How we get around; insights from the CA Railroad Museum and CA Auto Museum

How do we get around? Consider the year 1900; depending upon your age, many of our parents, grandparents or great grandparents were born around that time. If you lived in the city (and Stockton’s population was only 17,501 in 1900) you had several choices to get around the much smaller town. You could walk, you could ride a bike, you could catch an electric streetcar or, if your family was wealthy, you could ride a horse or hitch up a buggy. A one mile journey would take anywhere from 20 minutes to much longer.

If you wanted to visit other cities, your choices were generally taking the railroad, a steamboat (if the other city was on a Delta waterway), a stagecoach, horseback or buggy or a long walk. If you wanted to connect with relatives in the Midwest, your choice was primarily the railroad.

Thanks to the evolution of both railroads and automobiles, our lives have changed immeasurably. Two nearby places to appreciate how much those inventions have changed our lives lie within a half mile of one another, the California Railroad Museum and the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento, 45 miles from Stockton. Touring both of the museums can be done in one day, but, start early. Each offers marvelous exhibits, an array of historic artifacts, vintage locomotives, rail cars, automobiles and limos, and both are staffed with docents delighted to talk about their museum’s finest displays.

Visitors will find docents like Steve Helmke (at left) eager to discuss vintage displays at both the CA Railroad and CA Auto Museums.

Start at the California Railroad Museum, which celebrates railroads’ huge impacts on California’s state-hood, Gold Rush and subsequent growth boom. 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, connecting Sacramento to Folsom and the Gold Rush boom.

The Governor Stanford served Californians from the mid- to late-1800s before larger and more modern steam, coal and oil-burning engines took its place.

Desiring a connection to California’s gold, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862 and the race to complete the Transcontinental Railroad began! The Central Pacific Railroad built east across the Sierra 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 Transcontinental Railroad; a special display notes that the new rail-line changed a 3-4 month journey by wagon train into a trip that took just days.

Step back in time to the locomotives that powered California’s expansion from the 1850s. A prime exhibit is Central Pacific Railroad locomotive No. 1, the Governor Stanford. This 40 ton, wood-burning steam locomotive was built in Philadelphia in 1862, shipped around Cape Horn and served Sacramento from 1863 until retired from service in 1895.

The Promontory Point meeting of the two railroads in Utah completed
the Transcontinenal Railroad in 1869.

A number of noteworthy locomotives are on display. Amazing in size and length is Southern Pacific cab-forward locomotive No. 4294, built 1901. The distinctive cab-forward design allowed engineers to see around tight mountain corners and avoid coal smoke asphyxiation in the long tunnels and snowsheds that tunneled through the snowy Sierra.

A sleek dining car is one of several specialty cars on display. Santa Fe’s No. 1474 went into service in 1936 and displays the classic china and silverware settings of a dozen different railroads. A volunteer Porter allowed delighted kids to sound the chimes, calling train-goers to a fine dinner (a 1937 menu included swordfish steak for $.75 and sirloin steak dinner for two for $2.75).

Refrigerated cars like this Fruit Growers Express allowed San Joaquin Valley growers to ship vegetables and fruit to the Midwest and East coasts.

Other railcars offered distinct benefits to San Joaquin Valley agriculture; the 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. The museum offers scores more exhibits, including model trains ranging from Lionel, American Flyer, Gilbert and many more.

The California Auto Museum is just a dozen blocks south of the rail museum. One of the first displays presents a replica of Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle in front of a life-sized horse, foretelling the auto’s quick displacement of horse-drawn transport. The museum offers more than a dozen Fords from 1896 up through the 1920s, when reliability, low cost and assembly-line production made Fords half the cars on US roads.

A replica of Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle sits in front of a full-sized horse replica at the California Auto Museum.

The museum offers a unique collection of over 130 classic American and foreign autos, ranging from late-19th century to recent day.

A special display of British-built vintage autos will be featured August 23 through January. With luxury cars like Cadillac, Lincoln and Packard, muscle cars like Mustang, Camaro, Corvette, Thunderbird and Avanti, exotic models like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Ford Cobra, you’ll find cars that you, your parents and grandparents once drove or desired.

A special display of vintage British autos kicks off on August 23, through January,
like this 1933 Morgan three-wheeled sportscar.

Walking through the expansive museum buildings, we saw specimen examples of 1960’s pony cars: a 1965 Mustang, 1967 Camaro convertible (bright red, or course), 1966 Pontiac GTO and 1969 Boss Mustang. Models showing off Detroit’s excesses include a 1949 Cadillac and its introductory tailfins, which grew progressively larger in the 1950s.

The California Auto Museum displays diverse models like this 1960 Nash Metropolitan in rear, and 1966 Ford Cobra in the foreground.

One of the most impressive is a huge 1933 Lincoln KB Salon, with V12 engine, one of only 50 built. Owned by A. P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of Italy/America, it featured 150 horsepower, every creature comfort of its day and cost $4500 (a huge sum for the time).

Plan a visit to the Auto Museum and Railroad Museum – amongst vintage cars and locomotives, kids and adults will better appreciate how we get around!

A 1933 Lincoln KB Salon, with V12 engine, was owned by A. P. Giannini,
founder of the Bank of Italy/America,

For more info: California Auto Museum; 2200 Front St., Sacramento,, (916) 442-6802, open six days a week, 10 AM to 5 PM (closed Tuesdays); California Railroad Museum, 125 “I” Street, Sacramento,, (916) 323-9280; open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.

Read more from Tim’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in your world!

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