BlogHeritage trains of the American West

1 November 2023by Kevin Pollard0

Heritage trains of the American West

The American rail journey has always had a stronghold on the imagination. Ever-changing landscapes pass by on the other side of the glass or through open windows, from the wineries of the Napa Valley to the rocky outcrops of world’s highest cog railroad at Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak to the desert plains of Amtrak’s California Zephyr train from San Francisco to Chicago. 

The many heritage railways in America are museums of moving history, mostly built to serve the mines that brought wealth to many parts of the US and a reminder of the industrial age that helped shape the country. 

While the car is definitely king in America, and road trips are undeniably great (we do many on our two US tours!), there’s another way, and a more picturesque way to see the country’s pristine wilderness. Vintage steam train rides are as scenic and relaxing as they are slow. You can ride in restored railcars and listen to the whistle of a steam engine as it chugs through tunnels, up mountains and across trestles.

Most of the trains have on-board entertainment that will transport you back in time, with knowledgeable guides ready to regale you with the history of the area and interesting facts about the landscapes you pass through – from strike-it-rich stories of Gold Hill on the Virginia & Truckee Railroad to tales of the old lumber lines in the Californian redwoods. These journeys give passengers a sense of what it was like to travel when these rail routes were first built.

Our two American tours will present to you some of the most exciting and scenic excursion train rides in six western states of the USA – California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. You will travel on some of the country’s most famous heritage train rides, board the trams of San Francisco and ride Amtrak express trains across the country.

The American Wild West 

The American West is the stuff of legends, home to some of the world’s grandest scenery, vibrant cities and a network of iconic railways rich in history, character and astounding engineering.

Thoughts of Western America often conjure up images of covered wagons carrying adventuring families and would-be entrepreneurs following the promise of gold and land upon which to build a new life. Not long after the settlers came the railways, making the region accessible for many more, which very quickly saw the rise of towns and cities that still draw us today. The railway network also opened up the region’s staggeringly beautiful natural world to visitors, much of which is still protected today by various government bodies and UNESCO.

The scenery of the American west has been the backdrop for legends and stories from the times of the Native Americans right through to modern day Hollywood’s love obsession with this spectacular landscape. Monument Valley for instance has appeared in no less than 80 films and TV shows and that’s on top of the Marlboro Man galloping past the towering mesas to the rousing anthem of the Magnificent Seven!

History of rail transport in the US and the American West

One of the best innovations that enabled the growth, expansion, and consolidation of the US was the development of the railroads.

Starting it off were the wooden railroads, called wagonways, that were built in the US in the 1720s. They were also known as horse-drawn railways which consisted of the horses, equipment and tracks used for hauling wagons, which preceded steam-powered railways. Railways played a large role in the development of the US from the industrial revolution in the Northeast (1810–1850) to the settlement of the West (1850–1890). The American railroad mania began with the founding of the first passenger and freight line in the nation – the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1827. Investors hoped that a railroad would allow Baltimore, the second largest US city at that time, to successfully compete with New York for western trade.

Virginia and Truckee Railroad - credit Madison Kirkman

Although the earliest groups of gold rush migrants in the 1840s travelled by steamship and overland, migration to California and the American West and related economic needs spurred the growth of railroads connecting the US coasts, culminating in the creation, in 1869 of the 3,075-kilometre Transcontinental Railroad between Iowa and San Francisco. The line’s completion, financed in part with gold rush money, united California with the west, central and eastern United States. Once the transportation of the future, trains replaced covered wagons in America to take people west and ended the need for the Pony Express.

The rail system was mostly built by 1910 and by 1924, the US railroad trackage reached 482,800 kilometres, the highest in history. But then trucks arrived which severely affected trains freight traffic, and cars and later airplanes that took over much of the passenger traffic. After 1940, the use of diesel electric locomotives made for more efficient operations that needed far fewer workers on the road and in repair shops. When railroads started retiring steam locomotives in the mid-1900s, many wound up in city parks, in railway museums or were left abandoned and derelict.

World War II in the 1940s brought railroads the highest ridership in American history, with soldiers being sent to fight overseas in the Pacific Theatre and the European Theatre. However, car travel caused train ridership to decline and the railways suffered.  

A series of bankruptcies and consolidations between the mid-1950s to the early 1980s left the rail system in the hands of a few large operations by the late-1980s as railroads attempted to shed unprofitable trains and rail routes. Almost all long-distance passenger traffic was shifted to Amtrak in 1971, a government-owned operation. That year, Steve Goodman famously penned in his song ‘The City of New Orleans’, ‘….this train got the disappearing railroad blues.’ 

While passenger trains languish behind cars and airplanes there are plenty of historic train rides all around the country that offer relaxing, fun and delightfully nostalgic experiences with the added bonus of beautiful scenery.

Verde Canyon Railroad

The California gold rush, mining boom and the railroad war

The California Gold Rush between 1848–1855 brought over 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad. San Francisco grew from a small settlement of about 200 residents in 1846 to a boomtown of 40,000 by 1853 and 350,000 by 1900, transforming the unimportant hamlet into a busy port, making it the largest city on the West Coast at the time. Between 1870 and 1900, 25% of California’s population resided in the city. Trains played a major role in California’s booming economy and growth during this period. 

In the late 1870s, miners descended on the upper Arkansas River valley of the Colorado Rockies in search of carbonate ores rich in lead and silver. The feverish mining activity attracted the attention of the Rio Grande Western Railroad and the Santa Fe Railway, each of which already had railways in the region. Both rail companies sought to extend their tracks there through the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas” – a mountain valley 80 kilometres long. The problem was a section where it was not possible to build two railroads. In spring 1878, with silver in their sights and large profits to be made, Santa Fe rushed a crew to the mouth of the gorge and began grading for a track bed. Rio Grande frowned upon what they considered usurpation and sent crews to the same site, but it was too late. Santa Fe workers blocked their entrance into the narrowing passage, and the war was on. For two years, the railroads fought each other in the courts to build the railroad as they wanted first dibs on the commerce generated by the mining boom, and they raced to clear a rail bed and lay track to an elevation of more than 3,000 metres in the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies are called “rocky” for a reason!

In the end, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad was built, but not before Wild West-style armed fights in the “Royal Gorge War” or “Railroad War” between the rival railroad construction crews complete with sieges, bullets, and even a few fatalities. The “Treaty of Boston” (Boston being the corporate home of Santa Fe) was signed in 1880 between the rival railroads to finally end the dispute. 

The right-of-way went back to Rio Grande, and they paid Santa Fe $1.8 million USD for the railroad it had built in the Royal Gorge, the grading it had completed, materials, and interest. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad, which is featured on our Rocky Mountain High tour, is so spectacular that US President Teddy Roosevelt said in 1905 that it is a “trip that bankrupts the English language!” 

The top 5 railway adventures you will experience on our American West rail tours

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad epitomizes the Old Wild West and was constructed in 1882 to haul silver and gold ore from the mines of the San Juan Mountains. Not long after, the economic depression known as the Panic of 1893 struck, and the ensuing drop in the price of silver crippled the area’s mining industry. The line was nearly abandoned in the 1940s and is one of the USA’s last remaining narrow-gauge rail lines, navigating tight curves and steep inclines in the Colorado Rockies with ease. Its original coal-powered steam engines climb over 900 metres in elevation during its 72 kilometres course. The railroad offers a trip back in time for passengers who can learn about this period in time and the people who lived it.

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad was originally part of the Rio Grande Railway serving the silver mines of the San Juan Mountains. It’s also a National Historic Landmark – between wildlife spotting, rugged landscapes, and the romance of its steam locomotives, it’s deserving of the title. At more than 3,050 metres at Cumbres Pass, it’s the highest point of elevation a steam locomotive has ever reached in North America. At 103 kilometres in length, it is the longest, the highest and most authentic steam railroad in North America.

The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad

This historic 914 mm narrow gauge railroad has two operating “Shay Geared” three-truck steam locomotives, No. 10 and No. 15. No. 10 was built in 1928 and was recognized as the largest narrow gauge Shay locomotive – and one of the last constructed. No. 15 was built in 1913 and was sold to the Sierra Nevada Wood and Lumber Company and continued its service. The current railroad follows a portion of grade originally carved into the mountain by the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company in the early 20th century.

The Grand Canyon Railway

Environmental philosopher and naturalist John Muir, known as the Father of the National Parks, once rode the Grand Canyon Railway and praised it for its limited environmental impact. When it first opened in 1901, the line was one of the only ways to see the Grand Canyon and became the fastest and cheapest way to reach the canyon. Like so many of these heritage railways, it was built to serve the area’s Anita ore mine, but the railroad’s backers recognized its potential for tourism from the very beginning. 

The Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad

The Big Trees Ranch was bought in 1867 to preserve the giant redwood trees from logging. Roaring Camp Railroads was the brainchild of Norman Clark, who came from a family of railroad builders and who dreamed of preserving both the spirit of early California and the state’s stunning redwoods by constructing a park, in 1963 where logging would be off limits. His purpose was to “bring the romance and colour of steam railroading back to America.” The railroad runs most trains using steam locomotives, several dating from the 1890s and some of the oldest narrow-gauge steam locomotives still providing regular passenger service in the country.

Scott McGregor’s Railway Adventures tour is more than just a holiday, it is a unique way to experience the world. By train you are completely immersed in culture and adventure, exploring the most scenic corners of the world in the comfort of a luxury train. Whether you are an experienced traveller or just beginning to explore this wonderful world, Railway Adventures has something for everyone. Transform your holiday into the most unforgettable adventure of a lifetime with Railway Adventures.

Call 1300 800 977 or email us at [email protected] to request a brochure on our domestic tours in 2022 or visit our website to view all our tours.

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Kevin Pollard

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