Traveling back in time

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Old circus car that once held a leopardYesterday the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend and I visited Travel Town, a train museum located in Griffith Park. I had been reminded of the museum by a recent write-up at laist.

I had been to Travel Town many times in my youth, but haven't been back as an adult. When I was a child, Travel Town was a "yesteryear" attraction, featuring trains from decades past. Today, the museum could benefit from a cash injection and a makeover, in order to give the subject and the objects on display the curatorial attention they deserve.

There is a tendency within the national culture to dismiss California's history. The East Coast, with its much longer history, sets the tone by waving away California's claims to culture, longevity or seriousness. During the late 20th century, Californians largely adopted the East Coast's dire opinion of the West Coast. But as we move further into the 21st century, it is becoming more apparent that California has a history and that many elements of it are worth saving.

There's two miniature trains running in Griffith Park, but only one can be found inside Travel Town. This set-up can be confusing, especially if you've never been to the museum before. There's also two websites devoted to Travel Town, one linked up at the top (traveltown.org) and one run by L.A.'s Dept of Recreation and Parks and then another devoted just to the train rides. Make sure you take a thorough look at the map before you go.

The Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend and I rode the scaled-down train along the deeply tan hills of Griffith Park. It was a beautiful, bittersweet experience for me. The train reminded me of my mother, who loved to ride the trains at Southern California's many amusement parks. When she was tired of the non-stop activities at Disneyland or Six Flags Magic Mountain, my mom would board the train and circle the park again and again until her interest in "fun" returned.

Hand-powered rail truckSeveral old train cars were open for guided tours, which were led by knowledgeable volunteers. We saw cars in various phases of restoration, which provided fascinating insight into the years-long process of researching the cars and returning them to their original state. Predictably, one of the more finished car interiors had been recently featured in a movie.

One of the exhibits that bowled me over was the circus car, shown in the photo at top. While I've seen them depicted in many children's books, seeing a circus car in person brought to life the excitement people must have once felt seeing them pass. The heavy iron bars conveyed the threat presented by the caged animal (in this case, a leopard).

I also loved seeing the hand-powered rail truck shown here, such a common feature in cartoons from my childhood. Are these still featured in today's cartoons? I don't know, but I doubt it. If you know the answer, please speak up in the comments.

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It was fun, huh? What I found fascinating was how much smaller we were back then. The average "large" person today would have a difficult time getting around on these trains and you can see in the design of the rooms that they were meant for a much leaner population. As it is, there have been issues with airline seats that can no longer accommodate some of our more heftier Americans.

Also, the dining car was quite informative as back then they had no microwaves or even freezers so all the food was very very fresh and had to be picked up at the local farms wherever the train stopped. Quite amazing, along with the long hours the porters had to work to be available to the travelers who they were there for to service for as long as the train ride which lasted approximately 60 hours from LA to Chicago. I wonder if the porter were changed from one stop to the next. I should have asked. There were no labor laws back then, so, I imagine, workers were even more abused than they are now and for even less wages than today. It was a fascinating time in American history - I can't wait to travel on a train like that now and see parts of the country that you can't see by air.