Image: Babe Ruth
National Baseball Hall of Fame
Babe Ruth gets ready to board the Los Angeles Limited.
Image:
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/6/2010 9:57:22 AM ET 2010-05-06T13:57:22

The heyday of passenger rail travel in the U.S. may be a thing of the past, but millions of Americans still have a soft spot in their hearts for anything related to the rails.

That’s why this year's celebration of National Train Day (Saturday, May 8) at train stations, depots and transportation museums around the country will draw crowds. And it won’t just be little kids who will wear those striped engineer’s hats in earnest.

Officially, National Train Day celebrates the creation of the first transcontinental railroad. The ceremony making it official took place on May 10, 1869 (two days late, due to the late arrival of one of the two trains), when dignitaries met at Promontory Summit, Utah, to place the four ceremonial spikes (two were gold) that tied together 1,776 miles of railway. That linking created opportunities for business and commerce, but it also ignited a romance with cross-country rail travel that continues today.

So all aboard! Here is a roundup of some events taking place this weekend in honor of National Train Day.

Golden Spike National Historic Site
On Saturday, May 8, as with every Saturday during the summer season, there will be a re-enactment of the Last Spike Ceremony. Volunteers are invited to portray the dignitaries, so feel free to dress in your best Victorian garb.

Image: "The Champagne Photo"
NARA
Andrew J. Russell's classic "East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail," was taken on May 10, 1869, and is better known as "The Champagne Photo."

Two days later, on the 141st anniversary of the driving of the last spike, there will be an expanded program that includes not just the re-enactment, but also speeches, live music, a wreath-laying and demonstrations of the replica steam locomotives, the Union Pacific engine No. 119 and the Central Pacific’s Jupiter, that met almost nose-to-nose on the tracks for the historic “Champagne Photos.”

For more information, visit the Golden Spike National Historic Site Web site.

Amtrak celebrates National Train Day
In the late 1990s, Amtrak, the country’s intercity passenger rail system, struggled to maintain ridership and financial support from the government. But during the past few years, ridership has been increasing. Before he was chosen as Barack Obama’s running mate, then-Senator Joe Biden was a regular rider between Washington, D.C. and his home in Wilmington, Del.

The rail carrier reports passenger loads are up more than four percent in the first half of fiscal year 2010, putting it on track to set new ridership records.

All aboard! 10 great train trips

“There is plenty to celebrate,” says Gil Carmichael, former head of the Federal Railroad Administrator. Now with the University of Denver’s Intermodal Transportation Institute, Carmichael notes that Amtrak has announced it will be replacing its entire passenger train fleet. “Within another five years, passengers will be riding on new trains.”

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For now, Amtrak is celebrating National Day Train Day by hosting free events that feature entertainment, educational exhibits, model train displays and tours of private railroad cars at train stations in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Each station will offer something extra as well:

Actor and train enthusiast Taye Diggs (of TV’s “Private Practice”) will be at New York City’s Penn Station on May 7 to flip the switch on a model train that will travel through an edible “trainscape.” Diggs will then travel to Washington, D.C’s Union Station — by train, of course — where the day’s activities on May 8 will include a Dining the Rail Way exhibit and a culinary demonstration by Chef Michel Richard. There will also be railroad-related activities at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum across the street, where activities will include sorting railway mail and learning to talk like a Railway Post Office clerk.

At Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, the model trains and equipment displays will be supplemented with an exhibit titled Baseball Junction: The History of Baseball and the American Railroad. Memorabilia, photos and videos exploring links between train travel and baseball will be on display. Included will be photos from the 2009 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies, which was dubbed the “Amtrak Series” because fans could travel between games by rail. Former Major Leaguers Dallas Green, Gary Mathews and others are scheduled to appear as well.

At Chicago’s Union Station, noted musicians and historians will examine the role train travel played in the history of blues music in America. Posters and other memorabilia from the Chicago Blues Museum will be on display and there will be a performance of train-themed blues songs by Big Bill and Larry “Mud” Morganfield, who are the sons of legendary blues musician Muddy Waters. Mississippi Delta blues musician Bobby Rush will join them.

Image: Railroad Braceros
Aaron Castaneda Gamez
Visitors can learn about the Railroad Braceros at Los Angeles Union Station on National Train Day.

And along with the equipment displays, photo opportunities, culinary demonstrations and special performances scheduled at Union Station in Los Angeles, there will a presentation and an exhibit about the Railroad Braceros. During World War II, there was a shortage of manual laborers in the United States and thousands of Mexican citizens were invited to come to the United States as part of the bracero, or guest worker program. The more than 130,000 Mexican men who joined the ranks of the Railroad Braceros helped build and maintain the country’s passenger rail system.

National Train Day in other cities
In addition to Amtrak-affiliated National Train Day events, railroad fans will find plenty of special activities at train stations, depots and museums in more than 100 other communities around the country.

For example, at the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum in Tucson, home of Southern Pacific Locomotive No. 1673, activities will include free Amtrak souvenirs and an opportunity to operate a diesel engine simulator.

In Miami, the Gold Coast Railroad Museum will be offering guided tours, train rides, and exhibits that include a multiple gauge model train exhibit and the Ferdinand Magellan, a Pullman railroad car used for presidential travel by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, briefly by Dwight D. Eisenhower, and for one day by Ronald Reagan. Also known as “U.S Car No. 1,” the Ferdinand Magellan has two escape hatches and is the only passenger railcar to receive National Historic Landmark status.

To find a National Train Day event taking place near you, click here.

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for USATODAY.com.You can follow her on Twitter.

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