Taking the kids

Western Railway Museum -- Rio Vista, California

(Originally published September 14, 1997)

By Glenn Gehlke

We love: Western Railway Museum

What you need to know first: Although a handful of rusting locomotives and freight cars are scattered about its tracks, the focus of this working museum is on electric interurban streetcars. Similar to San Francisco's Municipal Railway, interurbans were once a common sight in America's largest cities, ferrying commuters between work and homes in the new suburbs. If it's steam whistles, chug-chugging and lots of shiny black engines your children want to see, then you've come to the wrong place. But if it's rails and rides you're after, you've just found nirvana.

There is a car barn loaded with interurbans for visitors to explore, many sporting advertising placards for products that were popular in their day. You can stroll the grounds, have lunch in the museum's large picnic area, and stop by the bookstore that boasts an extensive collection of railroad-related books, videos, toys, clothing and collectibles.

What's to do: All activity at the museum revolves around its fleet of nearly 50 vintage streetcars and interurban electric trains, most of which have been restored and take turns running excursions along more than six miles of track. With the price of admission, visitors are allowed unlimited rides on these historic cars, which meander through the picturesque Solano County countryside. The nostalgic trip is similar to those that took place 40 years ago between Oakland and the once-rural suburbs of Contra Costa County.

Pitfalls: If you prefer the structure of a museum that keeps its polished displays behind red felt-lined barricades, each labeled meticulously with brass plaques and presided over by uniformed docents, then you may feel lost at times touring the Western Railway Museum.

Pamphlets are available to help walk you through the exhibits, as are volunteers who will answer most of your questions, but for the most part you're on your own. And let's face it, most kids are less interested in an exhibit's historical nature than in its value as a play object.

Kid-friendly: If you have a child who loves trains then you will both love the freedom the museum allows to climb on the cars and check out the surroundings. However, train yards can be dangerous places to play, particularly in an environment that prides itself on equipment operation. There are tracks to trip over, steps to stumble down and high-voltage wires that can zap curious climbers left unsupervised.

The museum is anything but child proof, so if the idea of forcing a rambunctious preschooler to respect the space of a streetcar causes you to lose sleep then you'll likely want to pass on this place for a couple more years.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, except between July 4 and Labor Day when the museum is open Wednesday through Sunday.

Other costs: Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children 3-12, $5 for seniors 65 and older. There is a special family rate of $18.

To get there: The museum is located at Rio Vista Junction on Highway 12 in Solano County. You'll find it on the south side of the highway, midway between Rio Vista and Fairfield.

And furthermore: The museum is essentially a work in progress. The displays are constantly changing, and the track along which the excursion rides run is being extended. Memberships are available, which in addition to providing discounts on admission also help the museum with its expansion efforts. A 12,000-square-foot visitor center is presently being built that will house the museum's bookstore, archives and additional displays.

Call: 1-707-374-2978, or visit the museum's Web site at http://www.wrm.org.

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