The nation's most popular locomotive museum, in Sacramento, weaves together the histories of the railroads and the people who rode them.
Among the majestic iron horses pastured at the California State Railroad Museum, none is a more poignant reminder of the genius who conceived the transcontinental railroad than C.P. 1. Built in Philadelphia in 1862, the year Congress authorized construction of Theodore D. Judah’s grand dream, Central Pacific Railroad locomotive No. 1 was disassembled, shipped in crates around Cape Horn, then pieced back together like an Ikea coffee table at the railhead in Sacramento.
Judah had gone east to seek financing. In New York on November 2, 1863, at just 37, he died. Nine days later, C.P. 1’s maiden trip set in motion an enterprise that would knit the nation together with strands of steel.
The men who put down vast sums ofmoney to build the transcontinental railroad “couldn’t be sure whether anybody would want to go where the tracks went,” says Paul Hammond, the museum’s director. Soon enough, they were making vast numbers of people want to go. Train travel and settlement of the West rode into the future along parallel lines.
Now in its 30th year, the museum focuses on connecting histories, of railroads and of the people they carried. “What is wonderful,” says Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains magazine, “is how it takes the hardware and the human experience and tells a dramatic story of people making transportation work.”
The mammoth cab-forward locomotive near the museum’s roundhouse combined mountain-climbing power with lifesaving ingenuity. Built for the Southern Pacific line to pull trains over the Sierra, it put the driver in front of fuel exhaust fumes that could be deadly in the railway’s 35 miles of tunnels.
The gleaming stainless steel dining car nearby was part of a new streamliner, the Super Chief, that the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe Railway rolled out in 1937, when travel was the destination. Tables are set for the next meal; after one of the museum’s 500 volunteer docents sounds the dinner chime, you can imagine cutting into the $3 sirloin on the menu. Next door, a Pullman sleeper car rocks from side to side. Berths have been made up and ladders extended—along with the palm of the porter. “If you didn’t tip him,” says docent Cesar Abate, “you were going to have a long night.”
The museum strikes a neat balance between its appeal to railroad enthusiasts—many of them old enough to remember train travel in its glory—and its impression on toddlers who wobble up to the giant locomotives with undisguised awe and look longingly at the rather more manageable toy trains. The toy train gallery is the museum’s antic attic, where age gaps narrow and eyes widen as rolling stock from Lionel and other brands races through tunnels and into depots.
With its wealth of attractions, California’s railroad museum has become a smokestack Smithsonian, drawing more visitors annually than any similar train stop in the United States. Thirty years out of the station, it is running right on time.
Photography by David H. Collier
This article was first published in November 2011 and updated in September 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.