California Railroad Museum provides unique anchor to Old Sacramento

This engine, built to 1/3 scale, hauled tourists around the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal.

The Governor Stanford locomotive was the first for the Central Pacific; built in Philadelphia, shipped around Cape Horn and entered service in Sacramento in 1863.

Huge Southern Pacific cab-forward locomotive allowed engineers to see around tight mountain turns.

Refrigerated rail cars like this one, being loaded with blocks of ice on top, allowed San Joaquin Valley produce to be shipped to the midwest and east coasts.

Western Pacific's Feather River Route china and silverware, along with place settings of a dozen other railroads, is on display in the dining car.

The Santa Fe's engine No. 347C is a fine example of streamlined diesel engines that were the rage in the 1940s to 1960s.

The Sacramento Southern runs excursions on the weekends and other days from the museum along the Sacramento River.

The California Railroad Museum anchors the north end of Old Sacramento in our state capital. It’s one of the top railroad museums in the country, and celebrates the railroads’ huge impacts on California’s state-hood, Gold Rush and subsequent growth boom.

Before gold was discovered in 1848 in the tail race of Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California was growing slowly but steadily. San Francisco, Stockton and Sacramento were three major ports – and with few roads, most goods moved by water.

In the 1840s, rail began to be developed with short-line railroads. Theodore Judah came west to help build the Sacramento Valley Railroad, finished 1856, from Sacramento to Folsom to serve the Gold Rush boom.

He then turned his attention to the cross-continental railroad (discussed by visionaries for 20-some years), lobbying Congress and in 1861 helped persuade four local Sacramento merchants to incorporate the Central Pacific Railroad in Sacramento.

Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins were partners in a Sacramento hardware company, Leland Stanford ran a grocery business and Charles Crocker was a dry goods retailer. All highly successful by the 1860s due to the Gold Rush’s huge influx of miners, they became the “Big Four” and kings of western railroads.

In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act and the race to complete the transcontinental railroad was on! The Central Pacific Railroad built east across the Sierra and into Nevada, while the Union Pacific Railroad forged west from Omaha. The two railroads met on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah, completing the nation’s first Pacific Railroad.

Today, the California Railroad Museum celebrates these benchmarks in state and Western history, and offers a marvelous adventure for kids to adults exploring the museum’s many exhibits and rolling stock.

A recent visit found seniors, families with young kids and tourists from outside the US, all thronging the museum’s offerings.

Immediately upon entering the museum, one walks into the Panama-Pacific Exposition exhibit. Celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal in 1915, two major expositions, one in San Diego, the other in San Francisco, forecast the canal’s impacts upon future California growth. In San Francisco, the expo was so large that a small, 1/3 scale railroad was built to take spectators throughout the grounds; Pan Pacific locomotive No. 1915 was built for the expo.

Then it’s a step back in time, to the locomotives that powered California’s expansion from the 1860s.

First up is Central Pacific Railroad locomotive No. 1, the Governor Stanford. This 40 ton, woodburning steam locomotive was built in Philadelphia in 1862, shipped around Cape Horn and went into service in Sacramento in 1863. It was retired from service in 1895, and through 1963, was on display at Stanford University.

The museum has a host of noteworthy locomotives. Remarkable in its size is a Southern Pacific cab-forward locomotive, No. 4294, built in 1901. The distinctive cab-forward design allowed engineers to see around tight mountain corners and avoid asphyxiation in the long tunnels and snowsheds that lined the Sierra route.

Also noteworthy, demonstrating technological progress, is the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe streamlined diesel locomotive No. 347C, built in 1949 and retired from service 30 years later. It’s the only surviving example of more than 250 such units, painted in the Santa Fe’s distinctive war bonnet colors.

The museum allows kids and adults to walk through a number of distinctive specialty railcars. They include The Great Northern’s Post Office car No. 42, which served as a complete post office between Chicago and Tacoma, Washington.

Nearby is the gleaming silver dining car, the Santa Fe’s No. 1474, named Cochiti. The car went into service in 1936, and displays the classic china and silverware settings of a dozen different railroads. While we were on board, a volunteer Porter allowed delighted kids to sound the chimes, calling train-goers to a fine dinner (in 1937 the Cochiti’s  menu included swordfish steak for $.75, salmon for $.70, old-fashioned boneless chicken pot pie for $.85 and sirloin steak for two for $2.75).

Other railcars had particular benefits to San Joaquin Valley agriculture. Fruit Growers Express refrigerated car No. 35832 is typical of the early refrigerated cars allowing California produce to be shipped to the Midwest and East Coast – greatly expanding markets for San Joaquin growers.

A panoply of model and toy trains is offered on the third floor, complete with Lionel, Gilbert, American Flyer and many other models.

This is a museum where kids can explore real railroad locomotive cabs, Pullman sleeping, postal and dining cars, and get hands-on. Outside, the Sacramento Southern Railroad offers excursions on the weekends and some midweek days, taking excited children and adults on a several mile tour along the mighty Sacramento River.

Moored along the adjacent wharf, as in days gone by, is the Delta King, the passenger ferry built in Stockton in 1927 – today open as a delightful restaurant and offering overnight hotel accommodations.

Within a few blocks of the railroad museum are the California Military Museum documenting 200 years of Californian military tradition, 1119 2nd St.,, the Delta King Riverboat, 1000 Front Street, (built in Stockton in 1927), the Huntington & Hopkins Hardware, offering insights into a small town hardware business, 113 I St.,, the Sacramento History Museum, 101 I St., , the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum, 1200 Front St., and the Wells Fargo History Museum, 1000 2nd St.,   And, just 1/2 mile south is the California Auto Museum with a stunning variety of classic and novelty autos, dating back more than a century, 2200 Front Street,

How to get there: from Stockton, take I-5 43 miles north and exit J St. and watch for the signs to Old Sacramento.

For more information: California Railroad Museum, 125 “I” Street, Sacramento, CA 95814, Ph: (916) 323-9280; web,; open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (summers, Thursdays to 8 pm) except Thanksgiving, Christmas & New Years Day.

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: travel; to contact me,  Happy travels in the West!

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