Overnight to history
Jamestown and Railtown
Neil Wiley

How about a mini-vacation? Here’s a nice short trip through history, especially if you like trains, old-time California, and the gold country. If you time your drive to miss heavy traffic, you can be there in a few hours.

The best thing about this trip is that everything is small. Jamestown is a little town of 3,433 people. You can’t get lost. You can walk Main Street and visit many little antique shops in less than an hour.

You can stay in a little hotel, motel, or bed and breakfast. I spent the night at the Jamestown Hotel on Main Street. Sure, it’s old, opened as a boarding house in 1858, but it was renovated in 2014. It has eight charming rooms with period antiques, serves great meals, and a friendly staff who treats you like an honored guest. Even your car is more comfortable, parked for free a few steps away next to the hotel.

My room was small, too, but very welcoming. It did hold something big, an old-fashioned featherbed that gave me the best night of sleep I’ve had in years. I was so impressed that when I got home, I ordered my own featherbed.
I enjoyed the small-town history and comfort, but my excuse for the trip was a photography tour of Railtown sponsored by the Campbell camera club—Friday Foto Fanatics. Although joining a tour wasn’t necessary, it was nice to share the day with other amateurs who enjoy taking pictures.

Compared to other California parks, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is small. In fact, early in the morning, it looked abandoned. All I saw was a low red-colored shed, a small parking lot, a few railroad cars, and one weird-looking giant dinosaur-like crane atop a railcar.

Things looked more promising when I walked to the roundhouse. Inside were several massive locomotives. The smallest one, old Number 3, was steaming up. It backed up to a big turntable where it was switched to another track to take on water. The engineer, a woman, welcomed me up the ladder to the engine cab. She opened and closed valves. Dials quivered. The deck vibrated. You could feel the power of steam.

After I got off, the fireman released explosive sprays of hot steam, then the train backed over to the main track, stopping at the water tower made famous by the TV production called Petticoat Junction. It was time to meet my fellow photographers for a ride behind Number 3.

The three-mile train ride through the foothills only took about forty minutes. The trip was long enough to enjoy the experience, but short enough to prevent boredom. After a picnic lunch, our group took a docent-led tour of the roundhouse, shops, and a large open area filled with old locomotives, passenger cars, cabooses, and assorted train parts. We also visited a museum that provided a timeline and pictures showing the many movies that featured trains in the Jamestown area.

Some people shopped at the little depot store. For a final photo opportunity, a few of us drove a few miles down-track to take pictures of the train as it passed a highway crossing.

Railtown is a bargain. It costs only $5 for admission, tours, and the train-ride. Children under five years old and pets are free. So is parking.

The park is open all year, but train rides are offered only on weekends from April through October, and selected weekends in November and December.

Although some members of our group made the trip in one day, it is far more pleasant to make it an overnight or weekend trip. This way, you can enjoy Jamestown and Railtown, or extend your trip to Sonora, Columbia, and other points of interest in the gold country.

It’s a small trip, but a nice mini-vacation.