The Western Pacific Railroad Museum: A Train Museum on Real Wheels
Are you a train lover at heart? Among your childhood fantasies could be this one: where can you operate a vintage diesel locomotive with a private instructor? Say, an EMD F7 streamlined road unit or an EMD TR-6 locomotive? Your dreams can come true at Portola’s Western Pacific Railroad Museum (WPRM) through the Run-A-Locomotive program. This program allows you to rent a train car for an hour or more and to operate it on the museum’s tracks under supervision of a trained train driver. Alternatively, you may just show your family one of the West’s best train collections. Won’t your junior engineers love it?
The WPRM is a terrific train museum to visit – when you get there despite the somewhat confusing road signage (check the map on the website before you go). Between Reno and Quincy, Portola is a little town in the Feather River Canyon, Plumas county, north of Lake Tahoe. You might as well say in the middle of nowhere.
With a census of 2,227 people and local news on livestock auctions, it’s puzzling to find there one of the largest railroad museums in the Western United States. The list is impressive: 37 diesel locomotives, 1 diesel locomotive, 1 steam locomototive, more than 10 passenger cars and numerous freight cars, many ready to roll on the museum’s 37 acres and 2.5 miles of tracks. If trains are your thing, then you have to go.
As you drive past Portola’s historic downtown and you enter the train yard, big signs warn the visitor: any of these machines could get moving. How cool to think that you are stepping in a place that’s about historical railroad equipment yet is not frozen in time. These trains are made for rollin’.
Inside the great depot, machines getting repaired await visitors or train buffs footsteps to come to life. The California Zephir open-dome passenger car is almost entirely gutted out, yet you long to see it glide along scenic routes of the Sierra Nevada or Colorado River. Being able to see trains neatly restored and in the process of is a rare behind-the-scenes feel, like you’re an insider walking up with your oil can to get cracking on the engine.
Outside the building is the greatest collection of cabooses with wacko internal layouts that made our children’s eyes pop out of their heads. Between hidden beds, elevated beds, corner desks, drawing cabinets, empty cupboards and spinning chairs, there was enough decor to pretend play forever. “All aboard!” kept yelling the children, following their arm & whistle gesture by a huffing “chugga-chugga-choo-choo.” The guy who sat in the chair 10 feet high right underneath the ceiling really had a great view – both inside and outside. Stepping down from one caboose to climb up in the next was probably the best part of the visit, until we heard a loud whistle.
A train was coming! Obviously, the museum is by the Feather River, its tracks running parallel to the actual train tracks. We all climbed on the lookout to admire the freight train passing by. As it came to a stop, a glance to our left revealed the biggest collection of train spare parts we’d ever seen. We started walking down the alley, the children fascinated by rusty twisted nails, bigger-than-life track nails, stacked up barrels and springs of all sizes. That’s not even mentioning the open freight cars used to stock metallic beams and wooden pieces, with stick calendars on the back wall reminescent of Woodie Guthrie’s Dust Bowl.
Now look at your calendar and cross out all the weeks between November and April because the museum closes in the winter. If you want a chance to climb aboard these great machines or if you are dying to drive your own train with your junior engineers, you better hurry because winter’s coming fast. Your only other opportunity this winter will be the Santa Train on December 5th and 12th, after the museum has undergone a “winterization” makeover. Then it’s hibernating time and the snowplow train will be sleeping too. Anyone for a train ride?