Railtown 1897 is more interesting than its name might imply. What is it? It's a state park that's home to an intact and still-functioning steam locomotive repair and maintenance facility. Parts of it date back to - you guessed it - 1897. And some of its locomotives are film stars with more credits than Willl Smith or Scarlett Johansson.
It's located in Gold Country, in the Sierra Foothills. It's close to Sonora in the little gold rush town of Jamestown, which also dates from the late 1890s. You could visit it on your way to Yosemite from San Francisco by taking a short detour from CA Hwy 120.
Reasons to Visit Railtown 1897
Railtown includes a railroad roundhouse with an operating turntable, a functional blacksmith shop and a belt-driven machine shop.
All of that may be a little yawn-provoking unless you're a train buff, but this part may perk your interest. Railtown's Locomotive No. 3 is a movie star. Since its first appearance in the 1919 silent film serial The Red Glove, the historic locomotives and railroad cars here have appeared in more than 200 films, more than even a prolific film star like John Wayne. Their credits include The Virginian, the first sound motion picture filmed outside a studio, western classic High Noon and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. It even featured in the television show Petticoat Junction.
Most online reviewers give Railtown a high rating. You can read their reviews on Yelp. Keeping in mind that most of Railtown's visitors go there because they love antique trains and history, many people say the guided tour is worth the time and improves your experience.
What You Can Do at Railtown 1897
Off season, Railtown is quiet, but on weekends from April to October, you can take a ride on the old steam powered trains. It's a 45-minute trip, just enough to make it fun, but not so long that anyone gets bored. Kids especially seem to love this old-fashioned means of transportation.
Roundhouse tours are given daily for a small extra fee. What is a roundhouse, you may be wondering. It's a round building used for servicing and storing locomotives. A roundhouse usually surrounds a turntable. Before locomotives could run in both directions, the turntable was used to turn them around when they reached the end of the line. It also allows engineers to position the locomotives to go into bays located in the roundhouse. Few of these buildings survive today. In fact, the Railtown roundhouse is one of the few surviving roundhouses in the United States.
If you're a serious train geek, you can try their crew for a day program. As an honorary crew member, you can participate in hostling the locomotive. That's hostling with an "L," not hosting and it means you will handle the locomotive between runs. You will take it to the engine house and deliver it to the road crew, lighting the locomotive with a burning rag, lubricating and fueling it - and taking on water at the historic water tank.
What You Need to Know About Railtown 1897
Railtown is open daily except Thanksgiving1, December 25 and January 1. Hours vary by season. Train rides are given on weekends from April through October. Admission is free, but you will have to pay to take their tours or go on a train ride.
Allow an hour for a walk around. It will take longer if you want to ride the train or take a tour.
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
5th Avenue and Reservoir Road
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park website
Railtown is 3 miles south of Sonora just off California Hwy 49. Take any exit into town and you'll find plenty of signs guiding you there.
1 Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.