Taking the kids

Railtown 1897 -- Jamestown, California

(Originally published June 6, 1999)

By Glenn Gehlke

We love: Traveling through the Sierra foothills in vintage steam locomotives at Railtown 1897.

What you need to know first: There are few places these days where a kid can see a steam train in action, let alone ride on one. Railtown 1897 offers both, with its collection of operative antiques that date to the turn of the 20th century.

Known affectionately as the "movie railroad" thanks to its extensive appearances in Hollywood films, Railtown itself is far from a movie relic; the 26-acre park is part of the eastern headquarters of the Sierra Railway, which still hauls freight traffic over its century-old route through the Gold Country.

What's to do: Driving into the Railtown visitor parking lot it is easy to forget you are at a museum. There are no ticket takers or turnstiles to corral you into the exhibits. Nonetheless, your first stop should be at the visitor center where information is available on all the museum's attractions and you can view a video on the railway's history.

From here you might want to start with a self-guided tour through the old roundhouse, turntable and machine shop where steam engines and rail cars are housed in various states of preservation. Young children are sometimes more fascinated by all the doors they can peek into than by the displays themselves.

Behind the roundhouse you can view a collection of props that have been used in some of the more than 200 TV series, commercials and movies filmed at the museum. Some of the better known titles include "Back to the Future III," "Unforgiven," "The Wild, Wild West" and "Petticoat Junction."

The highlight of any visit is a chance to ride aboard one of the vintage steam excursion trains that depart the visitor center once an hour during spring and summer weekends. As you stroll along the ancient wooden passenger platform with ticket in hand, you will see the Railtown volunteers put the steamer through its paces as it maneuvers onto a siding and couples up to the front of your train.

Docents wearing period costumes and conductor's attire do a fine job of pointing out the sites along your 40-minute journey through the mountains, over bridges and between rocky cliffs. Questions are highly encouraged.

Back at the station you can enjoy a homemade lunch at the museum's picnic facility or pick up some souvenirs from the gift shop.

Pittfalls: Not all children like steam trains, particularly the loud and sudden sounds they generate. If your child is sensitive to noise, let him or her get acquainted with one of the idle steamers in the roundhouse or watch the excursion train from a distance before hopping aboard.

To get there: The best route from the Bay Area is to take Highway 120 east from Manteca and stay on it until you reach Jamestown. In town, turn right on Fifth Street and follow the road until you reach the museum parking lot. Signs clearly mark the way.

And furthermore: Railtown offers a variety of programs and special deals throughout the year, including monthly ice cream socials and 2-hour Gold Discovery Trains during the summer. On Father's Day, all dads can ride the regular excursion train for free when accompanied by a child.

Where to go to eat: If the weather is nice it's hard to beat a picnic in the grove behind the roundhouse, where you can enjoy the sounds of distant steam whistles as you dine. For the more adventurous, Nearby downtown Jamestown is a touristy area that features several eateries themed around the area's Gold Rush heritage.

Hours: The park is open every day from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

Cost: Prices for the roundhouse tour are $2 for adults, $1 for children 6-12, free for kids 5 and younger. A 40-minute steam train ride is $6 for adults, $3 for children 6-12. Trains depart hourly from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Call: 209-984-3953 or 916-445-6645, or log in to the museum's Web site at http://www.csrmf.org/railtown.

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

Distributed by the Contra Costa Times

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