We crowded into an old California Zephyr dining car — gawking at a full place setting of dishes and flatware and menus behind glass, more elegant than anything we’d seen ourselves these days. There’s a couple of volunteers at the ready to answer questions sitting at one of the decaying Formica tables in need of refurbishing.
The volunteers can answer all sorts of questions, and do, on this hot Railroad Days event Aug. 26 in Portola. One question no one can quite answer? What’s your fascination with trains?
“Every time I hear that whistle blowing/I find myself a-shivering in my soul,” wrote Canadian singer Jane Siberry in her song “Something About Trains.” Most of the volunteers would agree with the statement. They can’t quite put their finger on it either.
Near the end of the dining car is another Formica inlay of a mermaid. It’s dimly lit but intact. Ah! In some ways, the Western Pacific Railroad Museum and Railroad Days is a celebration of a by-gone era from the ‘30s and ‘40s when American design and aesthetic were in their golden years. Visitors walk past the mermaid and into the next car connected — a World War 2 era transport car that still has the bunk beds stacked in them. These days, WPRM encourages Scout groups to stay there overnight while they’re earning badges for railroad knowledge.
The museum and its rail yard are a living testament of ingenuity and American history of the early 20th century.
For Railroad Days there were a few extra special exhibits on display. Union Pacific had graciously loaned UP1989, which was making its Portola debut. The engine is currently in use and had made its way to Portola from East Texas by way of Roseville. Also on loan was a Western Pacific Railroad car from St. Louis, also by way of Roseville.
Visitors got to sit in the driver’s seat and learn about the dashboard and such features as the sand lever (for when you need sand on the icy, wet rails in the winter).
A G-scale model train which ran by steam power was set up outside and was a hit with young and old train enthusiasts alike.
Probably the attraction that had the most visitors was the one that’s up every museum season: the Caboose Train. The Caboose Train, comprised of five cabooses, runs in a circle a little out of the yard and back for a quick five-minute ride into the past. There was also a small engine exhibit in the parking lot.
Volunteer Bart Hanson indicated that there was a good deal of visitor traffic to this year’s weekend event — with just as many local train enthusiasts as visitors from farther away. He loves explaining the history of the engines and cars to visitors — and why it’s important for people to know their train heritage. Like the tracks themselves, trains bring connection between the past and the present, from one place to the next.
The museum is always looking for more volunteers and more donations to help refurbish old cars and keep the museum open — it only has one paid employee. For $225, for example, you can become an engineer for a day and drive a train for an hour.
While Railroad Days is over for 2018, the museum and its regular exhibits are still open Thursday to Sunday through October.