Tucked into the edge of Old Sacramento, on the banks of the Sacramento River and overshadowed by busy freeway viaducts and old river crossings can be found one of the jewels of the California State Park System, the California State Railroad Museum.
This is not just a museum for train fans: it’s packed with history and wonderfully restored artifacts and displays that tell the story of what I call the the “railroad century” in America: the one-hundred years from 1850 to 1950 when railroads facilitated the explosive growth in population and territory and economic power that defines the United States even today. Without speedy railroad transportation, we couldn’t have hoped to become a single unified people from Atlantic to Pacific.
No state in our union owes more of its fortunes to the railroads than does California, and this museum tells the story of that development and success. When California became our 31st state in 1850, the next closest state was Missouri, 1500 dangerous miles away across two treacherous mountain ranges and inhospitable territory. Getting to California took four months. When completed, the transcontinental railroad shortened that journey to only three days, making travel to California feasible and allowing for exports from the state. The subsequent invention of the refrigerated boxcar meant that produce grown in California’s favorable climate could be shipped to the markets back east. Indeed, California owes its development and status as our Golden State to the railroads. The State Railroad Museum celebrates this and so much more.
You’ll see a dining car from the golden age, the first half of the twentieth century, restored to the shiny appearance it had when it ran for Santa Fe. Inside, you can see tables set with the fine china and silver from a dozen railroads as they would have been for passengers on board. As you walk through the car, you can check out dining menus from the era and see the galley configured as it was eighty years ago. Railroads had chefs on board who cooked real dinners to be served to passengers. It’s a far cry from the reheated catering meals we’ve come to expect from airlines today.
Also on display is a Pullman sleeping car, restored to its 1930s look. The car gently rocks and sways as it would if rolling down the rails, giving museum patrons a sense of what it felt like to sleep on the train.
For me, the most interesting display was the mail car. I learned that mail cars were actually staffed by employees of the US Postal Department — and not by employees of the railroad. In fact, because the car was, in fact, a post office, the mail car was off limits to passengers and crew — even the conductor had to request permission before he could enter. The docents on hand explained how the employees sorted the mail as the train rolled down the track.
At small towns where the train did not stop, outgoing mail would be hung in a bag next to the track and the postal workers would snatch the bag with a giant hook as the train sped by. For the mail on board which needed to be delivered to the town, workers would kick the bag of mail out of the car as it whizzed past. Again, the entire operation was ingenious and fascinating.
Some views of the mail car operation, including a docent’s demonstration of how postal workers “hooked” the bags of mail.
There was also a collection of locomotives both from the steam and diesel eras. The Leland Stanford, the first locomotive owned by the Central Pacific, was built in Philadelphia but had to be shipped to California around the southern tip of South America on a boat because the Transcontinental Railroad had not yet been built. There is also a behemoth Southern Pacific locomotive with the cab in front — to prevent asphyxiation of the crew inside the many tunnels and snow sheds over the Sierra.
Upstairs, kids will be captivated by the amazing model train collection. The museum has an elaborate layout equipped with controllers that allows kids of any age to operate the model trains along with a good display of the various scales for modeling.
Admission to the museum is very reasonable, just $12.00 for adults. The museum is located at 125 I Street in Old Sacramento. Take the J Street exit from I-5 and follow the signs to go around the block and duck under the freeway to the museum.
Another option is to ride Amtrak; that’s how I got there from Fresno. The Sacramento Valley Station, the main depot for Sacramento, is only 300 yards away. Amtrak runs more than thirty different trains to or through Sacramento every day including multiple runs on the Capitol Corridor from the Bay Area and on the San Joaquin route. What could be more fun the riding the train for a day trip to the train museum? If you’re a Sacramento local, the RT Gold Line will bring you here, too.
The California State Railroad Museum is a worthy stop.
Displays documenting the snowstorm of January 1952 when 300-plus passengers on board the City of San Francisco were stranded on Donner Pass for three days when the train got stuck in the snow. At right is a massive track plow.