We left Napa valley with plans to meet up with my parents at a friend’s home outside of Sacramento. Our destination would be Lake Tahoe for the week. We were packed up and ready to go early, so we had an extra hour before our appointed meeting time. What can you do for an hour between Napa valley and a Sacramento suburb? Looking at the map, we thought we would head in to see the state capitol. Instead, highway construction and a fund-raising run had enough exits and bridges closed, that we ended up crossing the Sacramento River and seeing the sign for “Old Sacramento” to the left. Sounded good to us.
This turned out to be a series of historic buildings and reconstructions in the style of the mid-1800. A combination of museums, living history, eateries, shops, and tatoo parlors gave tourists a destination. We found on-street parking a couple of doors up from the Visitor’s Center. A quick inquiry of what we could do for the next hour directed us to the California State Railroad Museum. We could have spent a couple more hours there. Also, with our limited time, we did not have time to figure out when the scenic train ran… But, we heard the whistle blowing as we walked back to our car.
The hay-day of the railroads in the west began with the Transcontinental Railroad, linking the Mid-West lines to rails crossing the Rocky and Sierra Mountains. Flat rail beds and rolling hills are scenic, but not much of a challenge to build other than their distance. The short routes over the mountain passes require engineering and muscle to climb grades several thousand feet above the valley floors.
The museum provides displays on the businessmen who funded and reaped the rewards of the rail lines, the planning for the routes, and the labor crews which carved out the rail beds and tunnels. An additional factor at the time of construction was the heavy snow packs which grew to 30 to 40 feet during the winters over Emigrant and Donner passes between Sacramento, CA and Reno, NV. Miles of snow-sheds protected the trains with hand-hewn pine timber.
After the lines were constructed, rail traffic included freight and passengers. The museum has multiple engines, passengers and freight cars on display in its warehouse size building. Many platforms give access, whether looking through windows, or stepping into the engineer’s compartment.