Saturday, April 15, 2017


Tripping back in time:
A visit to the Western Railway Museum

There was a time, not so very long ago, when rail travel was the preferred mode of getting from here to there.  Even in an area as remote as California’s northern Sacramento Valley, for pocket change, one could hop aboard an electrified interurban car in the morning, and by evening, arrive in San Francisco.  Post World War I, it was how you got around.

A few weeks back, the local paper reported that the folks at the Western Railway Museum sponsored Wildflower runs every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday in April.  I’d driven past the Museum countless times, stopping only once before perhaps thirty years ago, to wander among the derelict rolling stock and wonder about the bucolic nature of early 20th century travel.  This would be our chance.  We packed a picnic.

The Northern Electric Railway ran from Sacramento to Chico with side routes connecting many larger bergs in the valley.  Merging with a route that ran from Sacramento to Oakland, the Sacramento Northern Railroad was established.  Large self-propelled passenger conveyances used either overhead lines or third rails to supply electricity over the one hundred eighty-three-miles of right-of-way.  It was the longest and most extensive interurban rail system ever.  Rails tunneled through the pieces of the Coast Range and bridges spanned the Sacramento, the Feather and the Yuba River.  Trains would roll onto ferries to cross the Suisun Bay and then roll off on the far shore.  For a time, the Sacramento Northern even ran trains across the lower deck of the Bay Bridge.

Folks and freight sped along the valley floor bringing farm wives to shopping – much to the chagrin of Sears Roebuck and Co – and goods and produce to market.  A peach picked in a Colusa orchard on a Wednesday afternoon, could be enjoyed for breakfast on Thursday morning in “the City.”  Seemed like a pretty good system.

But weather events wiped out bridges and, in the 40s, the advent of the automobile provided greater travel independence.  The Sacramento Northern suspended passenger operations, substituting a bus line that would later be subsumed by Pacific Greyhound – then a subsidiary of Southern Pacific. 

Electric operations soon ended to be replaced by diesel motive power.  I can recall the big Sacramento Northern General Electric diesels lumbering up Chico’s Main Street dragging a half dozen or so freight cars to the Continental Nut Company’s almond processing plant at Lindo Channel; thence five miles further to the WWII era airbase that then and now serves as the town’s municipal airport and industrial hub.  Once or twice a month, some automobile driver, thinking he had the right-of-way discovered that several hundred tons of freight train: a) couldn’t stop on a dime and b) could render a righteous amount of damage to the family sedan.  For this reason, and many others, I’m sure, the Western Pacific, which by then owned the Sacramento Northern, halted operations.  Ultimately, the rails were pulled.

The volunteers at the Western Railway Museum have recreated the heyday period of interurban (latin: between cities) transit, finding and restoring many cars. 

In the 1920s, car number 1005 looked like this:

Today, and a quarter of a million dollars and countless hours later, she now operates:

With a beautifully refurbished interior:

The Wildflower Tour, although short, does tug at the nostalgia of those earlier days.  The route leaves the barn area a Rio Vista Junction:

Passes an old filling station that once served as a terminal for passengers heading to or from the delta:

Then rumbles along five miles of restored track adjacent to Suisun Bay.

A delightful journey of a century or more in less than an hour. 

Heading home, I recalled a scene from the Disney movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” where the villainous character voiced by Christopher Lloyd shares a vision that would kill LA’s Red Car Line of great strips of concrete where every five or ten miles you could fill up your car or get a hamburger or snack or sleep in a little room and then get back on the road and be on your way and I realized the Disney film, animated though it was, was far from fiction.

It is interesting how much history slips into the forgotten.


Notes:  The easiest way to get to the Western Railway Museum is to exit I-80 to State Route 12, west of Fairfield, heading east on 12 toward Rio Vista.  The museum is about half way between Fairfield and Rio Vista.

Also out this way, California’s Delta provides engaging roads, scenery and lost-in-yesterday towns like Isleton, Walnut Grove, Locke (an historic Chinese colony dating back to the Chinese exclusion act – more forgotten history), Ryde, Courtland and Clarksburg (visit the Bogle Winery).

For details on the Western Railway Museum, check out their website and plan a visit:


Resources:   “Sacramento Northern” (Interurbans Special # 26) by Ira Swett.  Pentrex Media Group, Pasadena CA, 1998.  Photos, timetables, history.

“Sacramento Northern Railway” (Images of Rail Series) by Paul C Trimble.  Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2005.  One of those cool little collections of historic photographs.  Arcadia publishes similar volumes – always fascinating to me – about cities, towns, and unique historic elements.  They are easily available in just about any place you visit and are about any place you visit.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. How very cool.

    Around Mt Rainier there are steam train tours one can take but you have to book ahead to go. We can never seem to plan that far ahead. Would be nice to do it spontaneously.

    1. We booked ahead, but it turned out, we needn't have. Plenty of room the day we went, although that may b=have been because the weather wasn't terrific.