The California State Railroad Museum is one of Sacramento's largest and most popular visitor destinations. Opening in 1976, the museum complex has grown steadily over the decades and now consists of six original, reconstructed, and new buildings completed at a cost of $30 million and located at the heart of Old Sacramento. The museum’s exhibits, knowledgeable guides, and restored railroad cars and locomotives illustrate railroad history in California and the West--and include training programs for steam locomotive engineers and rides for museum patrons along the Sacramento Southern Railroad.
Citizens passionate about preserving California’s unique railroad history had been actively agitating for a public facility since 1937, when the Pacific Coast Chapter of the nationwide Railway and Locomotive Historical Society was founded with “ultimate goal of a museum celebrating railroading in the West.” They began acquiring historical locomotives that year, and in 1969 donated over 40 locomotives and cars to the State of California’s Parks and Recreation division.
This rare collection formed the core of a new museum unveiled to the public during the United States centennial celebrations of 1976. The facility is more than a museum, however: a number of the most historic railyard buildings in California are restored and preserved as a part of the the complex, including the nearby Central Pacific Railroad Passenger Station (in fact, the Central Pacific, which eventually built the western half of the Transcontinental Railroad, was born mere steps away from the Railroad Museum itself, in the Big Four House).
The Railroad History Museum building was completed in 1981 and houses the majority of the complex’s artifacts and curated exhibits--with highlights such as a number of the American West’s most historic locomotives. Included in the collection is the Central Pacific’s very first locomotive, the Governor Stanford, built in Boston and shipped around South America’s Cape Horn to California in 1862.
Offering a wide variety of activities to help museum-goers experience the magic of railroading, the California State Railroad Museum brings to life the history of railroading with its authentic train rides, special events, and regularly rotating exhibits. Additionally, since 1982 excursion trains have been a popular offering along the Sacramento River waterfront. The route, once operated by a subsidiary of Southern Pacific Railroad known as the Sacramento Southern, was purchased by the State Parks in the 1980s when it no longer proved economically feasible for the company. The Railroad Museum not only provides these scenic, educational rides to over 60,000 passengers annually, new generations of preservationists are trained in the construction, refurbishment, operation and maintenance of trains and railways.
Rotating museum collections and special events encourage visitors to return time and again. Additionally, the California State Railroad Museum operates the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park two hours away in Jamestown, which features historic locomotives and railcars that have been featured in hundreds of films through the decades. For researchers, the Railroad Museum maintains an extensive archive.