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Railtown has touch of history, Hollywood

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POSTED May 17, 2014 1:30 a.m.

The area had all of the makings of a perfect western movie set.

Chaparral-like terrain was the perfect backdrop to mimic nearly any location tucked away in the hills. The fact that it was isolated from nearly all city life only helped add to creating that true western mystique.

But what truly made the Red Hills Ranch – a filming site outside of Jamestown that was used for such staples as Little House on the Prairie, Unforgiven and Back to the Future III – the perfect location for directors like Steven Spielberg to pull off their grand vision wasn’t the land itself, but what ran through it.

The railroad.

For decades a little plot of land just outside of the foothill hamlets of Jamestown and Sonora sat a movie ranch that counted Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and Michael J. Fox as some of its former inhabitants. A wildfire destroyed nearly all of the set in 1996, but the steel tracks that helped mimic one of the most important conquering aspects of the west are still very much alive in the region.

And at the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, you can take a ride on a locomotive not at all unlike the ones seen in the movies that Tuolumne County still actively tries to draw to the area to this day.

Just picture it – the long, loud whistle sounds and you hear the chugging of the engine as it approaches the station. The metal side rods move back-and-forth, up-and-down as the passenger cars slow to a crawl behind the big, black iron horse. For the time it was the fastest form of transportation known to man, allowing for people – and in this area, gold – to be moved from point to point in a matter of hours when it would have taken days before.

It seems hard to conceive today, especially when highly efficient railroad engines that require much less energy and pack far more power have become the norm among companies that still use the tracks to move freight across the country.

Railtown 1897 makes it much easier to put all of that into perspective – allowing you to stare up at the hulking black mass of steel that literally helped transform America and even take a slow, meandering ride through the Mother Lode countryside in a passenger car not unlike those that people rode on a century ago.

Click-clack. Click-clack. Click-clack.

To get to the park from Highway 99 take the Highway 120 exit towards Yosemite. Continue east on 120 through Escalon and into Oakdale. Highway 120 will merge with Highway 108, and both will continue east. When Highway 120 splits to head towards Yosemite, stay on Highway 108 and follow it up to and past the historic section of Jamestown. Just ahead on the right will be 5th Avenue. Turn right. The park is straight ahead.

Train rides, which can be booked in advance, are $15 for adults and $8 for youths 6-17. Children 5 and under are free. Regular admission is $5 for adults and $3 for youths 6-17. Children 5 and under are free. For more info visit www.railtown1897.org or call 209.984.3953.

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