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”, “Gunsmoke”, “Father Murphy”, “Lassie”, and “The Little House on the Prairie” then you’ve seen snapshots of Railtown 1987. 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.
This time of year the excursion trains don’t run — you have to go a Saturday or Sunday from April to October for hourly train rides from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. or wait for special train rides in November and December. That said, if you are a railroad fan, history buff or just want a pleasant excuse to visit the Gold Country to enjoy the scenery, take a short stroll, and afterwards dine in Jamestown at the 1859 Historic National Hotel (worth the trip on its own) or at other restaurants, visiting Railtown 1897 is the foundation for a low-key relaxing day.
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.
This time of year is low-key with your best bet being the 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 Historical 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.