Wednesday, Jul. 17, 2019

William J. Thomas: Marin Railroad Genius

By Robert L. Harrison · May 14, 2019

Portrait of William J. Thomas, Master Mechanic of the North Pacific Coast Railroad. & Mount Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railroad <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span>

Portrait of William J. Thomas, Master Mechanic of the North Pacific Coast Railroad. & Mount Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railroad

Gravity Car inventor, Bill Thomas, (seated in the front row) smiles from every photo. Photograph by Frank Ransome, Oct. 11, 1911. <span>&copy; Fred Runner Collection </span> Inspection run on "Black Maria," Motor Car No. 1., designed for local service in Blithedale Canyon & made from a Thomas Flyer auto. Bill Thomas at right. Crookedest Railroad p. 47. <span>&copy; Mrs. Ada Brown </span> Locomotive 21, first cab-in-front locomotive making its trial run from Sausalito, 1901. Master mechanic Bill Thomas is at the throttle. Source: Narrow Gauge to the Redwoods, p94 <span>&copy; Ada Brown Collection </span>

William James Thomas was born in Hannibal, Missouri on December 14, 1859.  He moved with his   seven siblings to San Francisco when he was four.  Thomas lived in the city until he was 21 when he moved to Sausalito.  He was always intrigued by steam locomotives and as a result, railroading became his life.  At age 20 Thomas took a job as apprentice machinist in the San Francisco shops of the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP).  His skill level quickly qualified him for journeyman but the railroad would not raise his pay. 

 SP’s slight prompted him in 1881 to join the North Pacific Coast Railroad (NPC) in Sausalito.  He quickly became a Master Mechanic for the narrow gauge NPC.  With his promotion he married a young woman named Florence.  The couple lived in Sausalito for 20 years where they had three sons and two daughters.  While living in Sausalito he designed the town’s first fire engine.  It was manually conveyed to where it was needed and used to pump water from the Bay to extinguish fires on the Sausalito waterfront.

 By 1896 Thomas was well established at the NPC.  At one point he was placed on loan for a short period to assist in organizing the fledgling Mill Valley & Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway (later known as the Mt Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway).  Six years later he returned to the moutain railroad.  His love for the mountain railway and for Mt. Tam continued throughout his life.

 While at the NPC Thomas invented many devices to make the steam engines run more efficiently.  His patents included: 1892 Balanced Piston; 1892 Balanced Slide Valve; and 1901 (w/Stetson) Liquid Fueled Steam Boiler.  But his greatest achievements were the design and building of two locomotives in the NPC Sausalito shops.  In 1900 he designed and built #20, a beautiful classic steam locomotive and one of the first to use crude oil as a fuel.   

 In 1901 the NPC acquired the ferryboat Tamalpais.  Thomas, holding a Marine Engineers license, converted the Tamalpais from coal to the more efficient oil power.  Soon after most other ferry operators in the San Francisco area adopted oil to fuel their boats.

 Perhaps his most renowned innovation was NPC locomotive #21, a “cab forward” design.  It placed the engineer and fireman in the front of the engine rather than at the rear, the traditional location for the crew in steam locomotives.   Thomas’ engine in 1901 was the first cab forward locomotive ever built.   It led to the monstrous cab forwards built by the SP years later.

 This cab forward design gave the engineer a greatly improved view of the road but was roundly disliked by NPC crews.  Not only was the new engine a strange sight, crews feared in a collision they would be trapped in the cab.  NPC’s #21 was officially christened the “Thomas Stetson” but it was dubbed “the freak” by the men of the NPC.  The #21 operated productively for only two or three years and had to be scrapped in 1905 when a fireman let the water get too low burning and destroying the boiler.   

 In 1902 the NPC was bought by a syndicate who renamed the railroad the North Shore (NS).  The new owners ordered many changes including faster schedules.  Thomas believed the proposed faster operating speeds were not safe.  He protested the schedule changes so strenuously that, despite his status as the road’s most capable Master Mechanic, the new management dismissed him.

Later in 1902, following the accidental death of his brother, Ernest George Thomas, on the mountain railway, Thomas joined the Mill Valley & Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway as Master Mechanic.  Soon he was named the road’s new Superintendent, the same position held by his brother.   Thomas held that position until the demise of the road in 1930.

 His genius for new inventions continued at the mountain road with his patented “Porcupine” feed-water heater, a device for pre-heating water before it was injected into the locomotive boiler, thus saving fuel and making the engine more efficient.  He also designed a small motorized car to transport a limited passenger load up Mt. Tam.  According to the Sausalito News of December 12, 1903, on its first trial run with Thomas’ children on board “….the little car made excellent time in climbing the grades….Fitted with strong brakes and other safety appliances, the motor car is absolutely safe, and as a means of furnishing a novel and exhilarating ride [propelled by gravity down the mountain] it is a mammoth success.”

 Thomas’ pride and joy were the mountain railway’s gravity cars.  He had planned and designed them and was present for many of their runs down the mountain.  The small open cars were built on a four-wheel truck and could carry as many as 25 passengers in five rows of seating.  They were under the control of the “gravity man” operating a mechanical brake that limited their speed to just 10 to 12 miles per hour.  It took 37 minutes to travel the seven miles from the summit to the Lee Street station.  Thomas would often demonstrate his good nature by calling out at the beginning of a run, “O.K. men! Turn on the gravity.”

 During his 28 years as Superintendent of the mountain railway Thomas was responsible for greeting and entertaining many eminent visitors including John Muir, Robert Louis Stevenson, Helen Gould, congressman William Kent, visiting nobility and other luminaries.

 Thomas was not only a well-known figure on the mountain railway, but was also active in local affairs.  He served as Mayor of Mill Valley from 1906 until he resigned in 1909. The Mill Valley Record on January 29, 1909 reported, “….his decision [to resign] will be a surprise to many who know the keen interest he has heretofore always taken in his civic duties.”

 Thomas was President of the Tamalpais Mutual Building and Loan Association.  In 1912 the Mill Valley Record headlined, “Splendid Institution Makes Fine Showing”.  The Association declared an 8½ per cent dividend that year.  He was also a member of the Mill Valley Lodge of the Free and Accepted Masons as well as several civic organizations.

 Thomas’ first wife, Florence, died in 1919.  Two years later he married a second time, the former Violet Fox, a founder with Helen Davidson of the Belle Dry Goods Store in Mill Valley.  In 1924 the couple moved to Kentfield where he built a fine house with a view of the mountain.

 It was only when the mountain railroad closed in 1930 that Thomas, now 70 years old, decided to retire.  In retirement his reputation was recognized as reported in the Sausalito News on March 6, 1941, “Most distinguished guest on the last trip [from Sausalito of the huge ferryboat Eureka] was William J. Thomas of Kentfield.”

 He lived in his Kentfield home until he died suddenly on August 21, 1944.  He had spoken for an hour and a half at a luncheon in Sausalito just shortly before his death. 

 In October 13, 1949 the Sausalito News remembered Thomas as “The greatest single figure connected with the narrow gauge….” He had a love for his fellowmen and was known by all as “Brother Bill”.

Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway historian Fred Runner comments on Bill Thomas' tenure on Mt. Tam:

Bill Thomas, the Master Mechanic for Mt Tamalpais' Scenic Railway, was called a mechanical genius finding simple, reliable and elegant solutions to railroad problems. Perhaps his most memorable invention was the Gravity Car, first seen on Mt. Tamalpais in the fall of 1902. It carried 6 people. They were used to carry overnight guests down the mountain early in the morning at minimal expense to catch a Mill Valley commute train for the City. By 1910, the novel cars were larger and could carry up to 30. In the Gravity Car photo depicted here, Thomas -a man also known for his sense of humor-  beams from the front row of Gravity No. 4, his bowler hat tipped back on his head.

Bill Thomas loved Mt. Tamalpais. He spent most of his career on the mountain's scenic railway. He also liked to pilot gravity cars. On the trip down he loved to show visitors the charms of the mountain, its sublime vistas and the variety it had at a parched near-desert summit and in a damp earthy forest (Muir Woods) far below. While waiting in a gravity car at Mesa Station Thomas would lead passengers in patriotic songs like America the Beautiful. Near the end of his life Thomas told a biographer, “I never worked a day in my life."

Bill Thomas and No 9 

There are several accounts of Mt. Tamalpais’ Master Mechanic and Superintendent Bill Thomas returning to the mountain after a stint helping another rail line and promptly selling the newest steam engine, Tamalpais No. 9, because it was a Heisler. That’s because his brother, Ernest, was killed in a Heisler accident on Mt Tamalpais.

 Bill had issues with the engineering of Heislers. But as Superintendent he also had to manage costs. Tamalpais had a fleet of four Shays. A new Heisler required different parts for repair. Choosing one manufacturer, Shay, was both a money saver and a time saver. 

 In 1924 the railroad had big expenses. (Rebuilding the burned Tavern at East Peak.) By selling No. 9 the scenic railway would show a profit of $6,032.00. The reason it showed a profit was because it sold No. 9 for $9,750.00.

 Money was getting tight for the Tamalpais railway. In 1925 the mountain railroad would consider abandonment. 

Login to Report Article

Recent Comments


Login to Comment