JAMESTOWN — You may never have been to one of California’s most unique state parks — Railtown 1897 — but the odds are if you are 50 or over you’ve seen glimpses of it as well as the railroad tracks that run into the nearby Sierra foothill countryside.
If you watched “Petticoat Junction”, “Bonanza”, “Rawhide”, “Bonanza”, “Gunsmoke”, “Father Murphy”, “Lassie”, and “Little House on the Prairie” then you’ve seen snapshots of Railtown 1897. The same goes for movies such as “Back to the Future III”, “The Apple Dumpling Gang”, “High Noon”, The Gambler”, “Unforgiven”, “My Little Chickadee”, “The Great Race”, and the 1956 version of “The Lone Ranger.”
More than 200 movies, TV shows, and commercials have been filmed at Railtown 1897, just a short drive away in Jamestown. The park — closed for the past 14 months due to the pandemic — reopened this past weekend (Saturday May 1, and Sunday, May 2) just in time to mark its 50th year as a tourist attraction.
A year of celebratory activities is planned in compliance with all state, city, and county guidelines.
Known as a loyal, hard-working hauler of all types of freight and weighing a whopping 71 tons, the massive steam locomotive Baldwin No. 28 was rebuilt in the historic Roundhouse and Shops in Jamestown and returned to service in 2019. With enhanced sanitation measures in place, weekend excursion train ride departures are scheduled for 10:30 a.m., noon, 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. To accommodate physical distancing, trains will run at limited capacity. Two of the three train cars operating will be open-air cars and all will be cleaned in between each train ride. In addition, special attention will be focused on high-touch points such as grab irons and handrails, and face coverings are required for all Park staff and visitors.
Weekend excursion trains will continue until sometime this summer or fall.
Weekend excursion train ride guests will enjoy a memorable six-mile, 45-minute round trip ride along the rails of the famous “Movie Railroad,” including past the iconic water tank seen in “Petticoat Junction,” a popular TV show that aired in the 60s and early 70s. The Park will also be open for self-guided tours and exhibits will include interpretive signage. With the reduced capacity, visitors are encouraged to purchase excursion train ride tickets online in advance. If still available on the day of the train ride, tickets can be purchased at the Depot Store on a first-come, first-served basis.
To aid in social distancing, seating is sold in groups of 4 seats and is priced by the number of passengers in the group: 1 passenger costs $15, 2 passengers cost $30, 3 passengers cost $40 and 4 passengers cost $50. All paid train ride tickets include Park admission.
Before we go on, let’s get a few possible misconceptions out of the way. This is not the California Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento. The world renown museum with its painstakingly restored rolling stock and locomotives is just that — a museum.
And as railroad yards goes it is not the Union Pacific by any stretch of the imagination. I have been in parts of the UP marshaling yard in Roseville several times when it was owned by Southern Pacific. The roundhouse there was teeming and impressive. It is also a working railroad.
Railtown 1897 is a real railroad — the Sierra Railroad — that has been preserved. That includes rolling stock, locomotives, railroad buildings and equipment of which many date back to the line’s 1897 origins.
That is what makes it unique. Volunteers labor to keep the equipment in working order.
There is a self-guided walking tour. It covers the freight shed, carriage room, passenger platform, roundhouse and turntable, carpenter’s shop, blacksmith shop, movie exhibit, Fresno scrappers, belt driven machine, and the Hetch Hetchy car.
There are also plenty of tables on the picnic grounds if you opt to bring your own lunch.
The museum store offers a number of movies that were filmed at Railtown 1897 as well as enough train stuff from books and photos to Thomas the Train items to drive train fans of any age bonkers.
Sonora is just six minutes farther north up Highway 49 from Jamestown while Columbia State Historic Park — a preserved and operating “ghost town” from the Gold Rush era that is free to access — is just 20 miles away. That allows, if you wish, combining two destinations in one but then you’d be reducing excuses for a return trip to the western end of Tuolumne County.
While the railroad has been in place since 1897, it was not until May of 1971 that the site began operating tourist excursions and providing tours to the public. Then in the early 1980s, the historic site joined the California State Parks system.
Again, with the reduced capacity, visitors are encouraged to purchase excursion train ride tickets online in advance. For tickets and/or updated information about weekend excursion train rides and Railtown 1897 SHP in general, visitors are encouraged to visit www.railtown1897.org. For more information about the California State Railroad Museum Foundation, please visit www.californiarailroad.museum.