8 Bucket List Railroads to Visit for Any History Buff

Front of Sacramento Railyards Building in B&W

8 Bucket List Railroads to Visit for Any History Buff

June 29, 2023 | By The Railyards

The history of railways can be dated all the way back to 1515 in Austria, but wooden railroads wouldn't move in with America till the 1720s. Later on, throughout the boom of the industrial revolution, the railroad system saw a massive railway expansion. By 1860, the North and Midwest had networks connecting every city in their regions before the Civil War began. By 1920, the railroad system employed over 2.1 million Americans at its peak, with over 254,252 miles of track routes. The US's railway system is historical and has played a considerable role in the development of almost the entire country, even today. Luckily, this history is well preserved and documented in numerous existing railway stations, museums, and more. If you're a history buff or simply love learning about our past as we do, join us in learning about these 8 historic railroad stations you'll want to visit!

Sacramento Railroad Museum - Sacramento, CA

We couldn't help but start the list with one close to our hearts. The Sacramento Railroad Museum showcases historic railways and other exhibits based on the tracks. For one of the museum's exhibits, they partnered with the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) to produce a model train track that features over 1,000 vintage toy trains, six interactive displays, and a magnificent operating train layout. After you visit their over 250,000 sq. ft. of total exhibit space, you can step out to the Sacramento Valley Station, home to Sacramento's historic railroad. This station stands on what was once a swampy lake that tended to often flood into the areas of Central Sacramento. Now you can stand on the shoulders of old flood grounds and explore the history of it too!

Visit the Sacramento Railroad Museum.

Skunk Train - Fort Bragg/Willits, CA

In 1885, timber operations in Mendocino County built the Fort Bragg Railroad to make transporting lumber easier. This line would eventually be known as the foundation for the California Western Railroad or, by its local nickname, the Skunk Train. The name originated in 1925 during the introduction of self-propelled motor cars using gas engines for power and pot-bellied stoves burning crude oil to keep crew and passengers warm. These created fumes that emitted a pungent odor allowing you to "smell them before you could see them." Today, they offer tours around the area on trains that are not as smelly and other activities such as rail bikes and The Glen Bair Bar, only accessible by the Skunk Train. 

Visit the Skunk Train.

Durango and Silverton, Durango, CO

Founded by the Denver and Rio Grande Railway in 1880, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was advertised as a scenic route for passenger service. Though during its construction, the tracks were built primarily to haul ores of both gold and silver from the San Juan Mountains. It still transported passengers on the scenic route it promised through Cascade Canyon, but the real cash cow was the mine, producing an estimated $300 Million during its operation. Today they offer a rich experience with their Scenic Round Trip Silverton Train and Cascade Canyon Express. They also provide a Polar Express experience during the winter months, where you can plow through the snow sipping on hot chocolate in their heated coaches.

Visit the Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Cumbres and Toltec - Antonio, CO to Chama, NM

Initially, this railroad was created in 1880 as a connection to the Rio Grande's Narrow Gauge Railroad and similarly succeeded in transporting ores from local mines and the San Juan Mountains. However, its main infamy comes from the numerous blockbusters it has been featured in. You can catch them in films like Bite the Bullet (1975), Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade (1989),  A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014), and Hostiles (2018), as well as numerous others in their more 20 credits in documentaries, mini-series, and films over the past five decades. Today you can visit the star-studded tracks with over 64 miles of North America's longest and highest railroad, even traveling through the enchanting Rocky Mountains. 

Visit the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Grand Canyon Railway - Williams, AZ

During the expansive move west in America, the Grand Canyon remained a solemnly traveled location only visited by the most daring and experienced travelers and explorers. Though, like any successful railroad expansion, the Sante Fe and Grand Canyon Railroad was built on the promises of success from local mines. After many years of convincing local city officials, the government, and other railroad companies, Buckey O'Neill, the mayor, and sheriff of Prescott, incorporated the railroad company, and the development of tracks began. Today the Grand Canyon Railway brings the Old West back to life with journeys to the canyon, where you can see native reservations and the beautiful Grand Canyon Country on the way at over 6,000 ft. in elevation. 

Visit the Grand Canyon Railway.

Steamtown - Scranton, PA

Steamtown sits on 40 acres where the former Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad yard. The Class 1 Railroad (a designation given to the largest freight railroads) consisted of over 395 miles of track traveling through New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The cars primarily transported coal throughout the three states but saw a decline in the industry at the beginning of the 20th century, followed by several disasters at varying mines along the line and the expansion of the interstate highway system.  Today they offer seasonal train rides from 30 mins to full-day trips through the Pocono Mountains. They also provide a rich historical museum with in-depth looks into the technical aspects of their locomotives and old train lobbies - you might even be able to catch local Steamtown mechanics working on one!

Visit Steamtown.

Wilmington and Western - Wilmington, DE

The Wilmington and Western began in 1867 and was used as a mixed goods and passenger transport train throughout most of its life. It saw the rise and fall of the various companies that owned it throughout the years. It moved items like kaolin clay, vulcanized fiber materials, snuff, iron, and coal, which were highly profitable at the time, but eventually, it saw itself moving to primarily passenger transportation in the late 1880s. Throughout the 20th century, the line saw even more owners finally falling into the hands of local rail enthusiasts at Historic Red Clay Valley Inc. Today they operate regular steam and diesel-powered tourist trains on their 10 miles of tracks traveling through the intimate and beautiful Red Clay Valley.
Visit the Wilmington and Western Railroad.

Texas State Railroad - Rusk to Palestine, TX

Prisoners originally built this stretch of railroad to transport timber and ores from the penitentiary in 1883, beginning in Rusk and ending in Palestine. Both the Rusk and Palestine Depots each have their charm and fun to offer visitors. Palestine Depot is another star on our list, as a location for the film "1883" (a precursor to the popular TV Series "Yellowstone") in addition to the 35 other productions it's been a part of! Rusk, on the other hand, though not a Hollywood star - hosts the track's origins and a 100-year-old Mail Car that doubles as a café serving delicious local eats. The Texas State Railroad also hosts lovely rides along their Piney Woods route with seven different accommodations to enjoy your trip in.

Visit the Texas State Railroad.

Trains contributed a lot to the construction of the country in the early 1800s and beyond but even today freight trains remain a crucial factor in America's economy. In fact, America is considered to have the world's best freight train system to this day. Though the number of tracks in the US has approximately halved since its peak in 1916, plenty of rail stations are still alive today, transporting goods and people alike. In addition, they are typically located either by gorgeous local hikes and trails or in bustling city centers where you can enjoy local restaurants and businesses. Best of all, many will host museums and other educational walkthroughs to connect you deeply with impressive locomotives and the veins of track that help build the country.

Featured image credit: Lauren White

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