Take a ride back in time: Explore rich history at Western Pacific Railroad Museum

The spectacular “Steam Engine 165” built in 1927 is the museum’s only steam engine currently under restoration. | Tim Hauserman

As spring turns to summer it starts to get busy around these parts and my thoughts turn to finding someplace a bit less peopled. I know a place nearby that not only is a break from the bustle but may even feel like going back in time.

Take a drive north through the Sierra Valley to the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola. There you can immerse yourself in a low key, but fascinating exploration of the history of the Western Pacific Railroad.

The museum is located on 37 acres on the edge of Portola close to the Feather River. It’s where the Western Pacific’s Portola headquarters were located when the railroad was active between 1903 and 1983. There are about 30 locomotives and more than 128 pieces of rolling stock on the grounds. Some are fully restored and operational, some are in the process of being restored and others are reminders that some of these machines are quite old — and getting a bit long in the tooth.

Preserving history
The centerpiece of the museum is the Portola Diesel shop where the enormous machines are slowly and lovingly restored. There is also a store with all sorts of railroad memorabilia, an extensive archive of information on the Western Pacific and several miles of track where you can take a short ride in a car, in the cab or even drive a locomotive yourself. A few years ago when I visited the museum I had the opportunity to drive a locomotive under the supervision of someone who knew what he was doing. It was an amazing experience.

A few years ago when I visited the museum I had the opportunity to drive a locomotive under the supervision of someone who actually knew what he was doing. It was an amazing experience.

The museum was formed by a nonprofit organization of train lovers, the Feather River Rail Society, that began just after the demise of the Western Pacific. They wanted to preserve the equipment and stories of the Western Pacific Railroad, which was an important part of the history of Portola and Plumas County. The museum staff especially love to pass on the stories of what made this medium-sized railroad special.

Historic railcars
You will find on site the California Zephyr Silver Plate dining car that was part of the first passenger service with dome cars. It was called the “most talked about train in America,” with an emphasis on experience instead of speed. They even had Zephyrettes (hostesses) on-board, like the Pan Am airline stewardesses of the day. The train was pulled by the Western Pacific 805-A locomotive that was called the “Belle” of the fleet — it is also at the museum.

An interesting stop is the World War II troop carrier car that is still in use today as a sleeping car for Boy Scouts who come to the museum to earn merit badges in railroading. Speaking of supporting the troops, the museum also holds a train car that was used for blood drives to save the lives of many wounded soldiers in Korea in the early 1950s. Prominently displayed in the diesel shop is the spectacular and humongous steam engine No. 165 that is being restored and is nearly operational.

What I enjoy most about making a trip to this museum is the feeling I get that I’m going back in time. It’s a working museum, which means that you are likely to see folks toting hammers and working on machinery. | wplives.org

Road trip to Portola
If you want to make a day of your trip to Portola, there are two worthwhile stops along A-23 in Sierra Valley. First is the Sierra Valley Preserve, located about 14 miles north of Sattley. Here 2 miles of gentle trail take you through the sagebrush and above the marshes of the Feather River. Expect to see a variety of birds and you may just luck out and see a pronghorn running swiftly away from you. | frlt.org

If you head up on a Friday morning, plan on a stop at Romano’s Certified Farmers Market, open every Friday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. It’s just a mile north of the preserve on the grounds of the small Sierra Valley Farm; it is a weekly highlight of life in the Sierra Valley. | sierravalleyfarm.com

Museum hours
Thurs. & Fri. | Noon-4 p.m.
Sat. & Sun. | 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Open until Labor Day

Train rides
Sat. | 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Sun. | 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.