Rail Fair at Sacramento Museum

<i> Lasley is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to the Travel Section. </i>

One million pounds of steel thunders by, the whistle blowing with moans that shatter the stillness of the mountains.

It’s the Challenger, No. 3985, a dinosaur from the age of steam come to life to remind us that the train helped make America what it is today. This giant Union Pacific locomotive, the largest of its breed and the equivalent of two of today’s most powerful diesel engines, will be one of the attractions at Railfair ’91 this spring in Sacramento.

For all who have longed for the lonesome sound of a train whistle in the night or imagined traveling in the age of steam, Railfair ’91, May 3-12 at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, will be a dream realized. In celebration of the museum’s 10th anniversary, the fair will be the largest gathering of steam trains in the world in more than four decades.


Even without the fair, the California State Railroad Museum is one of the finest rail museums in the world and is worth a visit any time of year.

On display are restored, wood-burning steam locomotives, such as the Leland Stanford that pulled trains across the Sierra Nevada in the late 19th Century. Visitors can walk through a 1929 Pullman passenger car with sound effects so realistic it seems as if it’s moving. A mail-sorting car provides a glimpse into a time when postal employees sorted the mail on the train for delivery to towns along the rails. There are walk-through exhibits of early engines, stations and luxurious private rail cars.

And during Railfair ’91, there will be much more. The focus of activity will be the museum, but the event will encompass all of Old Sacramento, the historical restoration of 19th-Century Sacramento. Steam locomotives will be operating on the tracks by the Sacramento River, just as they did a century ago when Sacramento was the major inland port connecting San Francisco Bay with inland California.

Visitors can walk on cobblestone streets past buildings where railroad magnate Leland Stanford worked. It’s possible to visit the spot where the Pony Express terminated its run from the East, and to enter a 19th-Century schoolhouse where a school teacher gives lessons from McGuffey’s Reader.

More than 40 full-size steam engines are scheduled to be on display at the Railroad Museum during Railfair. There will be classic engines, such as the 1875 “Inyo,” a wood-burner that served the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, and the 1891 Sierra Railway No. 3, which has appeared in more films than any other locomotive, from Marx Brothers features to “Back to the Future II.”

There also will be working replicas of two of the earliest locomotives: John Bull, built in 1831, and Tom Thumb, built in 1829. Locomotives from Canada, Mexico, Great Britain and France are also scheduled to appear.

It will be possible to ride to Railfair on three steam trains, one of which will travel from Southern California.

From the north, Southern Pacific’s steam locomotive No. 4449, which pulled the Freedom Train from coast to coast in honor of America’s Bicentennial, will lead an excursion train from Portland, Ore., to Sacramento, where it will then be on display.

From the northeast, one train with two locomotives, Union Pacific’s No. 844 and No. 3985, will carry passengers from Portola, Calif., in the Sierra Nevada, to Sacramento. It will be the first steam train to traverse California’s Feather River Canyon in 20 years.

Number 844 was the last steam locomotive that Union Pacific built before converting to diesel in the 1960s and it is the only one in the country that has never been retired. Based in Cheyenne, Wyo., it has been used for excursions since 1960. Union Pacific’s No. 3985 is the largest operating steam locomotive in North America.

From Union Station in Los Angeles, the San Bernardino Railroad Historical Society will run a 450-ton, restored 1927 steam locomotive--the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe No. 3751--to Sacramento, and the public will be able to ride along. The restored locomotive will pull 17 passenger cars that are accurate re-creations of the train as it was in the mid-1940s.

Ticket sales will help defray the cost of the restoration of the train, which took the historical society six years to complete. The train has been dubbed the California Limited in honor of Santa Fe’s first train that began service in Northern California. This trip will be Santa Fe’s first steam excursion since 1955.

According to society president Scott Brittin, the train will be a work of rolling history.

“We will have an authentic dining car with service and cuisine from the 1940s,” Brittin said. “We are finding chefs with real dining-car experience, and there will even be a working post office aboard as there was then. Some of us have always had the feeling that steam rail travel in the classic era was really the only civilized way to travel. It sure beats the freeway.”


Training to Railfair

Getting tickets: From Portland, Ore., the Southern Pacific No. 4449 “Daylight” will depart April 27; phone: Mary Weaver, (503) 641-4514; $288, one way.

From Portola, Calif., Union Pacific No. 844 and Union Pacific No. 3985 “Challenger” departs May 14 across the Sierra to Sacramento. For westbound information, contact Central Coast Chapter, National Railway Historical Society, P.O. Box 434, Santa Clara, Calif. 95052, Hal Lewis (408) 268-1531; eastbound, Feather River Rail Society P.O. Box 8, Portola, Calif. 96112, Wayne Monger (707) 746-8238. Westbound is sold out, but space is available east from Portola to Winnemucca, Nev., from $199 to $264.

From Los Angeles Union Station, April 29 on Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe No. 3751 “California Limited”; Trains Unlimited, Tours, (800) 321-3751; $750, one way.

To get a printed list of hotels in Sacramento: (916) 449-6711. Hotels are filling up fast, so early reservations are advised.

Tickets for Railfair ’91: (916) 442-7827. General admission: $8 for adults, $4 for children.

California State Railroad Museum information: (916) 445-4209.