Five historical railways around Western Washington offer special holiday trains, a big hit with families. Early reservations recommended.

ELBE, Pierce County — An approaching steam whistle — a sound that’s equal parts blowing-in-a-beer-bottle and autumn-night banshee wind — echoed somewhere off in the maples, across the highway toward Mount Rainier. Suddenly everyone waiting at the depot knew: This was going to be an out-of-century experience.

And it put the crowd of eager passengers — kids, moms, dads, grandparents — in a holiday mood (“Do you hear it? Do you hear it?”). What else is a holiday if not a step outside the routine?

There’s sure nothing routine in 2010 about riding behind a huffing, puffing locomotive with emissions that alternate between (1) a billowing black cloud reminiscent of a “Harry Potter” dragon’s belch, and (2) more whirling white steam than you’d get from a 500-pound tea kettle (making the dark north woods smell even more like a damp basement than usual).

Just before Halloween, my wife and I joined a throng of more than 150 riders aboard the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad’s Pumpkin Train, one of a number of seasonal special outings hosted by this and other historical railways around Western Washington.

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And while the Pumpkin Train was a treat, the big event is yet to come. Like ballets that rely on “Nutcracker” and theater troupes that make their year with “A Christmas Carol,” coming soon to this and other tourist railroads near you: the Santa trains. (Wooo-hoo and jingle, jingle.)

They book up early, so you need to make plans soon. Call this a test ride.

Logger’s railroad

We rocked and swayed aboard the vintage rail cars as they meandered beside and across the rushing Nisqually River, surrounded by pretty foothills, some of which looked like they’d had a bad haircut — with different sizes of trees, depending on when they were logged.

This is definitely timber country: This railway, dating to the start of the 20th century, was used for hauling logs and equipment 66 miles between Tacoma and Morton until it became a tourist train in the 1980s.

Logging locomotives were built for power, not speed, so it’s a slow — like maybe 20 mph — and gracious ride through mossy woods of alder, fir, sword fern and devil’s club.

Unlike with some steam engines, there was nobody up front shoveling coal on our ride. The 1929 locomotive built in Portland by Willamette Iron and Steel Works burned recycled motor oil, I learned on a visit to the cab before we set out.

“A lot of logging railroads used oil products because they don’t send out sparks in the woods — so you didn’t burn the product down!” said fireman Daniel Heath, 26, of Tacoma, who works for a heavy-equipment rental firm when he’s not volunteering on the train. In the train cab, he’s in charge of monitoring “the fire”: how hot the boilers get and the steam pressure level.

Most of the railroad workers are volunteers, with motivations similar to Heath’s: “I grew up on my father’s lap looking at train books, and I had a little train set. So now on weekends I get to play like a little kid!”

Engineer Jim Abney resembled a busy octopus as his arms flew from one metal lever to another (throttle to whistle to brake). A train engineer’s son, from the Columbia Gorge railroad town of Wishram, he also drove trains for a living, originally for the old Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway and continuing for various railroads until he retired four years ago. You’ve got to believe he loves steam engines: He lives 146 miles away, in Canby, Ore., and commutes to Elbe a couple weekends a month to do this.

“I’ve got steam in my blood!” said Abney, 64.

Mountain views

As we rolled along, with old rail ties counting out time with a basso profundo “cha chunk, cha chunk,” a conductor visited each of the three passenger cars to tell some of the railroad’s history. He also pointed out where we all would have gotten a great view of Mount Rainier — on a clear day.

The best view — less than 20 miles from Rainier’s summit — is from the Nisqually River bridge, recently replaced after its destruction by 2006 flooding that rerouted these rail tours for a few years.

After 45 minutes we arrived at Mineral Lake, where everyone got off for a chance to stretch legs on some trails, take photos and pick out a pumpkin from a tented “patch” before the train looped back along the same route.

Kids on the train might have been oblivious to much of the history, but they had a good time in their own way.

“I like the candy, hot chocolate, popcorn and the pumpkins!” said Carter Johnson, 9 ½, from Port Orchard, naming some of the treats available in the train’s snack bar.

His grandmother, Margie Suter, a local from the town of Mineral, Lewis County, brought Carter and two more grandsons, 8 and 4, part of an annual tradition. “I think it’s a good experience for them, to ride the train, walk the trails — and we take lots of pictures, lots of memories!” she said.

“We have nine family members along, some of whom have never been on a train before at all!” said another of our coachmates, as one of her group returned from the snack bar with a tray full of hot dogs.

Magic season

David Heia, in a flat, billed cap and natty suit just like Mr. Conductor from “Thomas the Tank Engine,” took obvious pleasure in making sure everyone was having a good time. An easy job, when you’re the guy giving away Halloween candy on the Pumpkin Train.

Heia, 40, from Shoreline, especially looks forward to the Santa Express, which begins its runs on Thanksgiving weekend.

“I love the Santa train! You can see the magic and the sparkle in the kids’ eyes! You say ‘we’re getting close’ [to Santa's workshop] and they get really excited.”

The railroad varies its routine from year to year. Sometimes the train will leave Elbe and meet up with Santa at another location; this year the jolly old train-loving elf will ride along for the whole trip. At 1,200 feet elevation, there can be snow along the way.

Heia sounds a lot like a kid himself when he talks about it.

“I decorate the cars and put up the trees, and the first time people come and the lights are turned on, it’s magical! Christmas can begin!”

And, hey kids, there’s free cocoa, hot cider and cookies.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or