Election Section

Railroad Museum Rides Into California’s Past

By KATHLEEN HILL Special to the Planet
Friday June 25, 2004

Even non-railroad buffs of all ages will find adventure at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento State Historic Park. 

To make the trip as authentic and thorough as possible, take Amtrak’s “Capitol Corridor” train from Oakland or Martinez and avoid supporting profiteering oil companies more than necessary. The train stops the equivalent of about two blocks from the California State Railroad Museum. Follow the striped walkway under a green bridge to Old Sacramento. 

Operated by California State Parks with assistance from the museum’s foundation, the air-conditioned museum shows an extensive collection of railroad cars built and used between 1874 and 1950.  

Visitors can climb into many of the cars, which range from a modest, working caboose to Gov. Leland Stanford’s wildly lavish private railroad car. 

Gov. Stanford turned the first spade of dirt to begin construction of the Central Pacific Railroad on Jan. 8, 1863. After Chinese laborers toiled for six years in unbearable conditions and gave lives to build the railroad, the Central Pacific met the Union Pacific Railroad coming from the east, at Promontory, Utah. On that occasion, Stanford pounded in the famed gold spike to “complete” the United States’ transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific was the forerunner of the Southern Pacific. 

Ironically and purposefully, Stanford’s elegant once-moving personal monument stands very close to the oddly realistic stationary exhibit honoring the Chinese laborers who toiled and gave lives to actually build the railroad from which Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins made their fortunes. 

The museum also owns and rotates into its exhibits of “rolling stock” 17 “maintenance-of-way” cars used from 1905-1974. These cars include cranes, scale test cars, tool and outfit cars, flangers, snowplows, dynamometer cars, and a fascinating fire truck on rails. 

Be sure to walk through Canadian National Railways Sleeping Car No. 1683, the “Hyacinthe,” where a museum docent acts as pretend steward and security person. The car simulates sounds, motion, light changes, and for a few moments one can fantasize about being on a true cross-country trip in a fairly elegant sleeping car. 

Kids enjoy hiding and imagining a ride in a freight car. Other car favorites include an Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe dining car, a Fruit Growers Express Company refrigerator car, a Great Northern Railway Company Post Office car, and a Union Pacific caboose. Indoors, these railroad cars look absolutely massive. 

Through August, there’s a fabulous display called “Where to Go, What to See: The Art of the American Railroad Poster.” Dating from the 1890s-1950s, the posters highlight railroad travel and train destinations across the country, and emphasize the era when railroad posters reached their peak as communication vehicles in the 1920s and 1930s. 

A special exhibit of toy trains and scale models, which is a preview of the Thomas W. Sefton collection, is on display on the museum’s first floor. Mr. Sefton recently donated his enormous collection to the California State Railroad Museum Foundation, including pieces from Buddy L. Ives, American Flyer, Marklin, Marx, and Lionel. The museum will open its 3,300-square-foot Thomas W. Sefton Gallery Aug. 14 for a permanent rotating exhibit of this extraordinary collection. 

Other exhibits include historic photographs of the railroad building industry, maps, shop machinery, and other products from the Southern Pacific Sacramento Shops, once the largest industrial complex west of the Mississippi and largest employer in the Central Valley. 

On weekends try the steam powered excursion trains departing from Central Pacific Freight Depot and Public Market (two blocks south of the museum) every hour on the hour from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The museum’s vintage Sacramento Southern Railroad makes a 40-minute, six-mile roundtrip ride along the Sacramento River, pulling passenger coaches and freight cars along what was a Southern Pacific line. Passengers can either ride in enclosed cars with cushy seats or on open-air wooden seats. 

The Railroad Museum and Old Sacramento hold special events for crowd lovers, including “Gold Rush Days” on Labor Day weekend, a fire department safety fair (this year labeled “Prevention 2004”), the fun Halloween “Spookomotive” train rides, loads of theme train excursions for Thanksgiving, a Toy Train Holiday, and a Yuletide Express with Santa aboard. 

Don’t miss the museum store, with one of the most extensive collections anywhere of books about trains and train lore, Thomas the Train toys and trinkets, and the rare train poster and memorabilia. 

Some of the dusty, dirty food joints close to the Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento are worth passing by. To contribute to the museum’s foundation, soak in a little history and have lunch or dinner at the same time, try the Foundation’s Silver Palace Restaurant at the Central Pacific Railroad Passenger Station, a legacy of the Silver Palace Eating Stand that served passengers of the first arriving trains in Sacramento. Everything here is super casual, and the simple menu includes Transcontinental stew, Steam Whistle chili, hot and cold sandwiches, burgers, fries, and salads.