Western Railway Museum Visit

I had the opportunity to visit the Western Railway Museum this summer, while on a road trip through northern California. WRM is located about midway between Sacramento and Oakland, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area. Aside from the main visitor center, the complex includes a heritage rail line, over 50 historic cars, car barns and shops, picnic grounds and a café. The main visitor center includes an area for rotating exhibits, a well-stocked museum store, and research archives.

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Western Railway Museum visitor center

The WRM owns 22 miles of line of the former Sacramento Northern Railway (SN), an interurban line connecting Chico, Sacramento, and Oakland. A portion of this has been outfitted as an excursion railway. It heads south from the museum depot at Rio Vista Junction, along the sloughs feeding Suisun Bay, with a view of Mt. Diablo on the southern horizon.

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View across Grizzly Island Wildlife Area, Mt. Diablo in background

The line passes through Gum Grove Station, where it stops during the Pumpkin Patch Festival, and on to the Pantano Station, where we have a chance to stretch our legs before the return trip. We rode on Portland Traction Company 4001, an electric interurban car built in 1926. It originally operated in Indiana and Kentucky before being transferred to Portland, where it saw service from 1940-1958.

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Portland Traction Company car No. 4001 at Pantano Station

Part of why I had been wanting to get to WRM is because they have a couple of San Diego cars in their collection. One of these is San Diego Electric Railway (SDERy) car No. 1043. 1043 was a New York City Third Avenue Railway System (TARS) car, built in 1908 and brought to San Diego during the WW2 expansion. Below is one of the TARS cars (No. 1044) on Broadway in front of the Armed Services YMCA about 1946.

04 1044 on B'way 1946
SDERy car No. 1044, Broadway and India Street, 1946 (courtesy PSRM)

The TARS cars were pretty beat up when they arrived in San Diego, even more beat up after several years of hard work, and most were scrapped as soon as they were removed from service in 1947. Below are several of the TARS car bodies in a storage yard just east of downtown San Diego.

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Surplus TARS car bodies for sale, southeast San Diego, 1947 (courtesy PSRM)

But one of these cars, No. 1043, was not destroyed after the war. It was purchased by the Bay Area Electric Railway Association in 1947 and became part of the Western Railway Museum collection in 1964. It can be seen below in a storage yard in Oakland, California, in 1948.

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SDERy cars No. 1043 and No. 301, BAERA storage yard, Oakland, 1948 (courtesy PSRM)

The car is still at WRM after all these years. It hasn’t yet received the restoration treatment that some other cars have, and it spent some time exposed to the elements, so it’s looking all of it’s 111 years of age. But it’s still fascinating to see this bit of San Diego history in person.

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SDERy car No. 1043 in WRM barn

Just behind car 1043 in the 1948 photo above is another former San Diego car. Car No. 301 was a Birney car, one of a series of small lightweight cars with modern safety features. Seen below is car No. 301 leaving the car house at 15th and Imperial on its inaugural run in 1920. It was servicing Route 5, between downtown and Logan Heights via Woolman Avenue (now Ocean View Boulevard).

08 Birney 301
SDERy car No. 301 on inaugural run, 1920 (courtesy PSRM)

The Birney cars weren’t very comfortable and were phased out in San Diego within a few years. No. 301 was sold to the Sacramento Northern Railroad, where it was repainted and renumbered. Sacramento Northern No. 62 operated on streetcar lines in Chico, Marysville, and Sacramento through 1947.

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SN No. 62 (former SDERy No. 301) in WRM barn

After retirement, the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association used it for excursions until it came to WRM in 1964. It’s still operational and has all its original equipment. Amazing for a car that will very soon celebrate its 100th birthday! Check out the interior below, including the period advertisements.

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Interior of SN No. 62 (former SDERy No. 301) in WRM barn

WRM staff were incredibly friendly, knowledgeable, and let me romp around in the car barn looking at the San Diego cars. They also gave me a tour of their extensive archives, which include some SDERy documents I was unaware of. They had copies of my book in the museum store, which always makes an author feel good. Overall, I had a wonderful experience, and highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area.

WRM is open year-round on the weekend and extra days during the summer, holidays, and for special events. Admission is $10 for adults – a bargain since it includes unlimited rides on the streetcar and interurban along with entrance to the exhibits. Discounts for seniors and children. See their website for hours, directions, and more info.

The entire organization is volunteer run. Please consider donating so that they can continue this valuable work, or better yet drop by for a visit and let them impress you in person.

Western Railway Museum is located at 5848 State Highway 12, Suisun City, CA 94585.

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