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Train to Nowhere

Thunder Mountain provides psychological transport


It starts slowly, a sudden tug and then gentle rocking. Amid the cacophony of metal-on-metal grinding, everything settles into place and a steady rhythm is established.

The Thunder Mountain Line is a throwback to an earlier time when travel was as much about the journey as the destination. Passengers on this train have little choice but to sit back and relax—there's nowhere to go, and they're not going to get there very fast.

In its seventh year of operation, the Horseshoe Bend-based train offers a needed respite for the world-weary. Just a half-hour drive from Boise, the tour train transports riders more than just physically. It gives passengers a chance to slow down and catch their breaths.

"There's a novelty [about] riding the train," said conductor James Fisher. "Most people in the last two generations have not had the opportunity."

Each weekend both novices and aficionados board the revamped cars to take in an experience. The train leaves from its station in Horseshoe Bend and makes the slow journey up the Payette River to a picnic area owned by the Thunder Mountain Line, whose parent company owns the Idaho Northern and Pacific Line. Thunder Mountain is the company's only tour train, and over the years it has increased service to offer trips leaving from Cascade, as well as a variety of themed rail trips.

It's one of the exceptions to the trend of decreased rail service in the West, where railroad lines have been torn up for scrap, bringing big money to salvage companies. But rather than fading into history, the Payette River route was saved roughly nine years ago. The line was originally built to transport timber, cattle and sheep to market, but with the decline of the timber industry, it fell into disrepair.

It's now found a new purpose: helping maintain the mystique of the train.

Many of those who work on the train started off as passengers, but fell in love with it. Fisher is a retired child psychologist who runs a hardware store in Horseshoe Bend when he's not on the train, a job his wife, Shari Fisher, initially brought him into. Shari serves as the depot manager.

But the Fishers aren't the only ones who found themselves unexpectedly riding the rails.

"I took a ride one time, and I asked if I could work," said Jim Foster, who has spent the last five years doing whatever is needed on the train.

On a recent weekend Foster was assigned to serve a private party who had rented out the caboose. Each car on the train has a specific purpose and personality. There's the bar car, attached directly to the dining car, where small tables for four line both sides. This is where the bulk of programmed entertainment goes on.

Passengers can tuck into full meals on dinner trains or hors d'oeuvres on one of the wine-tasting adventures, where they learn the fine art of balancing food and drink on a moving train.

It's also the stage for the line's murder/mystery shows and Wild West adventures.

A company of actors from River City Entertainment provide the cast for a series of themed murder mysteries in which the audience is encouraged to join in. Those who ride the mystery trains are sent a formal invitation prior to the event and asked to come in character and costume.

The same troupe is also in charge of the Wild West adventures, which lets passengers join in an old-fashioned Western train robbery.

The dining car also plays host to occasional strolling musicians, who entertain during dinners and theme trains like the North Pole Express, the Christmas and New Year's trains and even a haunted Halloween train.

For those who would rather eat on solid ground, the train offers a fireside dinner at its picnic area near Banks. Cooks from the Firehouse Restaurant in Kuna prepare a Dutch-oven dinner to be enjoyed riverside.

Adjoining the dining car is one of the most popular on the train—an open-air viewing car. From the shaded vantage point, passengers can take in a whole new perspective of the Payette River Canyon as they cruise between lodge pole pines and the steep bank. Along the way some rafters and picnickers wave greetings while others choose to flash more intimate portions of their anatomy.

A concessions car bridges the gap between a second open air car. This one has no roof, allowing unobstructed views of osprey nests in the tree crags along the river. Finally, there's the unfinished coach car still in its original coach-class condition.

Moving it all are two engines, one on either end of the train, allowing it to change directions without turning around.

Just a lucky few get the chance to jump up into the 1946 GE engine­—a study in minimalist functionality. There's only one bell and one whistle, but it's hard not to be giddy when presented with the opportunity to blow the whistle on a train. The massive, 400,000-pound engine turns out 1,750 horse power and burns through 300 gallons of diesel in a day.

"There's a lot of action in a small amount of time and a small amount of space," Fisher said as he demonstrated the surprisingly small number of handles and switches that run the entire engine.

But the statistics mean little to those who have come to take the roughly two-and-a-half-hour trip up the river. For them, satisfaction comes in the gentle rocking, and occasional lurching, of the train as it makes its way through the rugged countryside.

The train can be chartered for private parties and usually holds between 50 and 200 passengers. But with the recent addition of a fully remodeled sleeper car, Thunder Mountain Line managers hope to extend the charter season.

The Texan (actually found in Nebraska) is a single car that has a distinct Orient Express feel to it. Wool carpets line the row of sleeping compartments, each with a bathroom, along one side. The car opens into a small formal dining room, complete with custom china, harkening back to the glory days of train travel.

The Texan also features a full, if cramped, kitchen and will employ a chef to cater to passengers' every needs. The car will soon be available for private, multi-day functions.

For those of us who will probably never have the chance to stay in the sleeper car, there are always the scenic tours. Grab a drink from the bar car and make your way back to one of the viewing cars, where wooden benches offer some of the best perspectives of the canyon.

Watch the birds soar, the rafters moon and nature glide by, all as you find a new rhythm.

For more information, prices and schedules, call Thunder Mountain Line at 208-331-1184 or visit