Taking the kids

Portola Railroad Museum -- Portola, California

(Originally published June 21, 1998)

By Glenn Gehlke

We love: The Portola Railroad Museum.

What you need to know first: Most children (and at least a few adults) dream of being engineers. There is something uniquely awe-inspiring about the sight of a thundering freight train being hauled by a string of colorful diesel locomotives. But few ever have the opportunity to sit inside the cab of one of these 150-ton steel beasts, let alone operate the controls.

That's not the case in Portola, where the Feather River Rail Society has created a museum that allows train enthusiasts of all ages to live out their dream and climb into the driver's seat of a real, working piece of railroad history.

What's to do: The museum is housed on 37 acres that once served as the diesel shops for the now-defunct Western Pacific railroad. Here you will find over 30 locomotives and 80 freight and passenger cars, most of them open for inspection.

Visitors are encouraged to climb aboard the cabooses, switch engines and mighty diesels that roamed the rails up to 50 years ago. Among the most popular of these is a Union Pacific "Centennial" locomotive, once the largest and most powerful engine ever built. Inside, you can see what the engineer saw. Lean out the cab for a better view, but don't look down if you are afraid of heights!

You will also find a steam-powered snow plow, a railroad crane, oil tankers and gondolas, rows of ancient boxcars and a 100-year-old steam locomotive.

The museum's charm lies in that most of its equipment works, and the staff hauls it out from time to time to demonstrate to the public. There are periodic clinics on diesel maintenance, summer weekend caboose rides and the ever-popular Railfan Photographer?s Day when the grounds fill with shutterbugs hoping to get a shot of the museum's 1950s F7 passenger engines in action.

The diesel shop sports history exhibits, a snack bar, a gift shop and a HO model railroad that will keep children enthralled for hours.

A locomotive rental program allows groups of up to four people the chance to power up one of the machines and take it for a spin on the museum's test track, affectionately named "Malfunction Junction." You'll pay anywhere from $95 to $195 per hour for the experience, but you get a handsome certificate at the end of your trip. Don't forget plenty of film.

Pitfalls: The biggest one is distance. From the Bay Area you can visit Portola in a day, but it is about a four-hour journey each way. And you'll want to allow at least a couple of hours to enjoy the museum once you're there. Plan to get an early start or spend the night.

While the museum offers all the caboose rides you can stand on summer weekends, you won't see much of the lush mountain splendor of the Feather River Canyon. Rides are limited to the all-too-short loop of test track that takes you from the diesel shop and back. Hardly much of an excursion.

To get there: Portola is located on Highway 70 about 60 miles north of Truckee. The museum is in town, on the south side of the highway. Signs point the way. If you get lost, look for the railroad yard.

And furthermore: The museum offers a Railfan Photographer's Day in mid-September. Special admission rates apply. Another event, the Feather River Railroad Days festival, takes place in mid-August.

A quick word about safety: Remember, this is a working museum. Use the same care as you would around any busy railroad. Don't let children play on the tracks and stay alert for moving equipment.

Where to go to eat: Portola's touristy nature makes it a great place to find offbeat eateries. Just cruise along Sierra Street and you'll find the likes of the Beanery (a sandwich shop), Canyon Cafe, Log Cabin (German cuisine) and Martoni's. During the warm summer months you can hang out with the locals at Portola Frosty, a hamburger stand.

Hours: The museum is open seven days a week during the summer months -- Memorial Day to Labor Day -- from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Caboose rides are available most weekends. During the rest of the year the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., weather permitting.

Costs: The museum requests donations of $2 per individual or $5 per family. Unlimited caboose rides are $2 per person. That's a bargain for a day's worth of entertainment.

Call: 530-832-4131, or check out the museum's unofficial Web site at http://www.oz.net/~samh/frrs.

Visit the Contra Costa Times online services on the World Wide Web: www.hotcoco.com

Distributed by the Contra Costa Times

Return to Trains in the News