California State Railroad Museum: Riding the train to see the other trains

Road Journals Blog—Most out-of-town visitors to the California State Railroad Museum arrive by car, for the very good reason that Sacramento’s tourist attractions—including the small towns nearby that spawned the Gold Rush—spread far beyond its historic Old Town, where the train temple offers daily Lionel liturgies and extends the sacrament of the Super Chief to worshipers of the Sante Fe line.

An Amtrack train outside Davis, Calif., just south of Sacramento | Russell Neches/Flickr

But for anyone with access to Amtrak, there’s a better way. Sacramento long ago surrendered its position as a key spot on the Transcontinental Railroad, but the most stylish way to arrive at the museum where dioramas are dedicated to that 19th century equivalent of a moonshot is still by rail. The Amtrak station is just a five-minute walk from the museum’s entrance, so close that there is already a plan in place to connect the two with a special pedestrian corridor.

I decided to take one of Amtrak’s Capital Corridor trains from Oakland’s Jack London Square station, where I was able to park my car in the nearly empty garage on a Friday afternoon. As I waited on the platform a different train pulled up, the doors slid open and a man leaped onto the platform, lit a cigarette, and began puffing like a steam locomotive.

Which is to say, the smokey club cars of yore are long gone; in their place are clean, comfortable double-decker cars in which some people ride facing forward while others choose to turn their backs on the future. I scurried to the upper deck, and wondered why anyone would choose to sit at ground level.

The trip takes two hours, and unless you happen to be a fisherman you are likely to see long stretches of the San Francisco Bay’s waterfront that are new to you. The view from the left side of the train was often strikingly beautiful, while on the right we passed an endless array of power stations, rusted cars, and old factories—the urban rail right-of-way having suffered a long decline.

The ride, however, was wonderful; far less stressful than two hours of weaving past 18-wheelers on the freeway. The biggest surprise when I arrived at Sacramento’s main Amtrak station was that there were no signs or information kiosks pointing the way to the nearby railroad museum. I tried to figure out the preferred route using my iPhone, but of course it wanted to give me driving directions.

So I just asked a skateboarder, “Pardon me, boy. Is that the Chattanooga choo choo museum?”

This blog post was first published in November 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.