Three Historic Train Rides

Below are listed three historic rail lines that today offer scenic rides that relive the history in their respective areas. All of these railroads were once a part of a larger system that ran over these same rails during the height of railroad expansion in the late 1800’s.

All three of these historic railroads make excellent additions to your vacation planners if your travels take you to northern California, northern New Mexico or southern Colorado.

niles canyon railway california
Niles Canyon Railway Sunol Train Depot

Niles Canyon Railway / California

The  Niles Canyon Railroad history goes all the way back to the year 1862, seven years before the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. The railroad’s history includes both the building of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Western Pacific Railroad.

As it’s name implies, the Niles Canyon Railway runs through scenic  Niles Canyon. Today’s scenic rail line runs between Fremont California in San Francisco’s East Bay area to the town of Sunol. The town officially began with it’s first post office in 1871 which at that time was renamed Sunolglen. The name was changed back to Sunol in 1920. Sunol is located 17 miles north of San Jose and about 32 miles southeast of San Francisco proper.

california scenic railraod
Niles Canyon Railway

Steam locomotives began traversing the canyon as early as 1865 via the Western Pacific Railroad. The Western Pacific started to build from San Jose north and eastward. As was the case with most railroads, mergers, acquisitions and new routes would emerge through much of the latter 1800’s.

Eventually, the Western Pacific Railroad was bought out by the Central Pacific and the Central Pacific was taken over by the Southern Pacific.These acquisitions and mergers were commonplace during the late 1800’s all over the west. The Southern Pacific focus was more to the north around Martinez California and as a result the Niles Canyon railroad line became secondary. Having been a part of the legendary Central Pacific Railroad, today’s Niles Canyon Railway line runs over what was once part of the transcontinental railroad.

Another interesting fact is that the Niles Canyon route was the very first line for trains running eastward from the San Francisco Bay. It wouldn’t occur until 1879 that the much shorter route from the Bay Area to Sacramento would be completed which ran through Benicia to the north.

sunol california
Scenic Sunol California

The Pacific Locomotive Association has an excellent collection of railroad equipment that has been accumulated since the 1960’s. The locomotives and rolling stock collected went through restoration programs and train restoration continues as an ongoing project. The collection is found at the association’s Niles Station located in Fremont.

This is the location you want to visit to see some spectacular restored rolling stock. The steam engines at Fremont’s Niles Station includes a great exhibit of old Southern Pacific steam locomotives.

Just to give you an idea of some of the other rail cars collected by the Pacific Locomotive Association, they include, but are certainly not limited to, a 1904 80 foot Pullman Business Car, a 40 foot 1911 Pullman RPO (Railroad Post Office) Car, a 1907 69 foot Observation Car, q 1923 Pullman Interurban passenger car, a 1926 Pullman Heavyweight Sleeper, a 1923 60 foot Pullman Business Car and a 1926 Pullman Heavyweight Dining Car.

vintage diesel locomotive
Rio Grande Scenic Railroad vintage diesel locomotive

The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad

Another very popular attraction in Alamosa itself is the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad. This excursion train rides from Alamosa to La Veta Colorado and a connection to the Cumbres and Toltec Railway which offers scenic rides to Chama New Mexico. The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad route takes you through fascinating mountain country that’s not seen from the highway. The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad excursion train rides take you through breathtaking mountain valleys and passes on miles and mile of historic trails.  The steam and diesel trains transport you to charming and historic western towns from the heart of the San Luis Valley.


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Rio Grande Scenic Railroad vintage rolling stock

The train runs from Alamosa to the charming art town of La Veta. A  two-hour stop for lunch allows passengers to relax in the park, do some shopping and gallery exploring, or enjoy a great meal at one of La Veta’s local restaurants and cafes. La Veta in Spanish means “the mineral vein”. This twon name was given to it’s association with mining claims such as the abandoned mining camp of Ojo, which is located a few miles from the town and whose concrete foundations are still visible.

Alamosa Colorado is located about 85 miles north of Taos New Mexico and about 70 miles west of Walsenburg Colorado on Interstate 25 via U.S. Hwy 160. Alamosa is also a two and one half hour drive north of Santa Fe New Mexico which makes it a good addition while vacationing in Santa Fe.

cumbres and toltec railroad cars
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad coal tender

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, originally built in 1880, offers all day excursions on their narrow gauge train powered by a coal burning steam locomotive. The route the train travels is a very scenic one which is common in this beautiful area of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Terrific views are offered of the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountain Ranges. Along it’s route, this scenic railroad runs over the 10,000 foot Cumbres Pass.

Two additional Trips Into History photo articles you may enjoy are listed on the links below…

Historic Railroads of Texas / The Frisco

The Vintage Pullman Car

The Historic Rocket Trains

The Wells Fargo Stagecoach / Photos and History

antonito colorado trains
Cumbres & Toltec Railroad water tower in Antonito, Colorado

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad offers excursions from the train depot in Chama New Mexico as well as the depot in Antonito Colorado. Trains depart each morning from both depots. Passengers can ride all the way between both towns or return to where they departed on the other train at Osier, an old stagecoach stop, where lunch is served. The steam locomotives used by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad are engines that once worked on this line and on the Denver & Rio Grande Western.

All three railroads described above are only a few of the many found across the United States. If your future travel plans take you to any of the areas above, I believe you’ll find these train excursions to offer fun and educational experiences for the entire family.

(Article and photos copyright 2013 Trips Into History)