Keli Gwyn
Research on the Rails

Over spring break, my family and I boarded am Amtrak train bound for Reno.

While the trip was a lot of fun, the primary purpose for me was research, since many of my characters reached California by train. I love research, and when I can couple it with a vacation, that makes it even better.

Amtrack Trip 1

The eastbound train pulling into the station.

We boarded the train in Roseville, California, about twenty miles east of downtown Sacramento, leaving at 11:30 a.m. I was smiling so broadly that morning it was a wonder my cheeks weren’t sore.

Amtrack Trip 2

The adventure begins.

While we were assigned seats in a coach car, I spent the entire eastbound trip in the sightseer car.

Amtrack Trip 3

I was trying to capture the plentiful Manzanita bushes and red clay that are prevalent on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas.

When I wasn’t snapping pictures, I was taking notes on the narration given by docents from the Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento. They ride the train and enlighten passengers about the history of the Central Pacific Railroad.

Amtrak Trip 4

Highway 80 heading over Donner Summit.

Normally this road would be full of skiers bound for the snow, but with the pitiful amount of snow we’ve had this year, they’ve found other activities.

Amtrak Trip 5

North Fork of the American River

The views from the train are spectacular. As we climbed, pine trees outnumbered the oaks that are more plentiful at lower elevations.

Amtrak Trip 6

The eastbound train going around a bend as we reach the snowline.

Due to maintenance taking place the day we made the trip, the eastbound train was actually using the westbound track. We were assured we were safe, but we did have to stop a number of times and travel very slowly at others. Even at regular speed, the train was only going about 30-35 mph. There are plenty of curves to navigate and steep hills to climb.

Amtrak Trip 7

The eastbound train approaching a show shed.

The early snow sheds were built of wood. Sparks from the locomotives could set them on fire, so lookouts were posted on a far away mountaintop to keep watch. Crews would be dispatched to deal with any fires. Concrete sheds eventually replace the wooden ones.

Even though this is near the summit, there is little snow. Normally there would be ten to twelve feet at this time of year, but we just experienced our third driest February and March on record.

Amtrak Trip 8

Donner Lake

Donner Lake is named after the ill-fated party of pioneers who reached the area after the winter storms had set in and were unable to complete their crossing. They split into two groups and camped near the lake.

Amtrak Trip 9

The eastern slope of the Sierras near the Nevada border.

The terrain changed greatly once we began our descent on the eastern side of the Sierras where there is little rainfall.

Amtrak Trip 10

An irrigation canal on the eastern slope of the Sierras.

The early settlers built many irrigation canals, or ditches as they are more commonly called, to take water from the Sierras to the communities at lower elevations. Many of these engineering marvels are still in use today.

Amtrak Trip 11

Our daughter, Adriana, poses beneath Reno’s famous archway.

Due to the delays, we reached Reno around 4:30 p.m. The train station is right downtown, so we were able to walk to the casino where Gwynly had booked our room. We enjoyed a nice dinner, played a few games in the carnival portion of Circus Circus, and lost a whopping $4.00 at the penny slots. Nope. We’re not big gamblers.

Amtrak Trip 12

An irrigation canal on the California side of the Sierras.

We boarded the train the following morning at 8:30 a.m. On the return trip, I discovered where the docents hang out and paid them a visit. They gave me some great info for the story I’m writing.

Thanks to my research trip, I will be better able to describe the train trip many of my characters made when they came to California. I’m grateful I didn’t have to make it in the days when women wore Victorian dresses with layers of petticoats and dealt with the soot and ash from the steam locomotives raining on the cars. I did, however, experience the drunk-like stagger needed to keep my balance as I walked between the cars. Too bad I didn’t take a video camera.


Questions for You

Have you ever ridden a train?
If so, what did you like best about the experience?


My apologies for getting this post up late. We learned last week that our daughter, Adriana, a German-French major graduating this June, got a job in France. Come October, she’ll be a teaching assistant in English classes in French middle and/or high schools around the city of Lille in northern France. Needless to say, I’m quite excited, so much so that I forgot to write my post.

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