Railtown 1897 and historic Gold Rush-era Jamestown make for fine day-tour!


Huge turntable, constructed 1922, can direct locomotives or rolling stock into historic roundhouse for repairs.






Just 60 miles from Stockton is an operating steam railroad, complete with 100 year-old steam engines, the oldest continuously operated roundhouse in the West and movie history literally dripping from the rafters!  Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, on the edge of Jamestown, CA, is open for the holidays and makes a great place to let kids explore!  Toss in the Gold Rush history of Jamestown itself, and you have a full day’s worth of memories just waiting for you!

We recently paid Railtown’s modest admission, and wandered through the old station’s waiting room, noting many of the movies like “High Noon” that were shot using the Sierra Railroad’s vintage steam engines and rolling stock.  We were soon met by cheerful docent Bill Baum for the afternoon tour. 

The tour took us behind the scenes, where we could climb up into the cabs of several mammoth steam engines, marvel at the huge drive wheels and learn what was a “sand dome” (the portion of the locomotive loaded with sand, for sprinkling sand on the track for additional traction). 

Bill explained the Sierra Railroad: It started to the west in Oakdale in 1897, and ran as the main trunk line to connect the lumbering railroads of Pickering Lumber, West Side Lumber and the Hetch Hetchy Railroads to the major rail lines that came to Oakdale.  Ore, lumber and marble were its main freight (the marble quarry in Columbia is now part of Marble Quarry RV Park)

One of the earliest films shot here was “The Virginian”, filmed in 1929 in Jamestown and the Sonora areas.  Starring Gary Cooper (who had previously appeared in several silent films) who was cast as the Virginian; it was his first leading role in a western and his first talkie. Hundreds of other films and television shows have used the Sierra Railroad’s engines and rolling stock for such classics as “High Noon”, “My Little Chickadee”, “Petticoat Junction” and many more. 

The addition of stunning Sierra and foothills scenery (and proximity to Hollywood) have made the railroad the most famous “filmed railroad” in America; you can see film clips and movie posters of many of these epics in the Railtown visitor center.  The support of the movie industry helped spare their engines and rolling stock in World War II, where a lesser operation might have had those old locomotives melted down for recasting as tanks and armored vehicles!

Our roundhouse tour included Engine 3, with much film history and Engine 2, from Lima, OH, a shay engine built for hilly and sharp turn tracks in the lumber industry of the Sierra. Engine 28 stood stolidly nearby; sold many years ago to a customer but never picked up!

In the roundhouse you will also see a 1920’s Model T Ford and a 1920’s White truck, both creatively converted to rail work-party vehicles. One can walk through old Pullman passenger cars, see an old Caboose up-close, and admire the huge turntable that shunted locomotives and cars from tracks to roundhouse bays.

Part of the tour includes the delightful Railtown store, with railroad conductor’s and engineer’s hats, a variety of cute railroad t-shirts and micellanious goods and the most extensive set of railroad history books I have seen

The popular Polar Express holiday train rides operate now through Christmas, offering kids and adults an hour-long trip to the North Pole on an old train decorated for the holidays on Fridays through Sundays, December 5-7, 12-14 and 19-21, departing at 4, 6 and 8 PM.  Once the train reaches the “North Pole”, Santa will come on board to give each passenger a silver sleighbell!  Hot chocolate and cookies are also provided in route! Tickets for the Polar Express are $40 Coach and $55 First Class, with kids under 2 free (must be seated on adult’s lap).

Jamestown itself is a stalwart holdover from the Gold Rush.  Both a site of gold diggins itself, and a stopping off point for the Mother Lode mines, it grew to quite the city with numerous restaurants, saloons and hotels.  Many still survive, preserving their history dating to the 1860s. 

We lunched in the Willows Steakhouse and Seafood, once part of the old Hotel Willow, down the street the National Hotel and Hotel Jamestown still host guests.  Take the time to walk the five-block long Main Street for another step-back-in-time (just two blocks from Railtown)!

When to go: Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is open daily through March, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and April through October, from 9:30 a.m to 4:30 p.m., (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day). The Polar Express train operates though the next three weekends.

How to get there: Go east on State Hwy. 4 to Copperopolis, then southwest on O’Byrnes Ferry Road, then east on Highway 108 to Jamestown (it’s about an hour’s drive from Stockton).

What to take: Good walking shoes, your camera and binoculars!

Where to eat, where to stay: We had a fine lunch at the Willows Steakhouse and Sea Food; a number of other dining options can be found along Main Street, as well as several hotels/motels.

For more info: Regular admission: $5 adults; $3 youths ages 6-17; children ages 5 and under are free; if purchasing excursion train ride tickets, admission is included in the train ticket price.  See Railtown’s website for hours and special programs, www.Railtown1897.org; write Railtown 1897, PO Box 1250 / 18115 5th Avenue, Jamestown, CA 95327; or call (209) 984-3953.

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valley travel; to contact me, tviall@msn.com. 

Happy travels in the West!

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