Trains have fascinated Californians ever since the first railway was completed soon after the Gold Rush. Here in the Golden State, trains occupy a large and honorable niche. California’s railroads have profoundly shaped the destiny of the West.
Railroad aficionados can enjoy trains past and present at a number of locations in the Sierra Nevada foothills and beyond. Hop aboard a steam locomotive, tour one of the largest train museums in the world, ride Amtrak over the high Sierras and marvel at the views, tunnels and snowsheds, or even drive a locomotive. And for those who like their trains pint-size, one of the West’s biggest model railroading happens this month.
A Bit of History
California railroading began in 1852, when the Sacramento Valley Railroad was chartered. The little railroad was finally built in 1856, offering an efficient transportation alternative to the muddy or dusty wagon tracks of the era. The 22-mile long track the West’s first rail routelinked Negro Bar, near what is now the town of Folsom, with Sacramento. Wealthy San Franciscans poured money into the project. Today Folsom visitors can see the reconstructed railroad turntable close to Sutter Street in oldtown Folsom.
Although the project, headed by brilliant civil engineer Theodore Judah, was relatively modest, it gave impetus to a much larger vision, a trans-continental railroad that was to become the most ambitious and costly United States engineering feat of the nineteenth century. In 1860 Judah approached a group of wealthy Sacramento businessmen Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington and Charles Crockerwith his idea of building a trans-continental railroad. The Big Four, as they became known, supported Judah’s project after weighing strategies for California’s possible involvement in the Civil War. In 1862, after much political maneuvering, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, which empowered the Central Pacific to build from California toward the east, and chartered a new company, the Union Pacific Railroad, to build west from Nebraska Territory into Nevada. Groundbreaking occurred on January 8, 1863, at the foot of "K" Street in Sacramento.
Money problems plagued the project. All the rails, locomotives, and other suppliesliterally everything except timber and the few iron castings which could be made locallyhad to make an 18,000-mile, five-to-eight-month voyage by sailing ship around Cape Horn from Atlantic coast ports. Judah and the Big Four had a falling out. Judah left for the east to seek financing, but died of malaria while crossing the Isthmus of Panama.
Construction continued slowly, but things began to look up in 1864. Additional locomotives arrived, and the railroad began hauling paying passengers in March. Between 7,000 and 10,000 mostly Cantonese Chinese laborers, many of whom lost their lives doing this work, made up 80 percent of the work force. Tracks were completed to Colfax, 54 miles from Sacramento, on September 1, 1865. Huge challenges plagued the builders. The long, difficult, dangerous task of blasting a ledge for the roadbed a thousand feet above the American River at Cape Horn, for example, was not completed until May of the following year. The work was grueling and endless, and was all done by hand. The Chinese drilled holes in the rock face of the bore with drill steels and mauls, commonly using black powder as an explosive.
The builders did not reckon with the fierce Sierra weather. The winter of 1866-1867 was especially brutal. Avalanches swept over the shanties of the laborers. Forty-four storms pummeled the workers that winter, some depositing as many as six feet of snow, with drifts of 40 feet and more. The workers lived a mole-like existence in tunnels under the snow.
To the east, ground was broken for the Union Pacific in Omaha, Nebraska on a bitterly cold December 2, 1863, but no track was built for a year and a half. Labor was at first a problem, but after the end of the Civil War, thousands of young menmany of them from Ireland and other places in northern Europeflocked west to help build the railroad.
The place of meeting between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific was originally intended to be the California-Nevada state line, because it was believed that the Central Pacific would take years to successfully surmount the Sierra Nevada. That was not to be, and on May 10, 1869 the two tracks finally met at Promontory, Utah. A thousand workers cheered as the Golden Spike was driven.
Railroad Destinations Big and Small
California State Railroad Museum
Learn more about local railroad history at any of several destinations in and around the foothills, especially at the California State Railroad Museumone of the largest train museums in the worldin Old Sacramento. On display are locomotives and railcards of all kinds, passenger cars that feel like they’re moving, model railroad exhibits, and much more. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day) General Admission: $3 adults (17 and over), ages 16 and under free. Central Pacific Railroad Passenger Station open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entry included with Railroad Museum General Admission. Museum Associates and Caboose Club Members enjoy free general admission year-round. Museum membership information: (916) 445-5995.
On November 23, 24, 25 (Thanksgiving weekend), Train Time for Santa takes place at the California State Railroad Museum! Toy Train Holiday (model and toy train layouts) all three days inside Museum; steam-powered Santa’s Yuletide Express theme trains depart hourly 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. from the Central Pacific Railroad Freight Depot/Public Market in Old Sacramento. Specially priced train tickets this weekend will include Railroad Museum admission: $8 adults and youths, $4 children ages 6-12, ages 5 and under ride free.
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
Located in Jamestown, California, in the southern Gold Country near Sonora, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is home to one of America’s last authentic, operating railroad roundhouses. Known as “The Movie Railroad,” Railtown’s locomotives and cars have appeared in over 200 film and TV productions, including Back to the Future 3, Petticoat Junction, and Little House on the Prairie. Guided walking tours of the historic Sierra Railroad shops and roundhouse are available daily. Every weekend from April through October, take a ride behind a real steam locomotive.
Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day), Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is operated by California State Parks with assistance from the California State Railroad Museum Foundation.
Here’s an unofficial site for Railtown 1897.
Portola Railroad Museum
Rent a locomotive and operate it yourself at the Portola Railroad Museum, P.O. Box 608, Portola, CA 96122; Telephone: (916) 832-4131. Of course, engineer wannabes are restricted to the museum grounds, but even so, driving a full-size locomotive can be a special thrill. The Feather River Rail Society, operators of the museum, offer three basic plans in their Run-a-Locomotive program, which all include instruction from a qualified engineer. Income from locomotive rentals is used for restoration. Visitors can choose from a number of engines and options: Plan A - Alco S-1, EMC NW-2 or FM H12-44 Switcher: $95 per hour. Plan B - One of the switchers for the first hour and an EMD GP-7 road switcher, an EMD GP-9 road switcher, EMD F7 streamline road unit for the second hour: $195. Plan C - EMD GP-7 road switcher, EMD GP-9 road switcher or EMD F7 streamline road unit: $125 per hour. Up to four people can share a rental. There are no age restrictions. Specific locomotive requests are accommodated when possible, although substitutions may be necessary. Rentals are available from March 1st to November 1st, weather permitting, by appointment. For rental information and appointments, call Run-A-Locomotive Rental Information at (530) 832-4532 or write to the museum address above.
This great little museum has plenty to offer besides the locomotive rental program. Definitely worth the trip!
Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad
Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad offers a four-mile railroad excursion at Yosemite Park's south gate on state Highway 41. Visitors ride into history where locomotives once hauled log trains through the Sierra Nevada mountains, where lumberjacks felled the timber and flumes carried lumber to the valley below. The Sierra National Forest’s woods provide the backdrop for the narrow-gauge journey. Scheduled runs take place March through October For more information: Contact the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad at 56001 Hwy 41, Fish Camp, CA 93623; Telephone (559) 683-7273.
Folsom Valley Railway
Ride a 12"-gauge steam railroad around a small track behind the Folsom City Hall and next to the Folsom City Zoo. The small railway is at 121 Dunstable Way (off Natoma Street), Folsom, CA 95630; (916) 621-0039. This is a great outing for families with small children. Ride the railway, stroll through the zoo and later, picnic in the adjacent park complete with shaded tables and playgrounds.
Sacramento Valley Live Steamers
Scale live steam railroading is available in Hagen Community Park in Rancho Cordova, east of Sacramento. (P.O. Box 273, Rancho Cordova, CA 95741)
Sacramento Valley Live Steamers (SVLS) is located in a beautiful setting at Hagen Community Park in Rancho Cordova, California. The Club was started in about 1965 and completed the track with a Golden Spike ceremony in 1973. The original track consisted of a loop about 1,825 feet long. In 1989 SVLS acquired seven adjacent acres of land and expanded. The main line is now over 6,300 feet long with many sidings and several yards. The scenic route passes through treed areas and offers a fine view of the American River, which passes within 100 feet of the railroad. The railroad also features five wooden trestles, a 40-foot truss bridge as well as a girder deck bridge. Several grades, including one on an "S" curve, give opportunities for the engineers to show their stuff. Check the SVLS web page for operation dates.
El Dorado County Historical Museum
Located at 104 Placerville Drive (next to the El Dorado County Fairgrounds) Placerville, CA 95667), the Museum holds a collection of narrow-gauge railroad equipment including a Shay locomotive currently under restoration.
Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad & Transportation Museum
(P.O. Box 1300, Nevada City, CA 95959; Telephone: (916) 265-3668 or (916) 265-0896; Email: NCNGRR@Oro.net) For information concerning train rides, call the Northern Queen Inn and Nevada County Traction Co. at (530) 265-5824 ext 262.
This museum is located at the Northern Queen Inn, located at 400 Railroad Avenue in Nevada City, California. Nevada City can be reached coming from Reno on I-80 and exiting on state Highway 20. If coming from the Sacramento area, take state Highway 49 from Auburn. The museum is located at the historical terminus of the old Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad. The museum has over 20 pieces of three-foot gauge equipment from the NCNGRR, NCO, F&CC, S.P. and Westside Lumber Co. The museum operates in conjunction with the Nevada County Traction Company, which is owned and operated by the Northern Queen Inn. The NQI offers trolley rides and runs a steam train operation during the summer months using Argent Lumber Co. #5, a 2-6-2 26 ton Lima. The NCNGRR&TM also has on display NCNG engine #5, a 1875 2-6-0 Mogul that spent 45 years of its career at Universal Studios and has presented in over 100 movies and television episodes.