At the Western Railway Museum, excursions of yesteryear – The Vacaville Reporter
Time and space, by turns, seem to stand still and become dreamlike on a journey in one of the many electrified wagons at the Western Railway Museum near Highway 12 between Suisun City and Rio Vista.
Every day the restored antique trains run – Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays until May 1 for now – the hour-long, 11-mile journeys are so much more than the quiet pleasure of a slow train.
Tours offer a glimpse of city-to-city intercity transportation as it was 100 years ago and through the mid-to-late 1950s in parts of the Golden State.
And while they don’t come with the roar and wheeze of a steam train, they still offer a lot: the evocative sounds of conductor signal bells, museum volunteers dressed in period-specific clothing, the pounding rhythms of traveling on steel rails, sweeping vistas that stretch to the towns of East Bay, a stopover for passengers of all ages to stretch their legs and snap souvenir photos, and the power physical and poetic of a railway to connect people and places.
On a recent Wednesday morning, some 40 to 50 people lined up, from toddlers to seniors, for a trip, “about the average number for a weekday,” said Cliff Baumer of Benicia, a motorist and driver avuncular, and, like his colleagues on board, a strong-willed.
After confirming tickets — $15 for adults, $11 for seniors 65 and over, $12 for youth 2-14 — passengers boarded for an April ride called Scenic Limited , with the hope for some that they would see vast fields of lupins, California poppies, gold fields, sheep sorrel, mustard and many other varieties of wildflowers.
But, said Baumer, speaking in a 100-year-old wagon that cost $225,000 to restore and featured plush red velor seats, the lack of heavy rainfall last winter and ongoing drought did what the one could call “a super bloom”. impossible.
Yet there are other attractions.
For those interested, the museum is offering a Wine Tasting Train (this year May 22), with local wine pairing and appetizers and a menu posted online that features smoked trout and Sauvignon Blanc; a mushroom and goat cheese tart and a Pinot Noir; three-pointed sliders with a zinfandel; mini shrimp tacos with a rose. Of course, expect to pay more for a ticket.
Other special excursions include trips to the Pumpkin Patch in October and Santa Trains in December.
As the train rolled, Baumer, dressed in a navy blue three-piece conductor’s uniform and cap, said the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association, the regional group that oversees the preservation of electric railroading at the museum, has started in 1946, organized by “rail enthusiasts”.
“They started collecting trams and other rail-related items,” which included photos, business documents, books, payment boxes, traffic signs, he said. “In 1960 they had a collection of cars (and intercity, as they are called) from all over the East Bay.”
The museum website, www.wrm.org, shows that by the early 1960s the need for a permanent home for wagons and artifacts had become apparent. Rio Vista Junction, an actual stop on the Sacramento Northern Electric Main Line in Solano County, was chosen as the site for the museum. Work has begun on transforming 22 vacant acres, a former sheep farm, into a living history museum. In 1985 the name Western Railway Museum was adopted. Its mission: “to preserve the regional heritage of electric rail transport as a means of subsistence for the benefit of present and future generations”, according to the wording of the website.
As the train traveled along Shiloh Road, past the intersection with Little Honker Bay Road, Baumer said the train’s speed, 20 mph, was ‘limited by (federal) rules and power’, some 600 volts direct current.
The car he was riding in, although refurbished, was at one point “a wreck”, he said, adding that the chassis was twisted and the sides were “rotten”. The Windows? Custom made.
Three women sat nearby, all of them, like Baumer, from Benicia. They included his wife, Denni Baumer, and his friends Sydney Geels and Paula Martinucci. The trip was their maiden voyage as a band and they were reveling in it. They smiled and chatted constantly as they raced down the tracks and the bucolic landscape passed by, framed by the windows.
“It’s so relaxing,” Martinucci said of the excursion. “The rhythm of the train. It feels like a million miles from the suburbs.
Indeed it did, as passengers could look out and see wide expanses of dry-grown safflower, the occasional farm building amid thickets of eucalyptus, white-painted beehives, flocks of sheep grazing on green grass, wind turbines, small hills, and the cities of Port Chicago and Pittsburg to the west.
In every way, the excursions are an experience of yesteryear, when trains were considered the pinnacle of modernity and with no 21st century relation to the state’s ambitious plans for high-speed rail, its intended route and its reach at a crossroads due to rising costs, political wrangling and legal challenges.
On the way back, Baumer, this time standing in the lead car, demonstrated the train whistle before crossing Little Honker Bay Road: two long ones, one short and one long, “a standard whistle for crossing a road”, he said.
The electric train, he noted, could reach a top speed of 60 mph and, pointing to the tracks as he looked out the front window of the carriage, added that the original tracks had been laid at the start of the 20th century.
After the train arrived at the museum station and the passengers disembarked, many made their way to the Rail Car Display House. There, Louise Hennessy and her husband Emmett Sloane, from Limerick, Ireland, took their nephew, Cillian, to inspect the old carriages.
“My sister lives not too far from here,” Hennessey said. “We were looking for action. It’s for the little guy, the nephew, who is almost 2 years old.
The museum houses a wide variety of wagons and rolling stock, but its main focus is on electrical equipment. They include streetcars, intercity cars, some from around the world, and specialist cars used to support and maintain electric railways. In figures: trams (19); intercity cars (26); main line cars (six); light rail (three); electric locomotives (9); and more.
The museum, a large three-story building preceded by five cantilevered windows, includes dozens of wall posters with explanatory information about the museum itself, the East Bay trams, the engineering design process , the scientific method, sources of energy, the nature of electricity, green energy, the history of the rivalry between inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, and wind power in Solano County.
For those who want to remember their excursion with a souvenir, the gift shop is the place to stop. It also includes a wide range of railway books, as well as clothing, hats and toys.
Just beyond the main hall is the FM Smith Memorial Library, archives and a small collection of artifacts. It is open to the public on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month. Programs and films on the history of the railway are sometimes presented there.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
Western Railway Museum
5848 national road 12
City of Suisun
Year-round: 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Summer Hours: Days and times vary
Tickets, depending on age or car class, range from $12 to $19; members are free.
Closed on autumn and winter holidays
(Note: Due to a recent Federal Court ruling, face masks are no longer required on trains or inside the museum, but this may change.)