California State Railroad Museum

The next day, June, 14, Jim wanted to take us to the California State Railroad Museum. He hadn’t been in 10 years, though his business takes him past it often in his work to advance the development of the Fly California High-Speed Lite-Rail from San Francisco to Los Angles (something desperately needed, for so many reasons.) So, off we went through Sonoma and Napa to Sacramento and the museum, and a fine museum it is!

Like any major transportation endeavor then, as now, the starting point and building of the transcontinental railroad came down to politics. At the time of the gold-rush, the powers-that-be in San Francisco wouldn’t support the idea of a railroad, as their interests and prosperity lay in the ocean voyagers arriving in their port after making the arduous journey around South America to get to the west coast.

Theodore Judah, a surveyor, born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. After working on a number of railroads in the Northeast, Judah was hired as the Chief Engineer for the Sacramento Valley Railroad in California, the first railroad west of the Mississippi River, but he had a bigger idea: a trans-continental railroad. Throughout the 1850s, he was known as “Crazy Judah” because of his single-minded passion for driving a railroad through the wall of mountains known as the Sierra Nevada, something that was considered impossible by many at the time.

Unlike San Francisco, Sacramento had four far-sighted, enterprising merchants who provided start-up funds to have a route surveyed–Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins. As a result of their support of Judah’s dream, they all became very wealthy men who left legacies that are still familiar today: The Huntington Hotel and Huntington, West Virginia, Stanford University, Crocker Bank (now Wells Fargo), and the Mark Hopkins Hotel.

The museum is superbly done. I’d suggest going up to the theater first, as the whole history is colorfully presented there and comes to a wonderful finish that becomes a spectacular beginning for touring the museum itself. (a ingenious surprise)

The docents here are gifted storytellers who obviously love their work and love challenging questions. Within the vast space of the main museum is one of the mountain snowshed tunnels, a small station, telegraph office, etc. all peopled with wonderful mannequins, dressed and postured in perfect detail. The station agent, in 1930s dress and marcelled hair, has just turned, to look toward the ticket window. If you stand there, she’ll be looking you right in the eye, ready to help. If you look carefully, you’ll notice the eggshells on a dish by her hand: the remains of her lunch. The excellence of this museum is in the details.

In one little building, a lady of a certain age was posed looking down at a book in her lap. Not a hair was out of place and her uniform, crisp white blouse, and railroad badge were perfect. I wondered what role she represented and then noticed the highlight on her badge moved, as if she were breathing. I was so amazed at this animatronic creation, that I called softly to Bruce to come see, and she raised her head and smiled at me: a living, breathing docent! We laughed over my mistake, and she had lots of interesting things to tell us.

The steam engines here have been meticulously restored, and the display of one is so well mirrored that you can get a bird’s eye or worm’s eye view of the entire thing.

Their very first engine, the Governor Stanford, holds pride of place, at the beginning of the tour, and later, you can see the largest engine ever made, which pulled its load through the challenging mountain grades of the Donner Pass.

Here, also, is the private car used in five presidential campaigns, and the one where Ronald Reagan was entertained and persuaded to fund the idea of a railroad museum for California. There’s a freight car, complete with a hobo, a reefer car telling the history of cold-shipping, and a loading dock with a taco-eating boss directing a worker who’s shifting cartons of produce.

In another building, you can make your way through a night-time sleeper car, (in constant, random motion, to make the experience feel authentic) and see the first class sleepers, bathrooms, and the economy sleepers (remember ‘Some Like it Hot’?)

After that, you can peer into the business end of the dining car, where two men are cooking and setting up trays, and then into the dining area, where each table is set with the tableware of the different rail-lines. Interestingly, all dinnerware was manufactured in N.Y. State.

Upstairs, you can look down on a roundhouse and see photos that were used to promote western railroad tourism in the early 1900s. They’ve also provided a wonderful area for kids to let off steam, (no pun intended) play with trains, and look at fabulous toy train collections and layouts.

Outside is and area of several historic blocks they call Old Sacramento. The area has been saved and restored to house the usual gift shops, restaurants, and amusements, and though it was a very hot day, most buildings had second story balconies to provide shade and the raised wooden ‘sidewalks’ lent an air of the gold-rush era. We had a pleasant lunch in a sunny courtyard room of a Mexican restaurant, and later had dessert on a balcony overlooking the Sacramento River, watching the Saturday afternoon promenade ofpleasure boats.

On the way home, we stopped at a great farmer’s stand for star thistle honey, cherries, and a pineapple, caught dinner at a local Outback, and finished off the evening with a game of ‘Oh Hell!’ in the ePod. Sprocket was so happy to see us, and snoozed on Jim’s lap for the entire game.

Thanks for everything, Barb, Jim. You are wonderful hosts of your beloved California!

Explore posts in the same categories: Historic Sites

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