All Aboard! | Summer 2013 Out Here Magazine
Ride the rails at unique gold country state park
By Leah Call
Photography by Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
Step aboard the Sierra No. 3 and ride the rails through the scenic Sierra Foothills back to the days of steam locomotives and the Wild West at one of the most unique state parks in the United States.
Located in the heart of California's gold country, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, Calif., is a 26-acre park that draws railroad enthusiasts, history buffs, and movie aficionados from around the country.
For the price of admission, visitors get a 45-minute, six-mile, round-trip excursion aboard a "celebrity" steam locomotive on track that was once part of the 42-mile Sierra Railway, constructed in 1897 to transport lumber, ore, and other goods.
"We have three original steam locomotives to the railroad, plus a couple other ones. We still operate, maintain, and restore them here in the facility," says park superintendent Kim Baker.
"So when you come to visit, you get a chance to walk through these really neat old buildings. But they are not just a static display; they are still actually being used for the same purpose."
A STAR IS BORN
When diesel locomotives took over in the 1950s and 60s, most steam locomotives were put to rest, but at the site where the park is today, the movie industry kept them going.
"There was a lot of movie work being done in the foothills at the time. Steam locomotives, westerns, and the terrain around here kind of made the perfect storm for that type of work," Kim says.
Known as the "movie railroad," the Sierra Railway and its locomotives once appeared in more than 200 movies, television shows, and commercials, including Petticoat Junction, The Wild Wild West, High Noon, Unforgiven, and Back to the Future III.
The Sierra No. 3, perhaps the best-known steam locomotive in America from being featured so frequently on film, was fully restored three years ago after spending 15 years out of service.
"We did a $1.5 million restoration on that locomotive," Kim says. "Most Americans who visualize what a steam locomotive looks like picture the No. 3, because it has been the predominant locomotive in movies over the years."
She hopes to see the park and the locomotives once again return to the big screen.
"We are just sort of waiting for Hollywood to find us again," she says.
Even without film crews at Railtown, roughly 60,000 visitors explore the park each year.
"We see a lot of people on their way to and from Yosemite," Kim says. "We've also had people make pilgrimages here from all over the world, because of the uniqueness of the facility."
The excursion train rides are scheduled from April through October, but the historic buildings and Interpretive Center are open year round.
"We try to always have something new and different going on," she says. That includes special events for holidays, themed rail excursions, music, car shows, and more.
Visitors coming to ride the train should add to that experience by arriving early to watch the crew prepare the trains for the day, which requires three hours and 20-30 volunteers.
FIND OUT MORE
For ride, event, and exhibit information, visit Railtown's website at railtown1897.org.
"It is really eye-opening," Kim says, "what it … takes to get a steam locomotive going for the day."
Wisconsin writer Leah Call has fond memories of riding trains in southwest Wisconsin and throughout Europe.