Starstruck by Railtown 1897's Hollywood Darling

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Steam-powered train excursion from Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. Photo by Kevin Zimmerman

Steam-powered train - Sierra No. 3. 

See a movie star when you visit Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in charming Jamestown.

Starring in Hollywood hits since 1919, the Sierra No. 3 locomotive has appeared in The Virginian with Gary Cooper in 1929, Rawhide with Clint Eastwood in 1960 and Back to the Future III in 1990. It also played a role in TV hits like Lassie and Little House on the Prairie.

In fact, if Hollywood had not discovered the Sierra Railway, Railtown and its steam engines might not have survived much beyond 1955 when diesel began powering trains.

Don’t leave without taking a 45-minute ride aboard a train, which run weekends April through September, and visiting the historic lumber shed, which has a cinematic timeline exhibit of the movies filmed here. You can even climb on the caboose platform that appeared in Back to the Future III. 

For more information:
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
(209) 984-3953
18115 5th Avenue, Jamestown, CA 95327
railtown1897.org

Q&A with Railtown Museum Curator, Lisa DeLacy

Q: Tell me about the highlights of Railtown. What are three things visitors must do or see?

A: Highlights of Railtown include the experience of a rare historic setting that encompasses one of the nation’s last historic, wooden-structured, steam roundhouses with five historic pieces of rolling stock built exclusively for Sierra Railway housed within it.

Railtown is a step back in time. Visitors must see our historic steam locomotive operate and take an excursion through the rolling prairie that harkens back to the old West. The must have a tour of the roundhouse with one of our friendly tour guides, and they should wander the grounds and take in the authenticity of the many historic structures here.

Q: What sorts of stories or things will people learn on their ride aboard the historic steam locomotive? How many rides are offered per day April – October?

A: Aboard the excursion train, people will learn about the places along the line where scenes were shot for countless movie productions, some history of gold mining in the region and how the steam locomotive and its crew operate. We operate steam trains on Saturdays and diesel trains on Sundays, April through October – four trains per day at 10:30 a.m., 12 p.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3 p.m. In July and August on Wednesdays we run diesel trains at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Catch the Railtown Wildflower Excursion Trains in April at Railtown. Courtesy photo

Catch the Railtown Wildflower Excursion Trains in April at Railtown. 

Q: Tell me about the movie-prop area. What can visitors see?

A: The historic lumber shed contains a cinematic timeline exhibit that includes some of the props used in the many film productions that have taken place here. The timeline shows the many productions, when they happened, what engine was used and some historic context with what was happening with the railroad as well. Folks can climb up on the caboose platform used to film Back to the Future III and stand in front of the scenic used in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. for a fun photo opp!

Q: The junior ranger program sounds like a great way to get kids involved. What types of things will kids do as participants in the program?

A: Kids get to learn how railroad track is laid, what kind of tools were used and learn about railroading in the old days. Each day the program is a little different, but it is a great way for kids to ask questions and get answers.

Q: Tell me about “Movie Star Locomotive” Sierra No. 3. Why is it so famous? What movies has it appeared in? Is it still in operation?

A: Sierra No. 3™ was built in 1891. It is famous for two reasons. It is one of only 14 surviving steam engines built by Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works, so this fact makes it famous among rail fans. It is most famous because it has appeared in so many film and TV productions for so long that it has helped define what an old west steam engine looks like. It began making movies in 1919 and continues to do so today. Here are just a few of the more known film titles it has appeared in:

  • 1929 The Virginian with Gary Cooper
  • 1939 Dodge City with Errol Glynn and Olivia deHavilland
  • 1940 My Little Chickadee with Mae West and W.C. Fields, Santa Fe Trail with Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan, Go West with the Marx Brothers
  • 1960 Rawhide (TV) with Clint Eastwood

And the list goes on with all those classic westerns that appeared on TV including, Lassie, Petticoat Junction, The Big Valley, The Wild Wild West, Gunsmoke and Little House on the Prairie. And we have to mention Back to the Future III, of course!

Q: What do you want visitors to take away from their experience at Railtown?

A: We want our visitors to take some time to recreate and experience the rich cultural treasure that is here. We want families to unplug and experience the past in an authentic setting together. We want them to feel connected to the rich history that was made here.

Railtown Singing Rods to Rails. Courtesy photo

Railtown Singing Rods to Rails. 

Q: When was the roundhouse built and why? Was it built to serve the Gold Rush?

A: The roundhouse was built originally in 1898, but it burned and was rebuilt in 1910. What you see today when you stand at the turntable is a range of building dates. The original engine house built in 1898 at the east end and the four stalls from 1910.

At the west end you see an additional two stalls and a gas powered vehicle shop built in 1922. No, the roundhouse was not built to serve the Gold Rush, although, the owners of the railroad did have interests in the second Gold Rush of the area in the 1890s when new mining technology made gold mining profitable again. The roundhouse was built to house and maintain the steam locomotives, which were needed to harvest and deliver raw materials (primarily lumber) from this region to markets beyond.

The roundhouse at Railtown 1897

The roundhouse at Railtown 1897

Q: What is the history of Railtown?

A: Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is the site of the Sierra Railway (after 1932 it was the Sierra Railroad). It is what is known as a short-line railroad, which means it was built to move goods and passengers from the rural areas to urban markets.

The railroad had to adapt to changes in the market in order to survive, including working on dam projects like Hetch Hetchy. The key piece to the history of this site is the movie production work. This is the reason this site was not torn down and the steam engines scrapped when diesel came on the line in 1955. Movie work was productive enough for the owners of the Sierra to keep the Jamestown shops and engines intact and operating, even though they had moved their offices to Sonora, and then to Oakdale.

The shops are largely intact, and a high degree of integrity exists at this site. The shops are equipped with the historic tools and rolling stock that existed here beginning in 1897. The site became a California State Park in 1982.

Q: Is there a restaurant on location or do visitors eat in Jamestown?

A: Visitors are encouraged to pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it in our lovely picnic area under a towering canopy of blue oaks, but Jamestown offers some great restaurants within walking distance.

Q: Any tidbit of history that is fun for people to know?

A: The locomotive roundhouse at Jamestown is the only remaining steam roundhouse in the country that has been in continuous operation since 1898.

For more information:
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
(209) 984-3953
18115 5th Avenue, Jamestown, CA 95327
railtown1897.org