Riding the Rails

by brenda maas

Trains—the great iron beasts—are integral part of America. Although modern-day travel is mainly by car or airplane, it is the iconic steam engine that made the West accessible to the rest of the nation. Simply standing near a laboring locomotive—smelling her greased metal working, feeling her steam, hearing her shrill whistle—creates an excitement that’s palatable.

From long excursions to short jaunts, we can feel the hypnotizing sway, the buzz of energy created by the iron horses that forever changed the face of the Western frontier. And, let’s admit it, inside each of us is a yearning for the simpler, and maybe a bit more romantic, times that trains represent.

In Montana we have ample opportunities to ride trains. Here’s the lowdown on four trains within five driving hour of Billings. So, what are you waiting for? All Aboard!

Alder Gulch Short Line Railroad

This train runs between Virginia City and Nevada City Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend.

The 1910 Baldwin steam locomotive (No. 12) runs every weekend in July-August & July 4 and Labor Day; all other times the train is pulled by the gasoline engine No. 8.

As Montana’s only operating steam locomotive, riders get a rich historic experience. From the opportunity to explore a re-created ghost town, Nevada City, at one end of the line to the West’s best preserved gold mining town, Virginia City, at the other end history truly lives.

Kids can explore abandoned train cars, stores and a schoolhouse in Nevada City before riding the rails back to Virginia City—both are a glimpse into boom-and-bust frontier life from over a century ago. Kids will get a kick out of thinking about daily life without running water, toilets, TV or electronic games.

Good to Know: Be prepared for to get dirty because the ghosts don’t clean in the ghost town and bring pocket change for the player piano and other machines in the Music Hall. If fire restrictions are in place, the steam engine will not run.

Prices vary from $15 to $4, depending on age (under age 5 are free), which engine (gasoline or steam) and type of ticket (one-way or round-trip). See the website for complete details. Group (6+), museum combination and AAA discounts available.

For more information call 406-843-5247 or visit www.virginiacitymt.com/aldergulch.asp

Good to know...The whistle on No. 12 is authentic—cover your ears!

The Copper King Express

Anaconda is the where this historic train boards.

It runs Saturdays & Sundays from May 30 to September 13. The Excursion train departs at 12 noon & dinner train leaves at 4pm

History lessons of Montana are not complete without learning about how copper made Butte and Anaconda king. On the rails of the century-old Butte, Anaconda & Pacific Railway (B.A. & P.), you will travel through scenic Durant Canyon while seated in a refurbished luxury car. To further enhance the historical experience, the train departs from Anaconda Railway and Mining Museum’s authentic roundhouse—one of 10 working roundhouses in the U.S.

According to Director of Excursions, Dona Simmons, “The Copper King is very children-oriented.” Kids are allowed to walk around within their car during the three-hour ride, read the books provided, or draw. “A lot of the kids will take notes during the narration because we play Copper King Trivia and they can answer using the microphone and even win prizes,” Simmons notes. “We’ve also been known to celebrate birthdays on board.”

Good to Know: The trains fill up quickly, so reservations are required. Arrive 20 minutes or more before departure because boarding is first-come, first-seated. No carry-ons (except baby items). Box lunches from Subway are available for purchase.

How Much: $25/adult; $20/seniors over 60; $18/ages 6-18/ $5/5 and under

For more information call 1-877-563-5458 or 406-563-5045 (museum) or visit www.copperkingexpress.com

Good to know...The Copper King Express also operates special “murder” dinners on selected dates and the North Pole Express in November and December.

The Charlie Russell Chew Choo

Dinner Train

A short trip to Lewistownis all it takes to visit this train. (see website for directions & map). It runs Saturdays from June 6-September 26. There is an Evening Dinner Train, however call ahead since the time varies according to the time of year. This ride will take 3-4 hours.

The narrated ride accentuates Montana’s wide-open places, traveling over three historic train trestles and through a half-mile tunnel—a must-see for train enthusiasts of all ages. Train Coordinator, Maleta Yetter notes, “The whole experience of riding a train is something that a lot of people don’t get to do anymore, especially in Western fashion.” Riders enjoy a full course prime rib dinner while entertained by live musicians and other entertainers strolling the train.

The 56-mile roundtrip will provide plenty of wildlife such as deer, antelope, eagles, hawks and coyotes, and the departure is scheduled to take advantage of a stunning Big Sky sunset. However, it is the masked bandits, riding horseback and shooting (blanks) guns into the air that will capture the youngsters’ attention. Be prepared to give up some loot and take pictures of both the charming ladies and ruthless western gangsters who board the dining cars.

Boarding begins one hour prior to departure and it’s first-come, first seated in dining room style, unless part of a VIP package.

This trip costs $89.99/adults & $50/ages 2-12

VIP packages are available for $120/adults & $70/ages 2-12

Reservations/advanced purchase is recommended

For more information call 406-535-5436 or 866-912-3980 (toll-free) or visit www.montantacharlierussellchewchoo.com

Good to know...Watch the website for seasonal trips such as the Polar Run with Santa; the Charlie Russell Chew Choo also operates for private parties.

1880 Train on the Black Hills Central Railroad

This train travels between Hill City and Keystone, South Dakota. It runs May 4-October 11 with multiple daily runs.

Get out of the car and explore the historic beauty of the Hills from the eyes of yesteryear. Over 50 years ago, the original train organizers believed, “there should be in operation at least one working steam railroad, for boys of all ages who share America’s fondness for the rapidly vanishing steam locomotive.”

The 1800 Train runs one of three steam or two diesel engines—the air is alive with excitement. “Although little kids are sometimes afraid of the enormous, loud engine, most kids are excited about all the sounds and colors,” notes General Manager Meg Warder. “The romanticism of trains and the railroad is a huge draw for all ages.”

The train does not run all the way to Mount Rushmore—it’s a three-mile trip, uphill, from Keystone. The train’s route is posted on the website. Reservations are highly recommended because they do sell out. This trip round trip will cost $22/adult & $12/ages 3-12 & free/under 2. A one-way trip will cost $18/adult $10/age 3-12 & free/under 2

For more information call 605-574-2222 or visit www.1880train.com.

Good to know...Look for special events, such as the Fireworks Express, BBQ with Teddy Roosevelt, shootouts, Fright Train and Holiday Express. SFM

Day Out with Thomas the Tank Engine ™



July 10-12, 2009

It’s a bird! It’s a plane….wait…it’s a train? It’s a storybook character come to life. If your child is a Thomas aficionado, he or she will squeal with delight upon seeing Thomas in Billings all the way from the Island of Sodor. And, let’s face it, Thomas-mania is at largely partially responsible for train revival in under-five set.

This one is really all about kids and their imagination. Sir Topham Hatt, the Controller of the Sodor Railway, will greet visitors in the festive atmosphere that includes temporary tattoos of Thomas characters, storytelling, Lego™ block building, an imagination station and music.

Actual ride is 25 minutes but arrive an hour early. You only pay for the train ride—the rest of the event is open.

$18/person ages 2 and up.

Reservations strongly recommended.

You can only ride the train at your allotted time and the event goes on, rain or shine.

For more information visit www.billingsdepot.org/dowt/dowt_main.html or call 406-656-7173.

Visit www.ticketweb.com/dowt or 866-468-7630 to purchase tickest for this event.

Thomas aficionados will abound—wear your Thomas or engineer’s gear!