There was a time in the Old West when the arrival of the railroad was as exciting as it got—the coming of the train was much anticipated and joyfully celebrated.
Without it, your community was reached only by horseback, a crowded stagecoach or a lumbering farm wagon. Travel to and from was long and tedious, and everything seemed so far away.
But when your town was finally linked to a national network by steel rails, you now counted; you could depend on growth, life got easier, new goods and entertainments came your way, your goods could get to market and, just as important, Western emigrants who feared they were forever parted from their families back East could now imagine reunion trips on the “Iron Horse.”
The railroad lines—both the northern route copying the old Oregon Trail and the southern route along the Santa Fe Trail—brought within hours and days new settlers to join the covered wagon pioneers who had trudged along those routes for months. They brought a new status, a new respectability, a new badge of permanence.
From the moment the Golden Spike completed the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, the West was no longer a remote outpost but an integral part of the nation. Building this railroad was such an accomplishment and such a point of national pride that history books written a century later would give it the label: “Nothing Like it in the World.”
Railroads were modern, they were fast, they were sophisticated and more than
any other single factor, they helped settle the West.
But within a century, train travel was no longer modern and exciting. In fact, it was discouraged by rail companies that found it more profitable to focus on freight, rather than passengers. Many routes just disappeared, and those that remained held few of the creature comforts earlier train travel had offered and passengers demanded. By then, buses and airplanes were newer parts of the traveling mix and had become the preferred vehicles.
But the tracks remained, and the train whistle still called. Thankfully, it called to men and women, from elected officials to private citizens, with the resources to revive America’s trains.
And revive they did, as though they were discovering the West all over again.
In what may be one of America’s best-kept secrets, trains are providing new and exciting ways to visit the Old West—from the intercity passenger service of Amtrak to pleasure trips on privately-owned “tourist trains.”
Families can now visit many icons of the Old West. They can follow the steps of Lewis and Clark and see the silver mines that made Deadwood such a hotbed; visit Texas’ Cowboy Hall of Fame and spend an afternoon at the Alamo; replicate a 1901 trip to the Grand Canyon or experience the thrill of steep Colorado cliffs, just like miners of the 1800s did.
If you want to ride the rails into the Old West, there’s no shortage of ways to play out your fantasies or introduce your children to the days when this part of the country was new and fresh and held such incredible promise.
But beware, because train travel has a special effect on people. As Texas State Railroad engineer Roger Graham puts it, “Grownups are like kids when they get on the train.” And that isn’t a bad thing.
Amtrak’s Western Routes
When Amtrak calls “Westward Ho” these days, it touts its routes like this:
“It’s the land of the wagon trains and the Gold Rush, and legendary cities…. Even the landscape is entertaining. Red canyons that echo with the cries of ancient warriors. Towering rock formations surrounded by myth…. Waves crashing against the jagged beauty of the Pacific Coast. Here, it’s easy for a human being to believe that anything is possible. Amtrak gives you a front-row seat for the show, and the time and space to contemplate how this part of our country has captured the world’s most vivid imaginations.”
It’s not hyperbole: the grandeur of the West and its many contrasts are breathtaking. On a recent trip from Flagstaff to Chicago on the Southwest Chief (which originated in Los Angeles), I started out in the wee hours of the morning in the pine country of Northern Arizona, had evening cocktails in the moonscape starkness of New Mexico and awoke to the green fields of Kansas.
Amtrak’s other major routes include the Sunset Limited that runs from Los Angeles through Yuma, Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio, Houston and New Orleans on to Florida. There’s also the Empire Builder running from Seattle through Portland, Whitefish, Havre, Minot, Fargo, Minneapolis and Milwaukee to Chicago.
Perhaps most exciting is Amtrak’s Trails & Rails program that takes you through some of the country’s most impressive National Parks. This “onboard partnership” highlights natural and cultural attractions along the route. For instance, on a return trip from Chicago to Flagstaff, a Native American flute player and historian joined my train in Albuquerque, telling stories about the area and creating a memorable moment—listening to the haunting sounds of a flute as I looked over a landscape of bold beauty is something I’ll never forget.
All of Amtrak’s major routes are part of the Trails & Rails program. The Empire Builder takes you along the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. The Southwest Chief takes you “through the heart of cowboy country.” The Sunset Limited covers a route from where the sun rises to where it sets, with onboard National Park guides to describe all the territory you’re passing through.
But besides that, Amtrak also offers shorter Trails & Rails routes, including the Texas Eagle from Chicago to San Antonio, taking you through the “Land of Lincoln” to the “echoes of the Alamo,” and the Heartland Flyer, which is operated in partnership with the State of Oklahoma. This route carries travelers from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, taking you through the Chickasaw National Recreation Area and the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site.
Amtrak offers a variety of traveling options, from wide, generous coach seats to sleeping chambers. Its dining car is one of the most popular attractions, serving three generous meals a day (meals are included with sleeping compartments). It’s not clear what they do with their pancakes, but whatever it is, it works—these are delicious. And they’ve been known to grill a mean steak, which tastes especially good as America goes past the enormous picture windows on both sides of the train.
There’s also a club car that becomes an instant gathering place, and a snack bar open most of the day and night where it’s possible to get sodas and good scotch, along with snacks and sandwiches.
Each night, Amtrak offers a movie in the club car, geared to younger passengers and families, and here is where strangers almost instantly disappear. You may be sitting next to the woman who runs the opera in Los Angeles or a pharmacist from Phoenix or a teacher from Kansas City or a roadie for a rock group from Chicago. The shared experience of the train pretty much guarantees friendly people—after all, these are folks who value the journey as well as the destination.
Tourist Trains for Day Trips
For day trippers, an amazing variety of train experiences are available on dozens of tourist trains that have taken over most of the available private tracks in the West.
The first tourist trains made their debut in the 1960s, with just 62 trains and steam excursions. Today, there are around 500 tourist trains in America. In the 17 states west of the Mississippi, all but a couple of them offer tourist trains that take you to places you often can’t see any other way.
These privately owned and operated trains often began as a labor of love by folks who couldn’t stand to see the trains—and their spectacular routes—disappear. Many have become successful businesses that are opening up the sights and sounds of the Old West to new generations—educating while they entertain. In rural areas, these train companies are often major employers.
The universal impression of those who have experienced these trains is that the rail companies go all out to ensure you have a good time. It only fits: people who buy, restore and operate tourist trains are “train nuts” of the first order, so they’re anxious to share their fascination and passion with others. The trains are clean and fresh, many offer snacks, some provide full meals, some offer exotic drinks that taste even better in these exotic settings and all have helpful personnel eager to point out the special sights or tell you the history of the area.
While many tourists travel to various states to specifically take these rides, locals find that a day trip on a tourist train is a great way to entertain out-of-state visitors and family. A train ticket also makes a great gift for those who have everything else.
“The tourist railroad industry has flourished over the past three decades, with local groups of rail enthusiasts and preservationists banding together to return to service locomotives and rolling stock that have sat dormant and neglected far too many years,” notes the invaluable publication, Tourist Trains: Annual Guide to Tourist Railroads and Museums.
Published by Kalmbach Books, the guide gives detailed state-by-state information on each operating tourist train, as well as museums and historic sites associated with the railroad.
True West is profiling several of these trips in this special Collector’s Issue. But there’s so much more:
• They say “the best way to see Alaska is on the railroad.” For world class scenery, take the Alaska Railroad, which covers more than 500 miles and offers both day trips and overnight excursions.
• Arizona offers several trains, but the only way to see the bald eagle nests along the Verde River and the depot at the Perkinsville Ranch (where scenes from How the West was Won were filmed) is on the Verde Canyon Railroad.
• In California, you can chose from five different tourist trains that take you through everything from historic Sacramento to the heart of the Redwoods to Niles Canyon, which was the final leg of the Transcontinental Railroad.
• Colorado boasts of six different lines, including the Pike’s Peak Cog Railway that opened in 1891. The state also features the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.
• Watch out for the Wild West train robbery if you take the Thunder Mountain Line in Idaho.
• You’ll cross a high steel span bridge if you take the dinner trip on the Abilene and Smokey Valley Railroad in Kansas.
• The cutest, or kitschiest, name goes to the Charlie Russell Chew-Choo Dinner Train, offering a 31?2-hour narrated excursion through the heart of Montana.
• The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad will have you wondering if you’re coming or going as you wind through the beautiful San Juan Mountains and cross the Colorado-New Mexico border 11—count ’em—times.
• Give your mouth a culinary vacation while aboard the Fremont Dinner Train, which takes you through Nebraska’s Platte and Elkhorn River Valleys.
• Ride a 136-year-old railroad through the historic Comstock mining region on Nevada’s Virginia and Truckee Railroad.
• Oregon offers four tourist trains, including the Mount Hood Railroad’s 1906 line with a four-hour tour of the Columbia Gorge to the foothills of Mount Hood.
• In South Dakota, a two-hour round-trip on the Black Hills Central Railroad’s 1880 train from Hill City takes you into the Black Hills and all that gold sought by the miners of Old Deadwood days.
• Texas has a couple different routes, including the Grapevine Vintage Railroad that offers a 21-mile round-trip linking to the historic Stockyard Station in Fort Worth.
• The Heber Valley Railroad in Utah offers a dinner and a ride through farmland, a lake shore and into a glacier-carved canyon. It also boasts of the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory Summit on the spot where the Transcontinental Railroad’s final Golden Spike was nailed.
• Washington has five different lines, including the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train that takes you on a 44-mile round-trip journey and includes a three-course gourmet meal and a 45-minute stop at the Columbia Winery.
That’s just a sampling of what’s available if you want to Ride into the West—on a train.