The Polar Express at Railtown 1897– Just the Start of Your State Parks Adventure!

If you are heading up into the Sierra Foothills for a ride on The Polar Express at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park this holiday season, round out your family adventure with a visit to other nearby state parks.

Columbia State Historic Park is  just a short 7 mile drive from Railtown 1897 State Historic Park and is full of holiday spirit for the month of December. The historic Gold Rush town is decorated with cedar bows, and lots of old-fashioned cheer. Park shops are open daily from 10am to 5pm, and offer unique shopping options.  You can watch old-fashioned candy canes being made at Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen, shop at the leather store, candle store or book store, enjoy a sarsaparilla or fresh baked cookie, and make family memories on a stagecoach ride.  During Miner’s Christmas you can also enjoy fresh roasted chestnuts and old-fashioned children’s games on the street.  Free town tours are offered every Saturday and Sunday at 11am and Columbia has a wonderful little museum.

The California Store at Columbia State Historic Park with a rare dusting of snow

The California Store at Columbia State Historic Park with a rare dusting of snow

Columbia State Historic Park offers  unique accommodations  in two historic hotels.  The City and Fallon Hotels are located on Main Street,  inside the park and offer beautifully restored Victorian-era rooms. The park also has several cottages available for overnight stays– perfect for families. Call the City Hotel to book your room or cottage at (209) 532-1479. Show the hotel staff your Polar Express tickets and you will receive a 20% percent discount for your entire stay!

Guest room in the City Hotel at Columbia State Historic Park

Guest room in the City Hotel at Columbia State Historic Park

Another California State Park within driving distance of both Railtown 1897 and Columbia is Calaveras Big Trees State Park located in Arnold, Ca. In the Winter months the park often has snow, and is home to some of the largest trees in the world, making this winter wonderland a must-see. The spectacular Sequoia redwoods can be seen on an easy trail hike. Once snow arrives in the park, guided snowshoe tours are held on Saturdays at 1 pm. Snow shoes are available on a first come first serve basis. Calaveras Big Trees State Park also has cabins available for rent. Call the park for more information at (209) 795-2334.

Giant Sequoia at Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Giant Sequoia at Calaveras Big Trees State Park

And, of course, don’t forget to come back and visit Railtown 1897 State Historic Park during the daytime!  Tours of the historic roundhouse are available everyday.  This unique building is one of only two original, functioning steam-era roundhouses.  Climb into the cab of one of the sleeping giants, see a locomotive restoration in progress, visit the belt driven machine shop, and view the historic track car collection.  If you come between noon and 3PM on the Polar Express days, you can even watch the train crew firing up the famous Sierra No. 3 steam engine for the evening. The park also has a self-guided Jr. Ranger program.  Print the book ahead of time, or pick one up for free at the Depot Store (209) 984-3953.

Get an up-close view of a steam engine in the Roundhouse

Get an up-close view of a steam engine in the Roundhouse

Lots to see and do at these California State Parks in December.  Make this your new holiday tradition!
December Events in Columbia and Railtown 1897 State Historic Parks & Calaveras Big Trees State Park:

November 27-Dec 20th Candy Cane Making– Columbia SHP

December 2nd and 3rd  Lamplight Tours– Columbia SHP

December 12th Gold Rush Days– Columbia SHP

December 9th, 11th, 15th, and 16th The Victorian Feast at the City Hotel

December 10th, 11th, 17th, and 18th A Miners Christmas– Columbia SHP

December 11th Los Posadas Nativity Procession– Columbia SHP

December 11thEquestrian Parade- Columbia SHP

December Saturday Snowshoe Tours– Calaveras Big Trees SP

The Polar Express at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, December 2,3 4, 9,10,11,16,17,18.  Trains depart at 4:30, 6:00 and 7:30.  Tickets sell out quickly.


Railtown’s Motor Car Collection

Behind the scenes at any railroad is the mighty track car. A track car or speeder (also referred to as railway motor car, putt-putt, track-maintenance car, crew car, jigger, trolley, quad, trike, or inspection car, and also known as a draisine (although may be unpowered), is a motorized maintenance vehicle used on railroads around the world by work crews, track inspectors and emergency response crews to move quickly to and from work sites. The track car is slow in comparison to a train or automobile, it is called speeder because it is faster than a hand car or human-powered vehicle. Most cars have a top speed of about 35 MPH. Track cars are small in stature however these maintenance of way vehicles perform any number of tasks.  On modern railroads, this unique type of vehicle was replaced by ‘Hi-Rail’ (or HyRail) vehicles.  Hi-Rails are modern trucks specially fitted with flanged wheels.  The rail wheels can be raised and lowered as needed and they are legal for use on both the highway and rail.

At Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, track cars are most often seen as “fire patrol”, ferrying a crew of dedicated volunteers that keep a lookout for fires started by errant sparks from our steam engines and to promptly extinguish the flames.

Not all of the speeders in use today are historic to the site. We catalog here, a visual sampling of the speeders or motor cars at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. Some of the more restored speeders are the ones we use in daily operations while the older and more “crusty” looking ones are kept intact as collections pieces because of their documented relevance to the Sierra Railway during the earlier years of operations, before the diesel era.  In the preservation world, they are highly valued for their original, unrestored condition in their original context.  Under the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Preservation, this is known as preservation integrity, and we work hard educate visitors to appreciate them in this state.  Anyone can apply a fresh paint job, but it is rare to find original equipment, in original context, in un-restored condition.

Meet the Track Cars


MW 80 “Great White”

MW 80 is known among the engine crew as the “Great White”.  A Fairmont A-8 motorcar, it came to Railtown from the Sacramento Southern Railroad at the California State Railroad Museum. We use this car often during the operating season, and since it holds 8 people it is usually our offering for special events that include speeder rides.


SRy #102

Tucked away in the track auto house or “Speeder Shed” is speeder #102. It has been here since the early years. It is a Fairmont A5-A series car, this dates to the early 1930’s. These cars were called Large Extra Gang Cars and could carry up to 11 workers. No longer operable, its engine is a Continental Motor Company Red Seal, 4 cylinder engine. With parts missing, and a frozen engine, it may sit for quite some time as is.

speeder 104, small cropped

Sry #104

Sry #104 is one of the older Sierra motor cars. It is a Fairmont A5 series B-4 manufactured around 1937. The car operated with a 4 cylinder Waukesha engine, and has a capacity of 9 men. This car was once abandoned at Chinese Camp, and came to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in the early 1990’s.

SRy 106 in machine shop of the roundhouse.

SRy #106 in the machine shop of the roundhouse.

SRy #106 is a sister car to the 104, it is of the same make and manufactured in 1937. It operates today, but is reserved for very special occasions. It has a canvas top. It was acquired from the Sierra Northern Railroad in Oakdale in the early 1990’s and brought back to Railtown. Both the 104 and 106 ran on a Waukesha 4 cylinder engine. Today, both are kept under cover.

SRy #108 May 1978, Jamestown, CA

SRy #108 May 1978, Jamestown, CA

SRy 108

SRy #108-current condition.

SRY #108 is a newer Sierra addition. It was painted SRR 108 back in 1978. This Fairmont  A-5 was part of the original facility acquisition by California Department of Parks and Recreation in 1982. It was probably manufactured in the mid 1950’s. Though it is historic to the site, its age puts it right on the cusp of the advent of the diesel era and Railtown’s period of significance.  Today it is fully operable and is carfully cared for by our dedicated volunteers.

june 2012 097

SRy #110 with park volunteers.

SRy #110 is a Fairmont M19-AA two man light inspection car. It also is a later Sierra acquisition from the Western Pacific. It was manufactured in 1955 and is operable. This model is configured with the aluminum cab and painted “federal yellow”.

SRy 114

SRy #114

SRY #114 is also a newer addition to the Railtown roster. This motor car came from the Western Pacific originally.  It has had extensive rehabilitation work done on it in the past few years, including a new engine, paint job, and most recently a new tool box. 114 is currently running as our primary “fire patrol” speeder. This type of motor car is a Fairmont A-5.

SR MOTOR B full body shot

Sheffield #33

This is by far the oldest and most mysterious motor car at Railtown. It is a  Sheffield No. 33 model. It has a 2 stroke, 3 cylinder engine with a direct drive. This means you pushed the car to start and away you go. No idle, it runs when on. Records show that there were six of these running along the Sierra lines in 1922. This one is probably a remnant from this original fleet. It is stenciled “S.R. Motor B.” in white with dark red body.

W.P. S-2

Western Pacific S-2

Out on “speeder hill” at Railtown, you can find a number of speeder bodies and parts that are sometimes used for surplus. There are two relatively intact speeders on the grounds that were acquired by the Sierra from Western Pacific. Manufactured in about 1960, one of these cars (above) has a belt drive, and the other (below) has a transmission. We do not have record of Sierra numbering for these cars or if they ever ran on the Sierra line.

W.P. S-2 T

Western Pacific S-2T

Olivia dehaviland

Actress Olivia de-Haviland driving the #8 during the filming of “Dodge City” 1939.


SRy #8 Model T

One of our crown jewels found in the historic belt driven machine shop is SRy #8. This Ford model T is mounted on a Fairbanks-Morse frame and dates from around 1922. Though technically a track auto, this two-seat rolling stock was most likely used for light track inspection, or as a paymaster’s car. Today, the car still operates for special occasions, but does not go far from the Roundhouse.


#19 “Hetch Hetchy”, circa 1920 at the San Francisco Muni shops where it was built.

june 2012 128

#19 “Hetch Hetchy” with park volunteers.

The #19 “Hetch Hetchy” is an upscale track car. Its frame and motor were built in 1919 by the White Motor Company. The passenger body is by Thompson-Graf-Edler of San Francisco and interior appointments by Meister & Sons of Sacramento. The front rail trucks, wheels, brakes and self-contained turntable were added by the San Francisco Municipal Railway shop. The first “track bus” No. 19 could carry thirteen passengers, but was originally furnished as an ambulance car during Mountain Division construction and was used on the Hetch Hetchy dam project. Faster than most “speeders”, it originally could travel up to 5o MPH on level track, running in overdrive. This vehicle was refurbished to its original configuration and operating condition at Railtown 1897 State Historical Park in 1998-1999.

More on this unique track car: Hetch Hetchy Railcar #19

Historically, the track autos were used for track inspection, to transport VIPs to work sites, as the paymaster’s car,  or as ambulances for injured workers. The Sierra Railroad rented them out for private use in the early 1900’s.


Newspaper article taken from the Pott’s family scrapbook, 1907.

It is interesting to note how expensive it was to rent the track auto (with chauffeur) for a day, $15.00. That would be about $300.00 in today’s currency.

Visit Railtown 1897 State Historical Park to see the motor car collection in person. During special events you will have a rare opportunity to take a ride on the house tracks in one these unique cars that were once vital to the railroad.

Buster and Hobo- the Sierra Railway Dogs

One of the most well known celebrities of the late 19th century was a little dog known as Owney the Mail Dog. For nine years and 140,000 miles, Owney travelled the country by rail, always riding in the mail car and cared for by the mail clerks. His fame grew as he traveled across the country and later around the world. Owney is one of many dogs that have taken to rail travel over the years. In Italy, Lampo, rode the trains and his story was told in the book, “Lampo the Traveling Dog,” by Elvio Barlettani. Pepe Marvel, a young dog who regularly rode the   commuter train in Valparaiso, Chile, became an instant celebrity when pictures of him sleeping on a rail car were circulated on the internet.   Pepe was adept at avoiding the transit security and sneaking on board the trains. His traveling days ended when he was finally apprehended and later adopted by a Buenos Aires family.

Buster the Sierra Railway Dog- artist's rendition by Karen Kling

Buster the Sierra Railway Dog- artist’s rendition by Karen Kling

Tuolumne County and the Sierra Railway were not without their own  canine celebrities. Old Bob was a well-known local dog who regularly rode the stage coaches that traveled between Sonora and Milton.  Besides being a friend and companion to the stage-drivers, he was also an eyewitness to several hold-ups. When the coaches were replaced by the railroad, Old Bob was lonely and despondent. One day, he hopped aboard a train to Stockton for a little change of scenery. Not being a city dog, Bob quickly became disenchanted with what Stockton had to offer. Then he spied a hack driven by Frank Robinson and jumped aboard and made himself comfortable under the front seat. From that day on, he was cared for by the hackmen of the city.

Hobo, arrived in Jamestown about 1898 with Station Agent F.T. Boyd.  Hobo found railroading to his liking and made the train station his home base. He loved everyone, but was particularly fond of the rail workers. Hobo was a wanderer and never one to stay in a place for too long. When he grew bored with Jamestown, he hopped aboard a train and rode up the rails to make new friends and see new sights, returning to Jamestown when the mood struck. Hobo didn’t care much for warm temperatures and would make his way to Sugar Pine or Strawberry each year to spend the summer months, returning each fall to Jamestown. Hobo was a village dog and he was fed and cared for by the many members of the community who loved and admired him.

Bummer, was a very intelligent shepherd dog who lived above Sonora with rancher Joseph Barron. Besides his ranch hand duties, Bummer took it upon himself to fetch the daily paper. Rain or shine, Bummer made his way to the Black Oak Station each night and awaited the arrival of the mail train. After receiving the paper from the express messenger, he would hurry home to his master.

Bummer’s career almost ended when he chased a squirrel across the train tracks and derailed a small motor rail car. Badly injured, he crawled home and was nursed back to heath by Barron.

When you are riding the train at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, don’t forget to bring your own canine companion, and remember the history of the Sierra Railway dogs who came before.




Railtown 1897 Celebrates Railroading As Part of “National Train Day” on May 10!

Special Activities Include Steam-Powered Excursion Train Rides Behind Sierra No. 3 and Caboose No. 7, Historic Locomotives on Display, Historic Speeder Car Rides, Behind-the-Scenes Shop Tours and More!

Plus a Special Opening Reception for the Second Annual “In Train View” Photo Exhibition Featuring Rail-Related Works by the Sonora Photo Club!


JAMESTOWN, Calif. – California State Parks and Railtown 1897 State Historic Park (SHP) will proudly participate in the seventh annual National Train Day on Saturday, May 10, 2014.  Designed to celebrate American railroading, trains and train travel in cities all across the country, the event offers a variety of special activities at Railtown 1897 SHP that remains as the only intact steam-era roundhouse and shop facility in California, and one of just two in the U.S.

Celebrate National Train Day with a visit to historic Railtown 1897

Celebrate National Train Day with a visit to historic Railtown 1897

On National Train Day, visitors to Railtown 1897 SHP will enjoy steam-powered excursion train rides behind the “Movie Star Locomotive” Sierra No. 3 and aboard the famous Caboose No. 7.  To the delight of visitors, behind-the-scenes tours of the historic Roundhouse and Shops will also be available. A number of historic locomotives, equipment and vehicles will also be on special display, historic track “speeder” car rides will offered from noon to 3 p.m. and Amtrak goodie bags will be available while supplies last. Also, the historic the blacksmith forge will be open and operating — which was once used to produce hardware and some parts for locomotives and cars.

Railtown 1897 also invites park visitiors to a special kick-off reception for the second annual “In Train View” photo exhibition with works by the Sonora Photo Club. Visitors can join the photographers for an opening reception at 11 a.m.Once debuted, the exhibit will then be on display at Railtown 1897 SHP through Labor Day weekend. The rail-related photographs will also be offered for sale, with proceeds to benefit the Park. The photo exhibit is presented by the Sonora Photo Club, founded in 2005 in the California Gold Country town of Sonora, to promote the art of photography.

Photo by Dave Henry

Photo by Dave Henry

Except for steam-powered excursion train rides, all National Train Day activities are free to the public with paid Park admission.  Railtown 1897 SHP admission costs are as follows:  $5 for adults, $3 for youths ages 6-17 and free for children five and under.  All train ride tickets are available for advance purchase online as well as at the ticket window beginning at 10 a.m. the day of the train ride (based on availability). Capacity is limited for tickets for the steam-powered excursion train rides so visitors are encouraged to arrive early. Excursion train rides are available hourly from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and tickets aboard “Movie Train Consist” (enclosed suburban car and caboose)” are $15 for adults, $8 for youths ages 6-17 and kids five and under are free.   Train ride tickets are available online at and more information about Railtown 1897 SHP is by calling 209-984-3953.  More information about National Train Day is available by visiting

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park Announces First Female Engineer

Stephanie Tadlock, Engineer

Stephanie Tadlock, Engineer

Volunteer Stephanie Tadlock recently joined an exclusive club, she was promoted to the position of Steam Locomotive Engineer at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, the park’s first female to hold this position.

Engineer is the most advanced position on the train crew. Commonly confused with conductor (who directs the movement of the train), the engineer is charge of operating the locomotive. To qualify for the position, Stephanie put in years training in every position on the train crew, including brakeman, conductor, hostler and fireman, before qualifying as an engineer earlier this summer.  Railtown 1897 State Historic Park’s railroad operations are regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration.  The park currently employs 20 volunteer train crew members who adhere to the training, testing and operating requirements administered by the FRA, and operate steam and diesel excursion trains from April-December.

A resident of Merced, Stephanie grew up on a small farm outside of Madera, CA. In her day job, she works as a program analyst in Fresno, with a 2-hour round trip commute. One wouldn’t imagine that would lend much free time, but somehow between cross country motorcycle trips, helping her dad with antique shows, and spoiling her granddaughter, Stephanie has shown the drive, energy, and aptitude to become Railtown 1897’s first female engineer.

Stephanie began volunteering at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park  after her husband, Dave, transitioned from volunteer tour guide to volunteer train crew member in 2007. After realizing that Dave was at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park every weekend, Stephanie and her son began volunteering on the fire patrol crew during Dave’s second year in order to be able to see Dave once in a while! After spending a year learning and becoming immersed in the camaraderie of Railtown’s volunteer crew, in 2008 Stephanie volunteered for train crew and, as she says “that’s about the time I got bit by the steam bug.”

Though excited about her new position as engineer, Stephanie still enjoys hostling and firing. “There’s just something indescribable about bringing a cold mechanical hunk of metal to life with your own two hands,” she says.

Thanks, Stephanie, for your dedication to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, and here’s to many more years to come!

Railtown and Sonora– A Bit of Sierra Railway History

On New Year’s Day in 1897, a corporation was formed, named the Sierra Railway Company of California.  That same month, crews started work, and by November, the first train arrived in Jamestown.  It is interesting to note that it wasn’t until 1899 that the railroad made it to Sonora, due to opposition from stage companies and teamsters who feared the loss of business to the railroad, amongst others.  The line eventually made it to Tuolumne, and Angels Camp. 

The Sierra Railway Company was the shortline branch which supported many other railroads, bringing lumber and mining products out of the foothills, and goods in.  The Sierra Railway played a role in the building of the Hetch Hetchy, Tullock, Beardsley, Donnels, Melones and Don Pedro dams.  It hauled lumber products brought out of the Sierras by the Sugar Pine Railway, Westside Lumber Company, and others. 

At times during the history of the railroad, passengers could travel from stations in Angels Camp, Tuolumne, Sonora &  Jamestown, to Oakdale, and on to anywhere in America served by a rail line. 

 In 1938, the railroad ended regular passenger service— as with most passenger service, operational costs exceeded revenue.  However,  freight operations have been continuous throughout the railroad’s 115 year history.   Today,  modern diesel locomotives from the Sierra Northern Railway haul lumber and propane, and a different type of passenger service— excursions— run on 3 miles out of Jamestown, from the old shops and roundhouse of the railroad–preserved as Railtown 1897 State Historic Park.

Without passengers, the depots lost much of their use.  When the Sonora depot burnt down in 1946, it was rebuilt as a freight station only.  Today the Sonora Post Office sits at the same location.

1911 Sonora Lumber Company Plant in Sonora-- near where today's Grocery Outlet now stands.

1911 Sonora Lumber Company Plant in Sonora– near where today’s Grocery Outlet now stands.

Looking down onto the depot (seen in the approximate center of image) from the hill above today's JS West.  This photo was probably taken in the early 1940s.

Looking down onto the depot (seen in the approximate left-center of image) from the hill above today’s JS West. This photo was probably taken in the early 1940s.

This unique panorama, taken in 1912 shows the depot on the left, hospital in center (behind cars), and ice plant on the right

This unique panorama, taken in 1912 shows the depot on the left, hospital in center (behind rail cars), and ice plant on the right

Old Sonora Depot.  Wainscotting on the bottom is marble quarried from Columbia-- another product the railroad transported at one time.

Old Sonora Depot. The wainscotting on the bottom is marble quarried from Columbia– another product the railroad transported at one time.

The Sierra No. 3 and Santa are set to make an historic appearance in Sonora on December 1st!

Tuolumne County’s most famous movie star will make her first appearance in twenty years in Sonora on December 1st

Come see the Sierra No. 3 lit for the holidays, and with Santa on board!

Sonora, Calif. – On December 1st, for one night only, The Sonora and Twain Harte Rotary Clubs and the Kiwanis Club of Sonora in cooperation with Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, the Sierra Northern Railway, the California State Railroad Museum Foundation, J.S. West, and Sierra Pacific Industries will bring “movie star” Railtown’s Engine No. 3 to Sonora to say “Thank You!” to the community for helping “Keep Railtown Rolling” and to show off the recent restoration of this historic locomotive.

The event will be held in front of the Tuolumne General Hospital (Hospital and Washington Streets) from 5 to 8 pm.

For the first time since 1992, the Sierra No. 3 will make an appearance in Sonora, on Saturday December 1st from 5 until 8PM, at S. Washington Street and Hospital Road.  Visitors will have the opportunity to climb aboard and visit with Santa while the train is in Sonora.  Hot Chocolate, carolers and lots of holiday lights will be part of the free event. Parking is available in the Tuolumne General Parking lot.

Thank You Tuolumne County

The Sonora and Twain Harte Rotary Clubs have joined together for this unique event as a way to thank the people of Tuolumne County for stepping up to help ‘Keep Railtown Rolling’.  Members from the community donated thousands of dollars in 2012 to support the park which was threatened with closure this year for the third time in 10 years.  The last operating weekend for train rides at Railtown will be December 15th & 16th, and will be pulled by the Sierra No. 3, with Santa on Board!