Streetcars across the prairie

It was not so long ago when streetcars and interurbans ferried commuters between their jobs and the rapidly growing suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. But alas, "progress" and politics eventually claimed this noble form of transportation in favor of buses and single passenger vehicles. Today, the tracks and overhead catenary once used by these electric beasts are gone. The cars themselves have, for the most part, long since been reduced to scrap. But a few of them have survived in museums from coast to coast.

One such place is the Western Railway Museum at Rio Vista Junction in California. Located on Highway 12 between Rio Vista and Fairfield, the museum is home to dozens of preserved and restored streetcars and interurbans from the Bay Area and around the world. For the price of admission one can enjoy unlimited streetcar rides along the museum's in-house track, bring a picnic lunch, or take a gander at the many exhibits on display. The best part, particularly for history buffs and kids, is the ability to walk inside and look around the displays.

On Sept. 17, 1999, Glenn and Benji visited the museum for a fun-filled afternoon. Many of the images below were taken on that day.

Sacramento Northern unit No. 62 strikes a pose as it waits to take on passengers outside the museum's main entrance. This would be our ride for the approximately 3-mile trip from the museum grounds through the Solano County countryside. No. 62 is quite noisy and, to quote the immortal words of Steve Goodman, you can "feel the wheels rumblin' beneath the floor." Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

Benji appears to be enjoying his ride as a museum volunteer explains some of the history of the interurbans to a couple of other museum visitors. There were five of us on this trip, including the motorman, which is not entirely uncommon. One of the nice things about the Western Railway Museum is that it is largely undiscovered and usually not very crowded. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

Another trolley, No. 63, makes its way out of the museum and onto the mainline, passing the tail end of the museum's excursion train. In addition to running its fleet of streetcars on weekends, the Western Railway Museum also operates special excursion trains during the spring, Halloween, Christmas season and other occasions. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

It is late in the afternoon, near closing, and we are checking out the line of derelict equipment outside the museum's machine shop. The serenity and loneliness of the prairie is punctuated by a gentle summer breeze that rattles broken windows and creaks rusting doors. The occasional muffled call of a dairy cow drifts on the wind from a nearby farm. Suddenly you hear the whir of a traction motor and dull clank of steel wheels on jointed rails as No. 63 rounds a bend and rolls lazily by, half empty. The last ride of the day comes home. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

Same as #4 above, sans color. The way it ought to be. Is it 1999, or 1939? I'm really starting to feel lonely. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

No. 63 again, this time in vignette. I love Photoshop as it allows me to quickly experiment with photo composition. A simple crop or filter can dramatically change the mood of a photo. Are you feeling a bit nostalgic? Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

Not everything at the Western Railway Museum has been preserved or restored to its original luster. These rusting hulks will probably never see the rails again. Closer inspection revealed that they were being used to store wood, boxes and who knows what else. They do provide an interesting subject for a photographer, however. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

Looking west through the broken portal of one of the hulks seen in #7 above, the former Sacramento Northern mainline and sprawling pasture are caught in a natural vignette. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

A self-explanatory sign posted on a corrugated metal storage shed warns operators of the approaching switch that will take them off the museum's house track and on to the abandoned Sacramento Northern mainline. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

... Did we say abandoned mainline? Western Pacific F7A 917-D has taken up residence at Rio Vista Junction. Outside of the Oakland Terminal Railway and museums in Portola and Sacramento, this is one of the few places where one can still see a working relic of the former WP passenger fleet. It wasn't operating during our visit, however. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

WP 917-D again. Another time... another place... another Photoshop experiment. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

A farm provides the backdrop for Sacramento Northern 712, a GP7. Although it is not evident from these photos, the 712 was hooked on to the tail of the 917-D above. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

If there is one thing that you will find in abundance at the Western Railway Museum, it's rust. This is not meant to belittle the efforts of the museum volunteers, who have done a superb job with the equipment they have preserved. But there is far more equipment than there are volunteers or money to restore it, so much of it sits neglected and decaying in the hot California sun and winter rains. I personally enjoy the rusty stuff as it adds character and contributes to the ambiance of the museum visit. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

This Sacramento Northern box cab has seen better days, but is it too fargone to save? Locomotives like this one were once a common sight through the hills and suburbs of the growing East Bay. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

This was too good to resist. If you aren't a fan of the raunchy cartoon series "South Park" then you will have no clue who the little character is sitting atop the station sign. Actually, the sign predates the cartoon, which makes this all the funnier. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

We strolled along the mainline just south of South Park Junction where we encountered this whistle post and a cactus in robust health. If you need a size reference, Benji is about 4-foot-2. Needless to say, I went through a ton of film on this visit. Photo by Glenn Gehlke.

Here is one of our homemade postcards from a previous visit to the Western Railway Museum. It has been pointed out by a visitor to this site who is also a former museum volunteer that the museum is not located in Rio Vista as stated on the picture, but rather at Rio Vista Junction. In any case, enjoy the photo. Photo by Roni Gehlke.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Please send e-mail to Glenn or Roni Gehlke.

Proceed to Milepost 1147.2 on main track. Hold main track at last named point. Over.

This page was last updated Tuesday, February 29, 2000 at 23:20 hrs.