Debbie Croft: Riding the rails back in time

July 14, 2013 

Sitting back in a passenger car listening to a train whistle blowing takes me back about 100 years. Life slows down as I unwind and enjoy the scenery while crossing the foothills just outside Jamestown.

From its earliest days, the locomotive has been a symbol of progress and industrial strength in America. Railway travel is an important part of America's history, especially during the expansion of the West.

A few historic trains still carry passengers in California today.

From now through Aug. 28, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park will run its diesel train on Wednesdays, as well as on weekends and holidays. Passengers may board for the noon ride or at 2 p.m. for the six-mile, 45-minute trip.

The "Movie Railroad" takes riders where famous movies and television shows were filmed. If you've watched "Santa Fe Trail," "Back to the Future," "Bonanza" or "Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr.," you've seen Railtown's historic trains.

From April through October, Railtown 1897 is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with hourly train departures from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

On Tuesday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon, shop tours take place. Visitors enjoy seeing how routine maintenance and specialized work goes on in the roundhouse and the Tri-Dam shop.

Parts for steam engines and many vintage diesel locomotives are constructed on site. This educational tour gives an insider's look at the railroad's fascinating history.

The Singing Rails Railroad Music Festival and Competition is now accepting registrations for its event, to be held at Railtown 1897 on Aug. 3. Vocal and, or instrumental music must fit the railroad theme.

Categories include vocal, guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and miscellaneous (washboard, harmonica, dulcimer, autoharp, etc.) The best vocally-generated train sound has a category all its own.

Each contestant may enter as many categories as he or she would like.

Many songs have been written over the past two centuries displaying the folklore, history and romance of train travel. Contestants may choose from traditional, modern or original music for their performances.

Tickets for excursion train rides are available online at or at the ticket window, beginning at 10 a.m. on excursion days. Call (209) 984-3953 or visit the website for details.

The Sugar Pine Railroad is just outside the south entrance to Yosemite on Highway 41. Passengers may board a logger steam train, a jenny railcar or ride the Moonlight Special.

Two massive, steam-powered Shay locomotives ride the rails among shady pine trees and bear clover. Each weighs more than 55 tons, and requires close to 1,000 gallons of fuel oil and at least 3,000 gallons of water to operate.

The Moonlight Special runs every Wednesday and Saturday night during the summer. A New York steak barbecue, old-fashioned ballads and toe-tapping music around the campfire add charm to these delightful evenings. Occasionally the Golden Chain Theatre of Oakhurst presents a melodrama.

Reservations are encouraged, and gold-panning, group events and field trips are available. Visit or call (559) 683-7273 for schedules and details.

All aboard!

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at

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