Who doesn’t love a vintage passenger train? The romance of riding the rails, the simplicity of a time before travel meant long lines and security checks, the idea of falling asleep to the sound of wheels going clickity-clack on the tracks.
Local nostalgia lovers are in luck, because one of the coolest railroad museums in the country is right down the road on Galveston Island. With everything from train rides and an outdoor garden to model-railroad displays and a gift shop, the museum is fun, it’s educational, and sometimes it’s very romantic.
“We have very diverse patrons,” says Galveston Railroad Museum Executive Director David Robertson. “We had a gay wedding here [last month] on the Bonnie Brook, and the couple spent the night.”
The Bonnie Brook is a luxury private train car from 1949 that sports two-and-a-half bedrooms, a galley kitchen, a bathroom with a shower, and an observation lounge that seats 20. Jackie Gleason, notorious for his fear of flying, used the Bonnie Brook to travel between his Miami home and New York City, where he shot The Jackie Gleason Show in the 1950s and ’60s. The museum acquired Gleason’s car last year just before the pandemic, so unveiling it to the public had to wait until this June. Robertson says the Bonnie Brook’s overnight bookings on Airbnb have really taken off.
But there’s plenty more to the museum that’s housed in the 10,000-square-foot Art Deco train station built to serve as the starting point of the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe Railway. The five-acre property that anchors one end of The Strand houses locomotives and rail cars, a garden area with a gazebo, a 1911 steam tractor, and palm trees that provide a backdrop for weddings, corporate events, and parties.
But special events are not the only attraction. Houstonian Jennifer Olin recently discovered that the Galveston Railroad Museum makes for a perfect summer day trip. “Even though we have a house in Galveston, I didn’t know about the museum until a friend came in from out of town with her twins. They are in love with trains and couldn’t wait to go. We had a blast from the minute we stepped into the old train station! There are these benches with plaster statues dressed in the style of the old era. It’s just so much fun. We rode the train out and back, looked at all the memorabilia, took pictures of old engines and different kinds of cars. It’s just a great, wholesome way to spend the afternoon.”
Those 31 plaster “ghost statues” in the station’s waiting area were created by Ivan and Elliot Schwartz in 1981 using live models in period clothing to guide them. The museum hosts school field trips, a Railroad Merit Badge class for scouts, and free Blue Bell ice cream for kids during the summer.
But you don’t have to be young to enjoy the railroad museum. “My favorite thing to do is ride the Harborside Express,” says Robertson. “I love riding that train—even grown-ups get excited like little kids.” The Express is an open-air caboose that travels one mile down Harborside Drive and back on weekends, weather permitting.
“And The Strand is right out in front of the museum,” says Robertson. “So you can go shopping and eat at the restaurants there, and just stay all day.” There’s also a café inside the depot, as well as a gift shop where Robertson sees both children and adults leaving with armloads of model trains.
Although sanitation stations and deep cleaning are still used, the museum does not require masks and social distancing at this time. They do recommend masks for the indoor exhibits, however.
And after being cancelled last year because of the pandemic, the Polar Express Train Ride will return for the 2021 holiday season. Based on the children’s book and the popular Tom Hanks holiday movie, the experience includes a two-mile train ride with Santa Claus, hot chocolate, and a visit to a Christmas village. The event is so popular that tickets sold out within hours in 2019. (Hint: you get early access to tickets with a museum membership.)
Museum entrance is $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, and $6 for children. Train ride tickets are an additional $6. You can buy tickets online in advance of your trip.
“We want everyone to feel welcome at the Galveston Railroad Museum,” Robertson emphasizes. “We just love having people come. Every day is a party around here!”
For more information, visit galvestonrrmuseum.org.
This article appears in the July 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.