Thursday, November 24, 2011


The trains at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park run on weekends from April through October, the steam train on Saturdays and the diesel train on Sundays. I squeaked in on the last Saturday in October - Halloween! - for a ride on the steam train with it's "skeleton crew." As it turns out, Santa's Starlight Express and the Santa Day Trains run on Thanksgiving weekend and the weekend before Christmas, so there's still a chance to spend a thoroughly enjoyable day at this State Park before they close for the winter.

It was a perfect day for the 90 mile drive to Jamestown, combining the clear blue skies of summer with autumn color and a hint of crispness in the air. My dog Roxy and her "aunties" Patty and Jeannie piled into my car. Driving through the quaint towns of Jackson, San Andreas, and Angels Camp, I had to fight the urge to stop and explore the many historic markers along the way. I vowed to rent a cabin in Calaveras County sometime in the future and spend a week visiting them all!

Once in Jamestown we stopped at a local mini-market to pick up a picnic lunch. In the spirit of the hallowed holiday, a buxom, matronly clerk with pink and yellow hair (and the proverbial "heart of gold") offered to apply colored hairspray to all who entered the store. I opted for a couple of blue streaks down the back of my long dark brown hair while Jeannie went for a few swatches of pink, filling the market with hairspray fumes and choking the other customers.

Lunch acquired, we drove the half mile to the park. Before eating, we purchased tickets for the 2:00pm train ride, as sometimes they sell out in advance. Tickets range in price from $6.00 - $13.00 depending on age and where you sit. The train runs on the hour with the last ride at 3:00pm. Ditto for the walking tour of the roundhouse.

The Sierra Railway Company was formed in 1897 by Thomas Bullock who had logging and mining interests in the area. Bullock owned three locomotives and several miles of track due to his failed railway in Arizona. With investment assistance from William Crocker and Crocker's brother-in-law Prince Andre Poniatowski, they developed this short-line railroad to Oakdale where they hooked up with the Southern Pacific Railroad to serve the growing Sacramento and San Francisco areas.

In 2010 the Sierra 3 Loco-motive was fully restored
(see video)
and now whistled and rumbled in the background during our picnic. Our lunch was enhanced by the Oakdale Model A Club exhibiting their cars on this particular day. Roxy behaved, promising not to make the white walls yellow.

An impressive variety of loco-motives, passenger and freight cars are strewn about the park, awaiting restoration. Train parts and tools are everywhere. This is an active, working facility. While explor-ing the park, I had to frequently walk on or cross a railroad track. I noticed that even when that track was nonfuctioning or went nowhere, the fact that I could hear the train and sometimes feel it's rumble, made me want to nervously jump off the tracks. A lifetime of horror stories about getting stuck on railroad tracks (Mighty Mouse anyone?) are apparently deeply ingrained.

Since 1919 the Sierra Railroad has starred in more than 200 movies, TV shows and commercials. Its freight hauling days were ending, but the trains were still being used by Hollywood.
With everything from miles of tracks, a wealth of old trains and a rugged "old west" landscape, the motion picture industry helped keep the railway afloat during tough economic times and prevented the locomotives and cars from becoming wartime scrap metal.

Movie memorabilia is scattered about. There are old movie posters, John Wayne's handcar, and a screen backdrop for your own photo-op (or your dog's). I found myself wishing for some rope so that I could take a picture of myself tied up on the tracks.

The water tower from Petticoat Junction's Shady Rest Hotel sits at the back of the park amidst as lot of "train stuff." Clint Eastwood is one of this steam locomotive’s co-stars and supporters. Says Eastwood, “The Sierra No. 3 is like a treasured old friend. Early in my career, I rode Sierra No. 3 on the television series Rawhide. Over twenty years later, I returned to use No. 3 for my own productions Pale Rider and Unforgiven. Even in the business of ‘make believe,’ you can’t beat the real thing." A complete list of film and television appearances are at the end of the blog.

We boarded the Sierra 3 Movie Train for the 2:00pm ride. This being Halloween weekend we had a "skeleton crew." The train was decorated with orange and black spiders, skeletons and the like. Many children were in costume. A few Steam Punk folks were on board. Roxy was allowed to ride as well, although I would be remiss if I didn't say that the "official" policy is that only services dogs are allowed on the train.

The forty-five minute ride crosses the highway, rolls through the backyards of foothill homes as well as as rugged western landscapes, and ends at a quarry. Here the train stops while the engine is moved to the other end of the train for the return trip. There's a stop at the water tower to "refuel," and then back to the station where we embarked on our guided tour through the roundhouse.

The round house is of course, where the locomotives rest at night and where restoration and repair work occur. Grease, large holes in the ground for working on the train's undersides, metal shavings, machinery and tools of all kinds fill the building, including items that are no longer used but part of the history of the trains and how things were "in the old days." Our tour guide was both personable and knowledgable, allowing us to roam fairly freely while cautioning us when necessary. He was able to flag all of the questions from the more mechanical types (which doesn't include me.) I'm probably in the bottom 10 percent when it comes to mechanical aptitude, but I've always loved taking pictures of mechanical things. Their mere shape and power alone hold a fascination for me.

A few of the walls had some markings from years gone by, noting the weather conditions on a given day. I love finding writings in old buildings from former inhabitants. It somehow makes history come alive.

The day's finale - and for me the most exciting part - was watching Sierra 3 brought back to the roundhouse. As she whistled and puffed back to her stable, I was allowed to stand within a few feet of the track as she passed by, a genuine thrill! The turntable was built in 1922, and she was given a full 360 degree spin for our viewing pleasure. Then, slowly, grandly and with great dignity, Sierra 3 was put to bed as the doors were closed behind her. Wow! Suddenly, I "got" the fascination with trains that so many people have.

There were only moments left now before the park closed, not nearly enough time to see the film, but perhaps enough time to gather a bit more information and hurriedly talk with some of the volunteers. I spoke with several folks who said that they weren't supposed to discuss politics (ie the park closure) but to a person no one at Railtown 1897 believes it's going to close. They are associated with the Sacramento Railroad Museum and have 150 volunteers donating over 29,000 hours annually. They all plan on the park taking it's winter break as per usual, and reopening - as per usual - in April.

I hope so. The trains were certainly full for every ride and the roundhouse tours were well attended. This park certainly does not suffer from lack of love. They are running the trains Thanksgiving weekend and the weekend before Christmas. It's a great place for a family outing, and then you can come home and watch Back to the Future III or one of the many other films shot here and say, "I was there!"

Hope to see you at the parks.


PS - Remember to check the list of movies and TV shows below!


1919 The Red Glove
1929 The Virginian
1930 The Texan
1932 The Conquerors
1934 The Lone Cowboy
1935 County Chairman
1936 Conflict
1937 North of the Rio Grande
1937 The Toast of New York
1938 In Old Chicago
1939 Dodge City
1940 My Little Chickadee
1940 Young Tom Edison
1940 When the Daltons Rode
1940 Return of Jessie James
1940 Wyoming
1940 Santa Fe Trail
1940 Go West
1946 Duel of the Sun
1949 Whispering Smith
1950 Wyoming Mail
1951 Sierra Passage
1951 The Great Missouri Raid
1951 The Texas Rangers
1951 Drums in the Deep South
1951 The Cimarron Kid
1952 High Noon
1953 Kansas Pacific
1953 The Moonlighter
1954 Apache
1955 Rage at Dawn
1955 Return of Jack Slade
1955 Texas Lady
1957 The Big Land
1958 Terror in Texas Town
1958 Man of the West
1959 Face of a Fugitive
1964 The Outrage
1965 The Great Race
1966 The Rare Breed
1968 The Perils of Pauline
1968 Finian’s Rainbow
1969 A Man Called Gannon
1969 The Great Man’s Whiskers
1971 Joe Hill
1971 Nichols
1972 Great Northfield Minnesota Raid
1972 No Place to Run
1972 Let Me Tell You a Song
1973 Slither
1973 Oklahoma Crude
1976 Bound for Glory
1976 Nickelodeon
1977 The World’s Greatest Lover
1978 The Last of His Tribe
1978 Last Ride of the Dalton Gang
1978 Fast Charlie, the Moonbeam Rider
1979 The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again
1980 The Long Riders
1980 The Gambler
1980 Sawyer and Finn
1982 Shadow Riders
1983 Gambler II
1984 Chattanooga Choo Choo
1987 Blood Red
1990 Back to the Future III
1992 Unforgiven
1994 Bad Birls
1995 Colors of a Brisk and Leaping Day
2001 Redemption of the Ghost


1956 The Lone Ranger
1957 Tales of Wells Fargo
1957 Casey Jones
1960 Overland Trails
1960 Rawhide
1961-2 Lassie
1962 The Raiders
1965-6 Death Valley Days
1963-5 Petticoat Junction
1964-6 The Big Valley
1964 The Wild Wild West
1965-6 The Legend of Jesse James
1965 The F. B. I.
1965 Scalplock
1967 Cimarron Strip


  1. I love revisiting the parks with you. Great piece!

  2. What a fascinating place! The photos were great and between them and the write up I felt like I was there too. Brought back lots of memories of old TV shows and movies I have seen from the lists too.

  3. I quite enjoyed your write-up. Unless you object, I've shared it on my state parks web magazine,

  4. My family has met there at the park, to visit the trains and have a picnic in the big picnic area. It's such a fun destination, especially for the theme rides.

    Loving your blog,


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.