While riding on iconic symbols of the Wild West, you’ll hear the melancholy toot of a steam whistle and feel the penetrating rumble of an iron horse rolling along the tracks. For old-timers, these tracks symbolized mobility and prosperity and were often the catalyst that could make or break a town. Today’s historic trains revisit the Golden Age of railroading during leisurely rides in intimate environments.
California // Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, National Hotel
The most photographed railroad in the world (allegedly) had an inauspicious beginning. Incorporated in 1897 as the Sierra Railway, the short-line train transported precious minerals. However, as mining costs escalated, it looked like the railroad had reached the end of the line. Hollywood came to the rescue in 1919, filming a silent serial, The Red Glove. Railtown was on a roll as reel after reel made its way onto the big screen and television in blockbusters such as Petticoat Junction and Unforgiven. Nowadays, an authentic steam engine chugs through California’s scenic gold country on a 40-minute round trip. At Rock Spur, the train uncouples and "runs around" to face the return leg. Longer, themed trips are also available.
The National Hotel began as high-end lodging but evolved through the years into a bordello and biker bar before finding its way back to the luxury market. The original 1859 buildings were among the first permanent structures in Jamestown, but two fires and a sputtering economy almost buried the business. The 36-room grand dame offers private and semiprivate meeting space in the on-site steakhouse. A wine tasting room is perfect for a smaller group of no more than 10, while the courtyard is appropriate for larger groups up to 95.
Colorado // Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Strater Hotel
General William Jackson Palmer built the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1870 to haul mining ore. As almost an afterthought, he also provided passenger service. Word quickly spread that the route was "The Scenic Line of the World." Now called the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR), the coalfired, steam-powered train passes through the San Juan National Forest and along the Animas River and has museums at both ends of the line. At a leisurely 18 miles per hour, it also hugs steep cliffs known as the Highline. Showcased in movies, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the D&SNGRR and its grounds are a National Historic Landmark. Groups can reserve a vintage car with capacity of 24 guests on the regular route or charter the entire train to Cascade Canyon, where a pavilion is perfect for an outdoor meeting or event.
Transplanted Cleveland pharmacist Henry Strater struck gold in Durango without ever doing any panning. He built an elegant native red brick and carved sandstone hotel that was leased to a savvy proprietor. The hotel became popular with visitors and local townsfolk who closed their own homes and moved into the Strater Hotel during winter’s coldest span. It became a source of contention between the owner and his lessee, so Strater built a competing property across the street. The Silver Panic put both men out of business, but the Strater Hotel survived to host such luminaries as Louis L’Amour, who always requested the room above the Diamond Belle Salon, saying the honky-tonk music was his muse. Today the 93-room hotel offers on-site catering, as well as 6,300 square feet of meeting space divided between four separate rooms.
Oregon // Mount Hood Railroad, Hood River Hotel
While mining made tracks in Colorado and California, the mother lode in Oregon was timber. The Mount Hood Railroad built a line in 1906 to serve milling operations. Not only did it help develop valleys and orchards, it was also the main source of transport for residents. Today, a ‘50s-era diesel engine pulls refurbished vintage cars, a dome car and a club car with a dance floor that can be equipped for meetings. Tours depart the century-old depot for a four-hour ride that passes along the Hood River toward the base of Mount Hood before ending in Parkdale. The engine reverses direction at one of only five remaining switchbacks still used in the United States. Dinner, wine and brunch trains are available, as well as specialty excursions including the Fruit Blossom Special, which chugs through 10,000 acres of blooming orchards.
The 41-room Hood River Hotel is within walking distance of the railroad. Built five years after workers laid the tracks, the hotel was neglected until windsurfers discovered the region was perfectly breezy. A major renovation in the late 1980s restored the original lofty ceilings, expansive windows, brass elevator and the lobby’s marble-faced, wood-burning fireplace. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel offers 3,500 square feet of private and semiprivate meeting space and has an on-site restaurant and spa facility.
Utah // Heber Valley Railroad, Johnson Mill
Family-friendly Heber Valley Railroad began shortline service in 1899, transporting pioneers who settled the valley. Eventually the railroad acquired impressive engines and cars that appeared in the television programs Touched by an Angel and Promised Land. Today either a Baldwin Steam locomotive or vintage diesel engine pull restored coaches along the original Denver & Rio Grande Western rail line. This line passes around Deer Creek Reservoir and along the Provo River, offering views of sagebrush-studded hills and Mount Timpanogos. The three-hour round trip includes a stop at Vivian Park, where conductors switch the engine to face northeast. Scenic rides and activity trains include dinner excursions, simulated robberies and seasonal events.
The Johnson Mill traded hands through two unrelated Johnson families before the second Johnsons transformed it into a family residence, and then a luxury bed-and-breakfast. The 14-acre property in Midway is tucked along the banks of the Provo River in some of Utah’s most beautiful countryside. Johnson Mill specializes in corporate retreats and also offers several modern meeting spaces.
Washington // Chehalis-Centralia Railroad, Olympic Club Hotel
For years, the 1916 steam-logging locomotive that is the centerpiece of the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad gathered rust in a local park until community activists rescued, renovated and returned the beauty to running condition. Now passengers chuff along a former Milwaukee track for an 18-mile round trip, winding through upper Chehalis Valley, crossing wooden trestles and passing pastoral farms. The railroad offers themed events, as well as brunch and dinner service in a renovated 1920s dining car. Visit the on-site museum to see historic railroad equipment.
Olympic Club Hotel opened in 1908 as a gentlemen’s club, replete with bar, barbershop and brothel. Classified as a "railroad hotel," it was a favorite among passengers and train robbers, including Roy Gardner, who was shackled and dragged from an upstairs room. In 2002, the 27-room property was remodeled European style. The Green Room seats 40, while the theater-available until 4 p.m.-seats 100