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Up The Road: Where To Now? Sacramento’s Railroad Ties

Allie Caulfield

The dream of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad—a cross-country rail line to connect the West with the rest of the nation—was first dreamed in Sacramento. Was first built here.

The valley’s first railroad, completed in 1856, ran the 22 miles between Folsom and Sacramento. Theodore Judah, its engineer, dreamed of a cross-country railroad connecting California growers and merchants to the rest of the nation—the country’s first transcontinental railway, a technological feat many would later consider America’s first communications revolution.

Judah convinced four Sacramento business leaders that this east-west link over the treacherous Sierra Nevada could be built. With the help of these “Big Four”—Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford—he founded the Central Pacific Railroad Company, which lobbied Congress for federal construction loans, finally authorized in 1862. For nearly seven years, thousands of Chinese workers—already seasoned in the California goldfields—picked tunnels through mountains of solid rock, and hand-graded railroad beds to get the job done.

In spring, 1869 the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads finally joined at Promontory Point, Utah. As Oscar Lewis put it in his book The Big Four, the slogan of the day was: “California Annexes the United States.” Half in arrogance and half in play, the wildest of the western colonies, “prepared to take its place (near the head of the table) with the family of states.” Where it’s been ever since.

And Theodore Judah’s financial backers became the richest, most powerful men in California, controlling the state’s economic direction and political climate for more than 40 years.

Credit Joe Ross / Flickr
The Virginia and Truckee Railroad Empire number 13 engine, built by Baldwin in 1873.

See where the story began. Situated at the original Central Pacific terminus is the huge California State Railroad Museum, 111 I Street in Old Sacramento—a grand collection of locomotives and railway cars, beautifully restored.

The North Pacific Coast Railroad’s Sonoma is the finest restored American Standard locomotive in the nation, all brass and elegant beauty, and The Gold Coast private car, an example of 1890s business-class travel. Santa Fe Number 1010 was “Death Valley Scotty” Walter Scott’s iron steed for his famous 1905 L.A.-to-Chicago speed record.

Southern Pacific Number 4294 is the last of the behemoth cab-forwards that once scaled the Sierra Nevada. The restored 1929 sleeping car St. Hyacinthe rocks and rolls to simulate nighttime travel. The elegant 1940s Cochiti dining car sets its tables with vintage dinnerware, including Mary Colter’s stunning 1937 Mimbre china. But don’t miss the toy trains.

Credit Orin Zebest / Flickr
Rosie, a WWII-era railroadette, over the holidays at the California State Railroad Museum.

And peek into the Big Four Building next door, at 113 I, where Judah boldly pitched the Big Four. The railroad’s headquarters and boardroom originally stood on K Street; it was moved to make way for I-5. Downstairs is an open-for-business re-creation of the original 1880s Huntington & Hopkins Hardware Store. Ride the museum’s Sacramento Southern Railroad, and other historic excursion trains, whenever you get the chance.

Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel

Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:


Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.