Joachim von Reinbek was born on the outskirts of Hamburg on January 29, 1859, the same day as Germany’s nefarious Kaiser Wilhelm II — an odd coincidence that would eventually lead to an even odder friendship. Wilhelm’s traumatic birth resulted in a withered arm and a nasty temper. Von Reinbek, instead, fell on his head when the doctor dropped him during a huge sneeze, leaving him strangely wall-eyed and without the usual social filters of average folks. He said what he thought without regard for the audience. It got him beaten repeatedly as he grew up, but because he never saw it coming he never made the connection. Weird guy.
Von Reinbek’s family was comfortable though not particularly wealthy. As their only son, his parents doted on him, determined that he should enjoy an even better life, a sentiment shared by Wilhelm’s parents who made sure that he took his rightful place in German aristocracy.
While Wilhelm was learning to ride a pony, Joachim took tennis lessons. This might sound futile given his twisted eyesight, but Joachim was able to calibrate his deficiency, learning to make winning shots while appearing to look the other way. As a ten year old he liberated his parent’s friends’ pocket money when they accepted wagers on his play.
Von Reinbek and Wilhelm met at the exclusive Friedrichsgymnasium boarding school in Kessel. Now a reckless teenager, von Reinbeck beat the pants off his classmates, along with their allowances, timepieces, anything they foolishly bet on his tennis play. Young Wilhelm was particularly susceptible, daring to play Joachim repeatedly. Von Reinbek taunted Wilhelm mercilessly as he sent zingers past his gimp arm, forcing the future Kaiser to spin in the wrong direction and trip over his feet. At every score Von Reinbek would call out, “Watch the damn ball, gimpy!” As no one had ever dared to make fun of the young Kaiser, Wilhelm was intrigued. The friendship was cemented after one particular match that resulted in Von Reinbek winning a small castle. The two were soon inseparable.
Rare lithograph of Von Reinbek humiliating Wilhelm
Von Reinbek (right) with the Kaiser and his personal train
Von Reinbek knew a good thing when he saw it, even when seeing double. His friendship with Wilhelm gave him unprecedented access to the European aristocracy, and his unfiltered manner, coupled with his freakish tennis skills, quickly helped him amass a small fortune and considerable political influence. With all that money his hobbies were quite fantastical. Leading the way was a love of trains, which he shared with Wilhelm. The two would travel Europe on the Kaiser’s personal train, comparing notes about Prussian locomotives versus their British counterparts.
In 1888, Wilhelm officially became the Kaiser, Von Reinbek lurking behind him in the shadows of the royal court. Ever the opportunist, Von Reinbek started a weekly skat game and invited Wilhelm and other men of influence, among them Otto von Bismarck, the German Chancellor. While bad blood permeated the relationship between the Kaiser and the Chancellor, the weekly game provided a respite. And the betting was fierce.
In late 1889, a very drunken skat game ended in a final winner-take-all wager when Von Reinbek, back to the wall, put his fortune against Wilhelm and Bismarck. Von Reinbek’s counter was this: for the rest of his life the country of Germany would provide him with a locomotive of his choice, free of charge, once every five years. The agreement would be inviolate.
This, of course, was a sucker bet. Von Reinbek preyed upon the vanity of the other two players, as the prospect of winning back their fortunes and leveling years of losses was too tempting. Besides, he’d never really collect, would he? As Von Reinbek showed his winning hand, Bismarck fainted, Wilhelm laughed, and von Reinbek was heard to chortle, “It’s about the damn trains, Willy!”
The embarrassment of the loss proved too much for Bismarck. At Wilhelm’s insistence he drew up a contract that would be buried in the government records of past war reparations — a cloak that would ensure international compliance. Bismarck resigned soon after.
The first locomotive, an Esslingen "Kittel" railcar popularized by the Royal Württemberg State Railways, was delivered to Von Reinbek and his collection began. Joachim and Wilhelm rode the modest steam-powered railcar, toasting their friendship with a fine German wine.
It was not to last, however. The Kaiser’s shenanigans, probably due to his friend’s prodding, dragged Germany into a war it could not win. Von Reinbek, though wall-eyed, saw the future clearly. He liquidated his assets, loaded his trains on a ship, and escaped to America. Making sure to get as far away from Europe as possible, the west coast of California provided the social and political cover he needed. The mysterious, now Belgian immigrant was welcome in the redwood belt of western Sonoma County near the little frontier town of Occidental.
Locomotive being loaded on a freighter for the perilous journey to America
Parking himself at the local inn, Reinbek began anew snookering the locals. Since skat wasn’t played widely, he picked up poker, which he opined was a “child’s game” in comparison. Thinking the foreigner was easy pickings, the residents invited him into a longtime poker game on Acreage Lane just up the hill from Occidental. The game took place in a small cottage owned by a daughter of Melvin Meeker, the local lumber baron and land owner. Along with Meeker, the game also had among its players “Dutch” Bill Howard, namesake of a local creek and train station. Between the two of them, Howard and Meeker represented the controlling interest of nearly everything in West County. You can guess what came next.
Locomotives were transported by barge from Jenner to Monte Rio
Von Reinbek needed land to create his vision of a private railroad. He also wanted anonymity so far as was possible as you thrash around the countryside in your Prussian locomotives. In barely three months, Von Reinbek wound his fellow players up to game that would result in him securing a lifetime free rental of a 25,000 acre parcel winding around and thru the West County woods. With most of the land out of sight, Von Reinbek could pursue his dream. Meeker and Howard were relieved that they didn’t lose it all. As a sidenote, logging operations ceased in the area. The Acreage Lane poker game continues to this day, though it’s moved around a bit.
The basic railroad was constructed over a two year period. Von Reinbek most certainly had the capital to build anything he wanted, and with the cover of the woods his ambitions were impressive. He built multiple runs of track, a station, a yard, even a roundhouse for his locomotives which arrived in the dead of night every five years. Aside from an occasional visit to the local Italian restaurant, Negri’s, he was rarely seen. Some attribute this to his distain for the local fare. “Can’t someone open a decent Italian restaurant here?”, he was heard to say. Of course, with his unlimited fortune he could have built one, but that would have taken away from his trains.
A freak collision of two of his trains in 1958 left Von Reinbek with only one leg. At 99 years old his lifelong obsession went the way of his left shoe. But the deal remained.
Von Reinbek’s last locomotive arrived shortly before his death at the age of 101 in 1960. He never had a chance to see it run around the property, though he would spend hours staring at the German BR10, muttering to himself, "It's about the damn trains, Willy!"
After Von Reinbek's passing, the last locomotive, along with all the other trains, cars, and track, were buried with him in a decommissioned quarry outside Redding. Descendants of Meeker and Howard bulldozed what was left, not understanding why someone would build an Alpine Village in the middle of their great grandparents’ land. A visit to the area these days yields no clues that Von Reinbek was ever there. Kaiser Wilhelm II died in exile in the Netherlands. There’s still not a decent Italian restaurant in Occidental.
Von Reinbek in 1960 with his last locomotive, a German BR10