Valley Depot Square


By Nathan Robinson

The Mill Valley City Council approved a plan to expand the Mill Valley Depot Square to the south in order to create an additional parcel encircling the redwood grove adjacent to Sunnyside Avenue. The plan was approved on Jan. 6. 

The future of the addition is still uncertain, but one local organization, Friends of No. 9, is currently lobbying the Council to utilize the space to display the “Number 9,” a historic train.  A full-size wood model of the train—which measures 30’ long, 9’ wide, and 11’ tall—was installed onto the site of the square expansion this past summer.

The Number 9 train is the sole surviving piece of the Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway. The once world famous, scenic rail line operated from 1896 to 1929, connecting Mount Tamalpais, Muir Woods, and the surrounding foothills to downtown Mill Valley.

The railway ordered Number 9 from the Stearns Manufacturing Companies in 1921. Number 9 towed rail cars up the mountain until it was sold in 1924 to Pacific Lumber.

In 2018, the train was put up for auction. News of the auction reached Mill Valley local Fred Runner, a Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway historian, who subsequently organized the Friends of No. 9, a nonprofit organization dedicated to displaying historical items related to the Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Scenic Railway. Runner began a donation campaign and raised money to put in a bid. 

The train was sold under a closed auction, meaning Runner and his team were unaware of how much money others were bidding. “It was kind of dramatic that this was a closed auction. We didn’t know who else was bidding or for how much. We just had to pull together as much money as we could and hope that we would have enough to win,” Runner remembered. Runner and the Friends of No. 9 purchased the train for $56,240, beating the second highest bidder by a margin of only $4,000. Restoration work has since begun, with the train about halfway restored at the time of publication. 

Friends of No. 9 believe that the Number 9 train exhibit offers a valuable, educational asset to the community, as well as a way to honor our culture in Marin. Eric Macris, secretary for Friends of No. 9 and president of the Mill Valley Historical Society, explained that the railway ushered in a new age of appreciation and conservation of nature.

“It [Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Scenic Railway] was kind of the beginning of Marin County’s history of trying to protect the environment. And that’s why symbolically this railroad and this particular steam engine is an important representation of what our local culture stands for.” He added that the railway introduced many Marin residents to the idea that nature was something to be enjoyed, not feared.

The railway is largely responsible for the creation of Muir Woods. Railway shareholder William Kent bought the canyon in 1905, and expanded the railway to connect to the area. Kent saved the region from certain destruction at the hands of water companies, which wanted to flood the valley to create a reservoir. 

The Muir Woods line was a great success, introducing the beauty of Muir Woods to the world. Kent contacted friends in the Roosevelt Administration, who designated it the 10th National Monument. 

If the proposal to put Number 9 in the square is approved by the city, Friends of No. 9 intends on providing scannable barcode resources to educate visitors on the history of the railway and early conservation in Mill Valley. 

Number 9’s potential installation has received mixed feedback from residents. An online petition in support of the installation has received over 850 signatures, including those of former mayors and members of the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce and Board of Directors. However, others oppose the idea. A large community on Nextdoor, an online discussion forum dedicated to local issues, has spoken out against the installation. Many users are concerned about the visual appeal of the project, noting that it would be a large addition to the relatively small square. Mill Valley resident Scott Elkington has concerns regarding the stature of the locomotive. “This [Number 9 eddition] is ridiculous,” he wrote on Nextdoor. “The plaza would be dwarfed by this engine.”

Friends of No. 9 responded to the Nextdoor concerns, saying, “There are a small number of people who have expressed very strong opinions without really having the facts behind them. So we are trying to spread a message in support of what the city government is doing to have an open discussion with the actual design in front of people, where they can see pictures and hear about the thought that went into the proposal and then make up their minds.”