If you love trains, as I do, then you will enjoy the California State Railroad Museum in old town Sacramento California.
From the moment you walk into the exhibits and are greeted by the first locomotive of the transcontinental railroad the “Gov. Stanford”, you know your visit will be special. Every train car, every locomotive in the museum is an original. There are no replicas.
The “Gov. Stanford” locomotive was named for Leland Stanford who was one of the “big four” (or “the association” as they preferred) who built the Central Pacific Railroad which anchored the western half of the transcontinental railroad. The big four were Leland Stanford, Collis Potter Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker.
According to a docent at the museum, the U.S. government wanted to melt down the Gov. Stanford locomotive for scrap at the beginning of World War II, but Stanford University managed to disassemble and hide it through the war.
The creation of the transcontinental railroad is a major emphasis of the museum as it is an important part of railroad history in California. In addition to the “Gov. Stanford” locomotive, they also have the very first locomotive of the Southern Pacific Railroad which is named after Huntington.
We first visited the museum when our kids were pretty small and were fans of Thomas the Tank Engine. The museum is still a great place for kids because of the hands-on exhibits, the toy train collection, and a Thomas the tank area on the second floor.
As impressive as the big locomotives are some of my favorite exhibits are the railroad cars. They have a Pullman car that is rigged to gentle rock and clatter as the train would at night. You can see how passengers road in comfort and then pulled down the bunks and drew the curtains to sleep at night. All the while they were cared for by their black stewards.
The museum has a collection of old fruit and vegetable shipping labels in a refrigerated car that opened up the markets of the East Coast to the farms for California, including the Salinas Valley where I grew up.
European visitors remarked at how egalitarian the train experience was in America with all those various classes missing together, but the museum also displays a private railroad car which shows how I would really like to travel next time I travel by train.
They have a dining car where you see the large rolling kitchen as well as the elegant dining room.
The dining room displays the custom China that each train line had up until the 1960s.
They have a mail car that shows how these mobile post offices worked for a century of American history. The helpful docent demonstrated how they picked up and dropped off mail from town without even stopping the train through an elaborate system of mailbags and hooks. Pictures of the men who worked the mail car show them packing sidearms as they knew the mail made them a target for robbers.
Admission: $12 adults, $6 Youth, Free for 5 and under
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day)
The entrance to the museum covers all the exhibits, an optional guided tour, and a 22-minute film about the building of the transcontinental railroad. Of all the exhibits only the film seems to have gotten a little dated.
The California State Railroad Museum is located in Old Town Sacramento which preserves a number of historic buildings, a saloon or two, a paddle-wheeler, a history museum, a free one-room schoolhouse museum, and a number of other shops and restaurants. Parking at nearby meters is limited to two hours and costs $.25 for 12 minutes. For most people, seeing the museum will take two hours or less.