Railroading left an indelible mark on the folklore, the culture, and the history of the U.S. It changed the fabric of its geography, built towns where once there'd been desert, and created connections across distances. The golden age of rail might be over, but it's not forgotten. Keeping its history alive are dozens and dozens of railroad museums, all different, but all united in the common goal of preserving and celebrating the heritage of the railroad industry. Without further ado, here are the 10 best railroad museums to visit in the U.S.
10. National New York Central Railroad Museum
If you're in or around Elkhart, Indiana, don't miss a trip to the National New York Central Railroad Museum. Dedicated to preserving, protecting, and promoting the history of the New York Central Railroad, it promises a fascinating visit, with enough outdoor displays and indoor exhibits to keep you happy for hours. Key highlights include the New York Central 3001, the largest surviving NYC steam locomotive in the world. If you want to learn more about the history and heritage of the NYC railroad, this is where to do it.
9. Illinois Railway Museum
Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois is the country's largest railroad museum. As you'd expect, its range of displays and exhibits are out of this world. The campus is huge, so you'll need to mark off the best part of a day in your calendar to experience it in its entirety. It's worth it, though - with eleven storage barns containing around 3 miles of covered tracks, four streetcar stations, restored locomotives, a train depot from 1853, a steam engine restoration shop, and hundreds of vintage signs, it promises a phenomenal experience. If you visit in summer, you can even book a place on a train ride.
8. Medina Railroad Museum
If you're anywhere near Medina in New York, be sure to visit Medina Railroad Museum. Its setting inside one of the nation's largest historic wooden freight depots is extraordinary, as is its collection of railroad artifacts and memorabilia, interactive displays, old photographs, and trains. Chief highlights not to be missed include a superbly detailed model railroad display and an exhibit of antique fire-fighting equipment. Depending on when you visit, you might be lucky enough to catch a train ride. Kids are well served by a range of child-friendly activities and attractions, including an annual Thomas the Tank Engine event.
7. Kentucky Railway Museum
Kentucky Railway Museum in New Haven, Kentucky celebrates the history of the state's railroads and the people who've worked them. It's been around since 1954, but age hasn't withered its charms one little bit. Set in a railway station built by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in the 1850s, it's home to a vast array of indoor exhibits (including a huge, 3000 square foot model train display) and outdoor displays of steam engines and rail cars.
6. B&O Railroad Museum
Located on the site of the B&O Railroad (which in 1829, became known as the “Birthplace of American Railroading” when it built the very first passenger station and commercial long-distance track in the US) the B&O Railroad Museum is a must-visit for any Baltimore residents or visitors with even the vaguest interest in rail history. According to its official website, it boasts the oldest and most comprehensive American railroad collection in the world, with locomotives, historic buildings, and artifacts that date from the very beginning of U.S. railroading.
5. Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum
Back in the day, North Judson in Indiana was a major railroading town, with almost 125 trains passing through each day. At one point, hardly a household around didn't have at least one member of the family working on the railroads. Things have changed a lot in the years since, but the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum is doing a fine job of keeping the town's history alive with its sublime collection of exhibits and rolling stock. Visit during the summer months if you fancy taking a ride on one of its trains.
4. Laws Railroad Museum and Historic Site
Named as one of the best train museums in the U.S. by vacationidea.com, the Laws Railroad Museum and Historic Site is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the Laws Railroad station and rail yard. It's home to a number of historical buildings, all of which house an outstanding array of artifacts, train-related memorabilia, and train displays. Its most significant display is the Southern Pacific Company’s Steam Locomotive no. 9, which was gifted to the museum after its retirement in 1960.
3. Nevada Northern Railway
As Only In Your State rightly notes, the Nevada Northern Railway is one of America’s great preserved historic railroads. Not only does it boast an incredible array of exhibits, but it also offers unique opportunities to experience the magic of the railroad firsthand, whether that's by taking part in a train robbery reenactment or by jumping aboard a moonlight train ride.
2. California State Railroad Museum
Recommended by american-rails.com as one of the best railroad museums to visit in the U.S., the California State Railroad Museum is a state-funded museum dedicated to telling the story of the railroad's role in linking California to the rest of the nation. There are more than 20 restored locomotive engines and railroad cars to browse, not to mention a miniature railroad scene and a reconstructed passenger station from the Central Pacific Railroad. If that wasn't enough, the site also offers visitors the chance to take a 6-mile train ride.
1. Colorado Railroad Museum
Train enthusiasts shouldn't miss a visit to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, Colorado. Established in 1959, it documents the rise and fall of the railroad industry in Colorado. There are historical photographs, model railways, displays on railroad history, over 100 narrow and standard gauge steam and diesel locomotives, a superb collection of vintage railcars, and even a roundhouse with a working turntable where visitors can witness the restoration process firsthand. If all that wasn't enough to entice you, there's still more to come - the museum hosts regular events throughout the year to engage, inform and inspire the whole family. Be sure to check the event schedule on its website before arranging a visit so you can plan accordingly.
Written by Dana Hanson
Read more posts by Dana Hanson