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Railways transformed travel across the world, and they’re just one of the many modern conveniences we take for granted.

It may be difficult (if not impossible) to imagine how difficult making long-distance journeys over land would be without the cars, planes, and high-speed trains we’re used to today. For millions of Americans, though, the introduction of railways (or railroads, in American terminology) changed everything.

This started in 1830, when the Tom Thumb (a locomotive designed and built by Peter Cooper) was put into action. The Tom Thumb was the first steam locomotive to be built in America, and its first journey took it along the Baltimore – Ohio line. It travelled for just 13 miles, but was nonetheless a monumental achievement.

The arrival of the steam train and the railway / railroad system created a more cohesive, connected United States than ever before. People were able to explore the country faster and more conveniently, expanding the average citizen’s horizons; relocating from one state to another was far easier too, allowing for greater national migration.

In the many decades since railways opened the United States up, railway museums have given people from all over the world a chance to explore this fascinating industry. These institutions preserve and showcase the wonders of American railways, celebrating more than a century’s worth of history.

There are many outstanding railway museums in the US, from Illinois to California, each with its own selection of exhibits. In the following article, we’ll explore the top 10 best venues to visit, giving you all the information you need to delve deep into America’s rich railway history.

We’ll cover some of the most important, popular trains in the history of the American railway too, offering more detail on iconic vehicles.

The 10 Best Railway Museums in the US that Every Rail Enthusiast Should Know About and Visit!

Railway Museum
1 California State Railroad Museum The California State Railroad Museum is based in Old Sacramento, and houses 21 different railroad cars and locomotives, all restored. The oldest of their vehicles was actually built back in 1862.

The museum has a rich history itself too. It was officially founded in 1976, though it had been seeded much earlier with the formation of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society’s Pacific Coast Chapter. This was essentially a team of train fans who helped to cultivate the prospect of a museum, actually donating more than two dozen vehicles.

The beautiful California State Railroad Museum features numerous exhibitions, such as those demonstrating how train travel affected society in the United States, photographic projects, objects from the railway museum’s collection of historical items, and more.

The museum is an active resource for schools too, providing local students with a wealth of information on the history of the railways. This often incorporates costumed performances and re-enactments of events from over the years.

The California State Railroad Museum’s collection includes such steam locomotives as an Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe 2925, a Central Pacific No. 1 Gov. Stanford, a North Pacific Coast 12 Sonoma, a Central Pacific No. 3 / Southern Pacific No. 1, and more. Many of these have been cosmetically restored to their original condition.

The museum offers excursion train rides for schools and visitors, including Halloween specials in which the train is decorated for a spooky thrill.

The California State Railroad Museum is a fantastic venue that’s a must-visit for anyone in the area.

Learn more about the California State Railroad Museum
2 Colorado Railroad Museum The Colorado Railroad Museum is a non-profit venue. It was founded in 1959 by Robert W. Richardson and Cornelius W. Hauck, to ensure the state’s involvement in the railroad era (particularly its work on mountain railroads) was preserved for future generations.

It’s a terrific museum with plenty of events for the local community and visitors. These include special appearances, such as a full-scale Thomas the Tank Engine based on the hero of many beloved, timeless stories. Its grounds include the Depot Museum, Railyard, Roundhouse, Library, and Digital Exhibits.

The Depot Museum is particularly striking, and is modelled on a structure from the 1880s to immerse attendees in the era more deeply. It adds an extra touch of authenticity to this popular venue too.

In the Roundhouse, members of the public can watch restoration work take place on a number of vehicles, while the Library is home to more than 10,000 rare items.

Each of these provides visitors with an insight into railway history, with many different locomotives and artefacts on display. Its collection of steam locomotives includes a Denver & Rio Grande Western No. 346, a Chicago Burlington & Quincy No. 5629, a Manitou & Pikes Peak No. 1, a Denver & Rio Grande Western No.683, and more.

Their selection of passenger cars is sizeable too. Visitors can browse the Atchison Topeka & Sante Fe Observation Car Navajo, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Coach No. 284, the Union Pacific Coach No. 5442, and the Union Pacific Diner No. 4801.

Learn more about the Colorado Railroad Museum
3 Tennessee Central Railway Museum The Tennessee Central Railway Museum is a non-profit venue dedicated to preserving the area’s railroad heritage. It’s based in Nashville, and is run by volunteers with a passion for helping to restore vintage vehicles, educate visitors, and keep the museum going.

The venue started out as an expansion of the National Model Railroad Association’s local group, and has continued to grow its collection of vehicles.

It has been operating passenger excursions since 1989, taking riders from Nashville to such varied locations as Watertown, Lebanon, Monterey, and Cookeville. The trains used for excursions tend to have enough space for around 400 passengers, with buffet lounges and slumbercoaches for overnight journeys.

Numerous locomotives, passenger cars, freight cars, and cabooses are all restored by the Tennessee Central Railway Museum’s hard-working volunteers. Their locomotive collection includes an EMD F7A built in 1952, an EMD GP7 from 1951, an EMD SW1 built in 1939, an EMD GP10, and more.

Their coach collection features an Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Budd 48-seater from 1953, an Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Commisary Car from 1955, and several more. It’s a great assortment, and the vehicles’ condition is testament to the museum volunteers’ passion.

The Tennessee Central Railway Museum operates excursions on a regular basis, and includes numerous themed events. These can last all day, offering hours of enjoyment in a range of vintage locomotives and passenger cars.

Learn more about the Tennessee Central Railway Museum
4 Illinois Railway Museum The Illinois Railway Museum is the biggest in the country. It was established in 1953, when ten men with a passion for trains bought an Indiana Railroad 65 car which was due to be scrapped; they each paid $100 towards the purchase.

The museum was originally known as the Illinois Electric Railway Museum but was renamed in 1962. The Indiana Railroad 65 car may have been the museum’s first piece, but dozens more had been bought by 1964 – taking the collection up to 40 in just over a decade.

In the years since, the Illinois Railway Museum has continued to grow and grow, amassing around 450 pieces. It covers over 80 acres of land in Union (close to Chicago), and includes eleven storage barns with approximately three miles of track, two garages storing motor buses and trolley buses, a steam restoration shop, a full Chicago Rapid Transit Company station, a 130-foot turntable, and more.

Some of the items the museum has is the Metra F7 locomotive 308 (retired), a St. Louis-San Francisco Railway 2-10-0 steam engine 1630, an Illinois Central steam locomotive 201, Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 Engine Number 265, Chicago and North Western Railway 1518, Southern Pacific Railroad 1518, and many others.

The Illinois Railway Museum and / or its equipment has appeared in several movies too. A League of Their Own (from 1992) filmed at the depot, Groundhog Day (the immortal 1993 Bill Murray comedy) utilised the EMD SD24 locomotive, and Transformers: Age of Extinction featured the museum too.

Learn more about the Illinois Railway Museum
5 Danbury Railway Museum The Danbury Railway museum was founded in 1994, after Metro-North closed the station that had served Danbury for decades.

The site had been built in 1903, and at its busiest saw 125 trains stopping on a daily basis. It was even used in Strangers on a Train, the classic Hitchcock movie, and added to the National Register of Historic Places.

However, by 1993, the number of vehicles coming into the station had dropped significantly, and it was eventually closed by the Connecticut Department of Transportation. A new station was due to be erected nearby, but the mayor suggested anyone interested in making use of the site do so.

The railway museum was put together by members of the National Railway Historical Society and local train fans, with around 100 people working to make the venue a success.

Visitors can take a tour of the six-acre railyard, which houses more than 70 artefacts and pieces of vintage equipment. Train rides are provided between April and November, though additional events take place during the year too.

Exhibits include the Boston & Maine 1455 Steam Engine (attendees can climb aboard it and explore), the Lionel model railway, and the New Haven RR turntable. This latter feature measures more than 90 feet in length and can be ridden by visitors. That too is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Danbury Railway Museum is run entirely by volunteers.

Learn more about the Danbury Railway Museum
6 Oklahoma Railway Museum The Oklahoma Railway Museum’s roots stretch back to 1972, when the Central Oklahoma Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society started to discuss the prospect of a museum. They began to exhibit equipment at a nearby site, but realised more space would be needed to make the most of the project.

The makeshift museum was then shifted to the Oklahoma City Schools Maintenance grounds, and a long time passed before the museum that stands today was established. It has gone on to grow significantly since, acquiring four operating locomotives.

The museum’s passenger cars and cabooses are able to accommodate more than 350 passengers, and thousands of visitors attend the site each year.

The museum has an extensive collection of vehicles. Their locomotives include an EMD SW 8, an EMD FP45 3600 HP, a Hinkley 2-8-0, an ALCO RS1, and a Locomotive Crane.

Their passenger cars include a Santa Fe Coach #3105, a Santa Fe Diner, a Union Pacific OBS. Cafe Lounge, a Rock Island Combine Party Coach, and a Rock Island Pro.

Their freight cars selection features a number of Conx Auto Boxcar, two Santa Fe Wooden Boxes, multiple Conx Tank Cars, and SP Flat Cars.

The Oklahoma Railway Museum’s caboose collection includes a Great Northern, a Rock Island, a Union Pacific, and more.

The museum operates numerous train rides, shows, and seasonal events. It also runs educational programs for local schools and enthusiasts.

Learn more about the Oklahoma Railway Museum
7 Museum of the American Railroad The Museum of the American Railroad was established in 1982, though it had begun as an exhibit at the State Fair of Texas. It continued to appear at this event, gaining more popularity, until it secured its own site.

This is a non-profit operation with an aim to honour Texas’s railway heritage. It gathers items and archival resources from across the industry, and exbibits numerous pieces of equipment throughout the year.

The museum was originally based in Dallas’ Fair Park but relocated to Frisco, Texas. Their collection is varied and rich, including locomotives, passenger cars, and more.

Their locomotives include a Union Pacific Big Boy 4-8-8-4 #4018, a Santa Fe EMD FP45, a Colorado & Wyoming Baldwin VO-1000, a Pennsylvania Railroad GG1, a Santa Fe Doodlebug, and multiple others built by Santa Fe.

Their range of passenger equipment is large and diverse too. They have an Amtrack Sleeper #2997, a Texas and Pacific Railway RPO #916, a Pullman Company Sleeper Glengyle, a Santa Fe Parlor Club Car #3231, and numerous others.

Their selection includes a few cabooses too. All in all, the Museum of the American Railroad’s collection is impressive, offering train enthusiasts a wealth of great sights to enjoy.

This railway museum operates tours and educational programs, seeking to provide visitors with expert insight into their trains’ history. One especially nice feature is their Junior Engineers system: their website includes a printable questionnaire for young train-fans to fill in. Upon completion and presentation to an expert at the museum, they will receive a Junior Engineer certificate.

Learn more about the Museum of the American Railroad
8 Kentucky Railway Museum The Kentucky Railway Museum is based in New Haven. It’s a non-profit operation, providing visitors with educational exhibitions detailing the history of Kentucky’s railways.

The museum was first started in the early 1950s, though not in its present form. The local chapter of the National Railway Historical Society asked the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to donate a steam locomotive to start developing a railway museum.

They chartered it officially in 1954, with one locomotive and six acres of land. Over the next decade, more than 200,000 visitors had attended the museum.

However, the decision was made to move the museum due to its risk of flooding, and so the venue shifted to a spot near Ormsby Village. It moved again in 1990, to its current New Haven location.

The Kentucky Railway Museum has a massive collection of equipment for visitors to enjoy. Their steam locomotives include a Louisville and Nashville Railroad #152, Monon Route’s Diesel Engine No. 32, and Chesapeake and Ohio 2716. The #152 was donated to the museum by none other than the Louisville and Nashville Railroad President himself back in 1957.

The Kentucky Railway Museum is home to some rail cars too, including a Louisville and Nashville Combine Car Number 665 and the Mt. Broderick Pullman Car.

The museum operates excursions to Boston, Kentucky and back. This provides passengers with impressive views of the Rolling Fork River Valley and incorporates more than 20 miles of travel. Their train rides often revolve around seasonal themes, such as Halloween and Christmas.

Learn more about the Kentucky Railway Museum
9 National Railroad Museum This museum is located in Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin. It was first opened in 1956 by a team of volunteers from the local Green Bay community, and has gone on to be one of the country’s oldest museums dedicated to the railway system.

Today, more than 100,000 people attend the museum every year. It belongs to the Brown County Federation of History Museums and has over 300 volunteers working alongside its own professional staff.

The National Railroad Museum hosts an extensive collection of vehicles, across steam locomotives, diesel locomotives, cabooses, and a wealth of archival materials.

Their steam selection features an Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe 5011 Class No. 5017, a Chesapeake and Ohio Railway K-4 Class No. 2736, a London and North Eastern Railway A4 4-6-2 (which is the USA’s only A4 class steam locomotive, originally displayed in the UK), and a Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range E-1 Class No. 506.

In the museum’s diesel locomotives range, visitors will find a Fix River Railroad EMD SD-24 No. 2402, a Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad FM H-10-44 No. 767, and a Green Bay and Western Railroad Alco C430.

This is just several of the many available to view. Electric locomotives, passenger cars, freight cars, cabooses, and more all feature at the museum. They also operate plenty of historical resources for enthusiasts and schools, such as sizeable archives, a library collection, a variety of artefacts, and photographs too.

Learn more about the National Railroad Museum
10 Steamtown National Historic Site Steamtown National Historic Site is based in Pennsylvania, in downtown Scranton. Its location was once the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (DL&W) yards, and is spread across more than 62 acres.

This railway museum and heritage railroad is home to a working turntable and a roundhouse, which are based on those in the original yard. Specifically, the roundhouse was erected with remains from the historic 1932 construction.

Numerous outbuildings are located on the museum’s site, all of which are listed by the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can browse a large collection of vehicles and equipment, including steam locomotives. Many of these once belonged to the personal range of millionaire F. Nelson Blount.

He actually set-up his own non-profit organisation, known as the Steamtown Foundation, in 1964, in order to operate the museum and its excursions. While the museum failed to secure the number of visitors required to stay profitable and became at risk of closure, the U.S. House of Representatives stepped in to turn the museum into a National Historic Site.

As a result, it was acquired by the National Park Service in the early 90s and renovated. The collection of locomotives includes a Boston and Maine 3713, a Brooks-Scanlon Corporation 1, a Canadian National 47, a Canadian Pacific 2317, an E.J. Lavino and Company 3, and a Nickel Plate 44.

Many others feature in the collection. Demonstrations and excursions to various locations are offered too, such as trips to the Delaware Water Gap, Lackawanna River, and Moscow, Pennsylvania.

Learn more about the Steamtown National Historic Site


What are the World’s Most Iconic Trains?

There have been numerous trains that become iconic and recognised around the world.

Our selection below includes trains from all over the world, starting with those belonging to the US rail network’s history.

Tom Thumb

The Tom Thumb was America’s first ‘home-made’ steam locomotive. It once took part in a race with a car drawn by horses, and ultimately lost due to a mechanical fault.

This was built to be a four-wheel locomotive and incorporated some improvised fixtures, such as boiler tubes built from rifle barrels. Though the original locomotive fell into disrepair and wasn’t preserved for posterity as it should have been, a replica was made in 1982.

This replica is displayed at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum, and can still operate.

California Limited

The California Limited ran from Chicago to Los Angeles between 1892 and 1954. It belonged to Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, and the journey originally took nearly 84 hours.

The California Limited included numerous sleeping cars, a dining car, a club car, and more. It remains one of the USA’s most important, fondly-remembered trains.

Royal Blue

This train first started running in 1890, and ran from New York City to Washington, D.C. It was operated by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O).

The journey took around five hours, and the train passed through Brooklyn, Jersey City, Wayne Junction, Philadelphia, and Baltimore on its way to the capital. It included numerous passenger cars, a dining car, observation car, and parlor cars to keep passengers comfortable.

The Royal Blue is remembered as a key train in the history of America’s railroads.

Orient Express

The Orient Express has become one of the most popular trains ever, due in large part to its role in Agatha Christie’s timeless mystery novel ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. This has been adapted into successful movies, which lends to its exotic image.

This train was constructed to provide passengers with remarkable luxury and comfort, aimed at a wealthy clientele. The Orient Express would run between Paris and Vienna between 1883 and 1885, and then to Istanbul. Its route was eventually shortened to just Paris to Vienna.

The Orient Express ceased operating on 14th December 2009 – a sad day for fans of this beautiful, iconic train.

Trans-Siberan Express

This train’s construction was ordered by Russian Tsars Alexander III and his son Nicholas II. It was built from 1891 to 1916, and ran from Moscow’s main station to Vladivostok – a city more than 9180km away!

The Trans-Siberan Express was known as one of the simplest methods of crossing Russia’s huge territories, and is still in operation. It takes more than six days for the train to complete its journey, and passengers can extend the ride by another three days if they wish to visit Pyongyang.

The Flying Scotsman

The Flying Scotsman is perhaps the UK’s most iconic train. This takes passengers from Edinburgh and London across the East Coast Main Line, and has done since it started operating in 1862.

It only became known as the Flying Scotsman in 1924, travels more than 390 miles in its route, and completes its journey in four hours.

The East Coast Main Line was first constructed in the 19th century, and the journey used to take more than an unbelievable 10 hours. This included a break for lunch in York, though ongoing improvements enabled the operators to shorten the trip considerably.

Golden Arrow

The Golden Arrow was created by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL), after they were inspired by the Orient Express’s success.

The Golden Arrow ferried passengers between London’s Victoria Station and Dover; from here, they would be able to take a boat to France. It stopped running on 30th September 1972, after demand for the service started to drop.