Western Railway Museum and Rio Vista, California


little boy aboard train Western Railway Museum Rio Vista CaliforniaWhen I was small child I spent summer afternoons hiding in the tall grass just outside our backyard reading and watching freight and passenger trains chug past our house. The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus trains held the most potential – I longed for them to stop, open their flashy freight cars and offload the elephants for exercise, just like the pictures I’d seen in the Baltimore Sun. They never did.

In 1968, my family gathered with neighbors from both sides of the tracks, waiting for the train transporting Robert Kennedy’s body to pass through our little town, a never-forgotten moment that was charged with sadness and immediacy. Mourners who had spent hours peering down the tracks in anticipation, bowed their heads and were blinded by tears as the train crawled past them.

But on most summer days, I sat and waited with a book in my lap, looking up when a train passed by to wave to the engineer or to a startled passenger who had been lost in reverie and never expected to see a little girl on the hillside, so close they could practically touch her.

I had never heard “The Railroad Song” by Jim and Ingrid Croce (released in 1966) until this week, yet it captures my youthful longing for the railroad to take me away to other worlds, just like the books I read voraciously. For those of us who love them, trains are more than a means of traveling from place to place, they are magically, mythically transportive.

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The Western Railway Museum stands along Route 12 in Suisun City, just a 35-minute drive, but world’s away from Napa, California. Staffed by more than 125 volunteers, the trains and railcar barns are populated by people who passionately love electric trains: they study them, drive them, talk about them, and spend thousands of hours meticulously restoring them. It’s a unique microcosm where train geeks spend their free time climbing under, over and around vintage trains, getting covered in grease or checking their pocket watches, buttoned up in crisp white shirts and conductor’s uniforms ready for their next on-time performance. Judging from the smiles on their faces and the laughter coming from the railcar houses, the Western Railway Museum is their “happy place.”

When you visit the museum, you’ll find this 71-year old organization (founded as the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association) is, and always will be, a fascinating work in progress. Train cars salvaged from near (San Francisco and Oakland) and far (Melbourne, Australia and Blackpool, England) are stored in Car House One and the state-of-the-art, climate-controlled Loring Jensen Memorial Car House. A refuge for locomotives, trams and trolleys, the museum holds more than 100 vintage vehicles that range from fully restored and operational to rusted and peeling testaments to the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi.

And then there’s the train ride.

In truth, the 10-mile excursion along the old Sacramento Northern Route on an impeccably restored train is much more than a train ride – it is a marvelous melding of three centuries. While rolling and swaying along tracks laid in the 1920’s on a train built in 1926, the expansive Montezuma Hills are to your right, and they are as pristine as they were when pioneers settled in the area in the 1850’s. On your left, cattle and sheep graze under hundreds of 21st century wind turbines – some as tall as 415 feet — supplying enough energy to power 700,000 homes, with further expansion of these “farms” in the works. Time on the train is a time of wonder: the thrill of moving through the past, present and future simultaneously is the stuff of dreams.

The Western Railway Museum is open 10:30am to 5:00pm, Saturdays and Sundays during the winter and Wednesday through Sundays from Memorial Day through Labor Day, with special events throughout the year.

zipperSteven Saden riding vintage train Western Railway Museumzipper Elizabeth Cashour with volunteer conductor Western Railway MuseumzipperChronicle Herb Caen vintage advertisement Western Railway Museumzipperconductor with cane Western Railway Museumzipper Alcatraz train Western Railway MuseumzipperWind Turbines Montezuma Hills Western Railway Museumzipper Nick Stiles sheep turbines mural Rio Vista California near Western Railway Museumzipper

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Fosters Bighorn neon sign rio vista californiaTravel 11.8 miles east of the Western Railway Museum and you’ll arrive in downtown Rio Vista on the western bank of the Sacramento River. The town is only a few blocks long, so you’ll have no difficulty finding Foster’s Bighorn. Founder Bill Foster was a bootlegger on the lam who hid out in Rio Vista in the 1920’s. In the ‘30’s and ‘40’s he became a big game hunter and Foster’s Bighorn became his trophy and photography repository. Trust us, your jaw will drop when you witness the more than 250 pieces of taxidermy that fill this unassuming “coffee shop.”  Entering the dining room for lunch or dinner — where the burgers are truly charbroiled and delicious – you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt” (“George, I wish you’d take a look at the nursery”….) And you won’t be able to resist Foster’s impressive 65-foot long bar. Order a gin martini and keep the stool next to you open for the ghost of Papa Hemingway.

If you’re ready to explore a very small part of the Delta while taking a step back into the 1940’s, crossover the Sacramento via the Rio Vista Bridge and take the scenic Delta Loop past a labyrinth of sloughs, rivers, levees, marinas and RV parks. The California Delta, a playground for fisherman and boaters, encompasses nearly 1,000 miles of waterways between Sacramento and Stockton.


zipperPerry's Marina Delta Loop Rio Vista California near Western Railway Museumzipper Steven Saden viewing taxidermy interior Foster's Bighorn Rio Vista California near Western Railway MuseumzipperAbandoned Boat Sacramento River Rio Vista near Western Railway Museumzipper guardhouse along Sacramento River Delta Loop California near Western Railway Museumzipper Big StriperCafe neon sign Rio Vista California near Western Railway MuseumzipperPink Flamingo bar sign Rio Vista California near Western Railway Museumzipper

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Steve 1 bw ink sketch 300 x 513A railway conductor’s first priority is the safe and efficient movement of the train, keeping the crew and passenger’s safe while keeping the train on time.  From the advent of railroads, the conductor calibrated on-time performances by pulling a railroad watch out of his/her pocket. Railroad pocket watches were some of the highest grade watches ever made and are highly collectible today.

So that got me to thinking. Wouldn’t it be interesting to elevate current runway fashions with the addition of vintage pocket watches? After all, the right accessories make the outfit and keep a look on track. I love the mix of modern and vintage: picture a women’s Acne leather jacket with a bejeweled Cartier watch and fob fastened to a zipper pull, or a fine enameled watch pinned to a Dondup deconstructed blue velvet suit. They both become personalized statements of edgy elegance. The sexiness of Anthony Vaccarello’s black jersey dress is amped up when a Varden and Stedman pocket watch from the 1800’s is suspended from the gold ring closure.

For men, I experimented with the carbiner clip suspended from the front belt loop of a Lanvin plaid suit by adding a Swiss watch from Covelle and Romilly. One of my favorite detail discoveries was the silver ring hanging over the back pocket of a pair of Raf Simons’ pants: it was just begging for a Cartier Grand Complication Skeleton pocket watch to take the look from modern to monumental. (Cartier created an edition of just 12 of those extraordinary watches in 2012 – the Roman numerals around the edge are machined from a single piece of white gold.) Ximon Lee, the first menswear designer to win the H&M Design Award in 2015, sent an oversized denim jacket down the runway for Spring/Summer 2017. But, when more is more, why not add a chunky wolf’s head fob and simple CVC black face watch to the mix? In fashion, it’s all about the bells and whistles, and as shown below, a time piece makes the look timeless.

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One thought on “Western Railway Museum and Rio Vista, California

  1. I have been off of the technology grid. Recently moved to Danville CA. Living with my sister and brother in law. They have been kind enough to take me in, even though I am driving them crazy, I think I have mentioned that I have the early stages of Dementia which began a few years ago and has gotten worse. They are saints to do this, and I appreciate it so much. Please keep in touch, I so enjoy hearing from you. Regards, Karen

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