All Over The Map: The magic of trains during Christmas season in the Northwest

Dec 10, 2021, 5:54 AM | Updated: 11:06 am

A dusting of snow covers the old Northern Pacific depot in Cheney, WA, where it was recently moved to a new home. (Courtesy Save Our Station) Cheney's depot as it appeared in the 1930s; it was designed with input from Cheney mayor -- and future Washington governor -- Clarence Martin. (Courtesy Cheney History Museum) The depot was moved in 2020 to a new location in Cheney five blocks away from its original spot. (Courtesy Save Our Station) It was a complex process to carefully move the 1929 depot. (Courtesy Save Our Station) New concrete foundations were poured at the Cheney depot's new location. (Courtesy Save Our Station)

As that old Amtrak TV commercial used to say, “there’s something about a train that’s magic”– and this seems to be especially true at Christmastime. From Tacoma to Cheney, and from Snoqualmie to Hood River, Oregon, there are a handful of special railroad activities to see and do between now and the end of December.

25th Annual Model Train Festival at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma

Model trains have been popular Christmas gifts for about a century, and the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma is back – after skipping last year because of the pandemic – with the 25th anniversary edition of its popular annual Model Train Festival. Seven model train groups bring their layouts and special activities, while also on view is the large permanent layout created by the Puget Sound Model Railroad Engineers for the museum back in the 1990s. New this year are timed-entry tickets; make reservations in advance online via the link.

Historic Snoqualmie Depot at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie

Sorry to say the Northwest Railway Museum’s popular Santa Train is all sold out for this year, but it’s still worth a visit to see the old historic depot in Snoqualmie or tour the Train Shed Exhibit Hall to perhaps get a glimpse and the museum’s most recent acquisition. The depot is open daily, with free admission, seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Christmas Day). The Train Shed Exhibit Hall is open from now through Dec. 17, they’ll be open today, and then next Monday, Thursday, and Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then it will be closed for the rest of the year.

Simpson Railroad “Simpson Santa Special” in Shelton 

What’s described as, “The last logging railroad to operate in the United States!” – the old Simpson Railroad in Shelton, Mason County – will be operating its very own Santa train, the Simpson Santa Special, for one more weekend this year: Saturday, Dec. 11 and Sunday, Dec. 12. The short and very affordable ride includes a visit with Santa at the jolly old elf’s workshop. Dress for the weather, as the Simpson Railroad’s cars are covered, but have open sides. All a-brrrrrrrr-d!!!

Mt. Hood Christmas Train in Hood River, Oregon

If you’re up for a longer drive, there are still tickets available for the Mt. Hood Christmas Train in Hood River, Oregon, east of Portland, from now through Dec. 26. The hour-long roundtrip goes from Hood River to Christmas Town. Where is Christmas Town, exactly? According to the train group’s website: “To maintain the holiday magic, the location of Christmas Town is not disclosed.”

Northern Pacific Depot in Cheney

A community effort to preserve the old Northern Pacific depot in Cheney is only about $90,000 shy of reaching its fundraising goal. BNSF donated the 1929 building – which was located between active tracks and inaccessible to the public – to a nonprofit group called Save Our Station. The group raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and recently moved the beautiful mission-style depot – complete with a terra cotta tile roof – to a new location five blocks away in downtown Cheney at a spot overlooking the railyard.

Next up is restoration of the interior and exterior to create a museum and event and retail space. The depot is not yet open to the public and won’t be until later next year, but if you plan to be in the Spokane area over the holidays, take a few minutes and drive into downtown Cheney to get a look at a remarkable building in its new location.

Vintage locomotives

If none of these activities fit your busy holiday schedule, there’s always the age-old favorite of going for a drive – which might include passing by one of the many vintage locomotives on outdoor display in communities around Washington – and a few of them are more than likely decorated with festive holiday lights.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: The magic of trains during Christmas season in the Northwest