In the general category of obsessive types, rail fanatics are hard to beat. It's one of those fixations that begins in childhood and can balloon into an all-consuming, nostalgia-drenched existence. A glance at any historical rail Web site, typically filled with pages of precise timetables, minutiae about obsolete technology and other arcane information relating to gauge size and engine types will give you an idea.
Of course, every train obsessive's fixation began in childhood. Most kids love trains. Even those who might never step foot in any form of rail-operated transport are gripped by an intuitive fascination.
That's why a visit to the Travel Town Museum in Griffith Park is both a great way to kill a couple hours with your kids and connect with your inner child and history geek. Hell, it's a shame that most visitors are parents with tots in tow. Adults with a modicum of interest in the subject are missing out.
The “railroad petting zoo” that hugs the 5 at the northern end of the park is a graveyard of technology. Nineteenth-century horse-drawn passenger cars are exposed to the elements, and the passage of time is evident on the decaying bodies of the imposing locomotive engines, cabooses, freight cars, Pullmans and other relics that feel like a ragtag group of world-weary characters. (For those who want to get their hands dirty with a more intensive hands-on experience with working trains, membership at the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum next door is better suited to active hobbyists.)
Plus, Travel Town is a bargain. You can buy tickets on the Travel Town Railroad mini-train ($2 or $2.50 for two laps around the three-eighths-of-a-mile track; it's the sister to the Griffith Park & Southern Railroad), make a voluntary donation and buy train-themed goods at the gift shop. Or you can visit and spend no money at all.
The institution, which is managed by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and the Travel Town Museum Foundation, could use some curatorial and physical sprucing up. At times the interpretive program closely approaches paeans to the corporations that built the railways and donated most of the collection, with little in the way of critical history. The attractions are also, frankly, really dangerous. Climbing inside the Oahu Railway and Land Company caboose, or the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe locomotive requires some perilous maneuvering — no small feat if you're managing overly excited kids. Though some cars are undergoing restoration, an army of conservators is nowhere to be found, nor is there a list of who's-who board members posted at the entrance.
But this down-home quality, extending even to the unfussy graphic design, is also a big part of Travel Town's charm. On weekdays especially, there's a ghost-town-like appeal that makes you feel like you have the run of the place. What better way to spark imaginations, regardless of age?