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California Museum Highlights Era of Steam Locomotives


Freight trains can be seen across the United States, but most Americans do their traveling today by air or automobile. Yet many feel nostalgia for the days of the steam locomotive, when people could see the country on leisurely journeys. Los Angeles residents can re-experience that past at a railroad museum.

It is called the Travel Town Museum, and it features locomotives and rail cars in an open-air display.

"Travel Town was founded back in the 1950s, at a time when steam engines were still actually running, and people were familiar with them, and kids could see them out their windows and on their way to school. But rather quickly they were being replaced by diesels," says Linda Barth, the museum's director.

The Los Angeles parks department decided to preserve this bit of history by collecting the locomotives in a section of Griffith Park, which sprawls across the hills northwest of the city.

"And we happen to be sitting in front the very first steam locomotive that was donated to Travel Town. It actually arrived here in October of 1952," she notes.

The collection has grown to 14 steam locomotives, several diesel engines, and other railroad cars.

"Over the years, we have collected, besides those locomotives, railroad passenger cars, cabooses, freight cars, box cars. We eventually had some electric vehicles too," she says.

The display is interactive.

Visitors sit in a steam locomotive built in 1860, and push the control lever just as the engineer did back then.

"We are talking about essentially what is a time machine," she says. "When you sit in there, you are sitting inside something that was built while the American Civil War was being fought. And there you are sitting inside it, looking out the window just like an engineer did 120 years ago, 50 years ago. It has a great history in California. It was used in different places in California until it was finally donated here to Travel Town."

The Travel Town Museum is popular with families, and especially with young children, most of whom have little experience with trains. The historic locomotives all stand still today, but people can take a ride a miniature train that offers something of the feel of railroad travel.

Visitors can also makes entries in a book to recount their experiences with trains. Ms. Barth says many speak of parents or grandparents who were railroad employees, such as engineers or conductors.

"And besides engineers or conductors, all kinds of people. There were railroad police, there were railroad accountants, there were railroad business people. And we invite people to write in a book or write on a card what their railroad experience or their railroad family member was," she adds.

Most visitors write of their nostalgia for the days when the passenger train, pulled by a steam locomotive, was the preferred means of travel across the country.

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