EDITOR'S NOTE: Our Hometown Tourists visited the California State Railroad Musuem on their most recent excursion. The following blog includes an account Carol Dabrowiak and photos by Cynthia Gibbs detailing their visit to this Sacramento attraction. When you stay at a participating Sacramento Gold Card hotel, remember to ask for your FREE Sacramento Gold Card. The California State Railroad Museum offers one free admission with each paid admission of equal or greater value with your Sacramento Gold Card. The California State Railroad Museum is located at 125 I St. in Old Sacramento.
When I was 14 years old, my mother took me and my four younger siblings on a train ride from Chicago to Fort Worth, Texas. We went to visit our cousins. I remember my father getting us settled in the cabin and handing the porter a five-dollar bill so he would “look after us.” I remember us huddled together in the beds that night. I remember walking into the dining car for the first time. Everything was a new experience. I hadn't thought about that trip in ages, but when Cindy, Janet and I took a tour of the California State Railroad Museum, a thousand memories came flooding back to me. I've taken other train trips since then, including a cross-country trip with my children when they were young. And all the images and experiences were relived when I walked through the California State Railroad Museum.
Sacramento has one of the best railroad museums in the country. That is not an exaggeration. People come from all over the country to visit this unique museum. Seldom do you get a chance to be up close to a giant steam engine. There are 21 restored locomotives and railroad cars on display. Many of the cars are available for people to walk through - many with a resident docent who will explain when and where the cars were used. For example, a sleeper car with two-tier bunks showed how a small curtain closed off the bed at night. Photographs show how it was used for transporting soldiers during World War II. There is a dining car with china place settings and sample menus from the various train lines. The docent had a xylophone that was used to call people to meal times. The cold car for shipping fresh produce simulated having the ice on board to keep produce from spoiling during the cross-country trek. Even without real ice, it was plenty cold in there. The US Postal car had large canvas bags and sorting tables with cubby holes named for the cities on the route. Workers had 12-hour shifts between stations, riding the same line east and west. The docent showed us how long hooks were used to drop off and pick up the mail bags on the platform without stopping the train. When we first entered the museum, a docent told us part of the story of “Owney,” the mail car mascot dog. We found out a bit more about Owney and his travels when we visited the mail car, but our curiosity wasn’t totally satisfied until we visited the gift shop and looked up the children’s books about him. One even contains a photograph of Owney to prove he was a real live dog.
There is a life-size diorama showing how the Chinese came here to build the western leg of the railroad through the Sierra Nevada to meet up at Promontory Point, Utah, with the eastern leg. It was a very dangerous job, with explosives being used to blast into the mountains. One version of the famous Golden Spike used to join the east with the west is on display at the museum.
On the second floor of the museum are several elaborate toy train collections that were donated by serious railroad buffs. There is also a hands-on table for children to play with some tracks and trains. In the theater, you can watch a 20-minute video that explains the history of the railroads. The four Railroad Barons: Crocker, Stanford, Huntington and Hopkins, had the vision and of course the funding to make the railroads a reality. These four men had a profound impact on the history of California. We’ve heard a lot about them as we visit other Sacramento museums. It seems like everything is connected.
On weekends, you can take a 45-minute train ride along the Sacramento River. Since we visited on a weekday, we missed out on the ride, but we had a full and fascinating afternoon. There is so much to see and do, including a beautiful gift shop with an extensive collection of books and railroad artifacts for sale. Every visit to Sacramento should include a tour of the California State Railroad Museum. Maybe you will remember a train ride that you took.
Docents throughout the museum are retired railroad workers. Take the opportunity to ask them questions. You will not only get history of railroads, but also their personal experiences that bring everything to life.