The California State Railroad Museum Is Full of Secrets

BY: Mae Rice |Jul 9, 2015
The California State Railroad Museum Is Full of Secrets

Here’s the first secret of the California State Railroad Museum: although not evident from its name, it’s a little-known jewel among Sacramento museums. According to the museum’s director, Paul Hammond, the city was a natural fit for the museum because its history is inextricable from California’s railroads. In 1855, it became part of the first railroad west of the Rocky Mountains, which ran between Sacramento and Folsom; in 1869, when the country’s first transcontinental railroad was completed, Sacramento was also on one end (the other was the majestically named Council Bluffs, Iowa).

Like all history museums, the California State Railroad Museum is full of secrets—exhibits full of sights and factoids visitors never knew about before. Below are four secrets Paul shared during our chat. If you’re looking for things to do in Sacramento, though, you might as well stop by the transitiest of the city’s museums and discover all the secrets we didn’t.

1. The Martial Law Secret

In lift-up boxes in the museum, visitors can compare photos of modern Sacramento with photos of the city back in 1894. That was a big year: Sacramento was briefly under martial law.

The trouble started when railroad workers went on strike against the Pullman Company, which made and operated train cars. Sacramento was a major seat of the strike, and things got so out of hand that the US Army occupied the city, ushering in a period of what Hammond called “de facto, undeclared but very real, martial law.”

2. The Thomas the Tank Engine Secret

The museum is committed to historical accuracy but still kid-friendly enough to have a second-floor play area stocked with wooden Thomas the Tank Engine toys. Kids are also often mesmerized by the intricate model railroad.

3. The Secret to the Good Reputation of California Farmers

That would be refrigerator cars, which have long prevented fruits and veggies from wilting in transit. “There’s probably no more important car when you think about the reputation of California today for fresh produce,” Hammond said.

Originally, these cars worked simply: “You literally loaded big blocks of ice into end bunkers,” Hammond explained. The ice melted, but it kept the cargo cool. Today, visitors can check out the whole system at the museum, which has a refrigerator-car exhibit that visitors can walk through, kept frosty by “simulated ice.”

4. The Secret Story Behind the Museum’s … Headstone

In one exhibit, museum-goers can find a headstone for what Hammond politely calls a “deceased gentleman.” (Don’t worry—a new headstone has replaced this one at the guy’s grave.) The man was a railroad worker who died when he fell asleep at the throttle and crashed his train. At the time, “he’d been on duty for 22 hours straight,” Hammond said. He’s part of the reason the US has much stricter labor regulations than it did in the Gold Rush days.

Like any polite headstone, this one doesn’t explain how its owner died, but Hammond noted that there is a locomotive carved into the headstone—a testament to his dangerous line of work.