Engine from early transcontinental railroad at the Old Sacramento Railroad Museum in California
Engine from early transcontinental railroad at the Old Sacramento Railroad Museum in California

By Lee Foster

Author’s Note: This article “California’s Old Sacramento Railroad Museum: The Iron Road Across the Sierra” is a chapter in my new book/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. The subject is also covered in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.

In Brief

The dream of an American transcontinental railroad began in Old Sacramento. An engineer named Theodore Judah made the proposal. However, as the scheme developed, he lost control to the so-called Big Four, a group of prosperous Sacramento merchants. Construction of the mammoth project began in 1863. In 1869, at Promontory, Utah, the rails joined with the Union Pacific. That railroad was pushing forth from the East. Today the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento tells the story of the rail influence on development of the America West.

The Historic Story 

Within Sacramento, besides Sutter’s Fort and the State Indian Museum, your main stop should be Old Sacramento. Make additional visits to the California State Capitol Museum, the Crocker Art Museum, the Governor’s Mansion State Historic Park, and the California Museum.

Old Sacramento re-creates and preserves the Gold Rush and railroad era from 1850 through 1890. Firstly, the California State Railroad Museum ranks as one of the finest of its kind in the country, interpreting the many implications that railroads had on the lifestyle of the West. Secondly, Old Sacramento includes a historic riverfront area and 28-acre national historic landmark. Here the hopeful Gold Rush miners embarked after their riverboat trip from San Francisco. They quickly overran Captain John Sutter’s nascent agricultural community in 1848.

Begin a historical tour at the B. F. Hastings Building, 1000 2nd Street (corner of 2nd and J St.). Housing the Wells Fargo History Museum and Old Sacramento Visitor Center, this structure once headquartered the Pony Express, the California State Supreme Court (1855 – 1869), and Theodore Judah’s office.

Forlorn Theodore Judah

While exploring here, seek out the forlorn bust of Theodore Judah at 2nd and L Streets.  Judah, the engineer, articulated the original dream of the transcontinental railroad.

Also rendered irrelevant by changing technology was the Pony Express, whose riders are memorialized in Old Sacramento with a bronze statue. Certainly, peruse this galloping rider and horse at the corner of 2nd and J Streets. Sacramento was the western terminus of the Pony Express, which in 1860 ran 1,966 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento. The Pony Express could carry a letter over the route, using 80 riders, in 10 days. However, by 1861,  the new technology of the transcontinental telegraph put the Pony Express out of business.

At 113 I Street lies the Big Four Building, where the four merchants, Leland Stanford, C. P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, drew up plans to build the Central Pacific Railroad. Subsequently, the Big Four Building now serves as part of the façade for the California State Railroad Museum (125 I St.; 916/445-7387; https://www.californiarailroad.museum/).

Engine from early transcontinental railroad at the Old Sacramento Railroad Museum in California
Engine from early transcontinental railroad at the Old Sacramento Railroad Museum in California

The Railroad Museum, The Main Event

Make this museum visit the main and central event in your Old Sacramento adventure. In other words, all else is peripheral. The museum re-creates the dream of the Central Pacific Railroad, the California-inspired component for the transcontinental railroad. To sum up, the extensive museum holdings include 21 restored locomotives and cars, plus 46 more one-of-a-kind exhibits. Attractions include re-created railroad dining cars with the China laid out. Most importantly, there is an award-winning documentary movie, Evidence of a Dream. The movie depicts the railroad’s importance in the development of California. To sum up, the cultural role of the railroad in forming America, both 19th and 20th century, is foremost.

Beyond the railroad museum, there is more to see as you walk around Old Sacramento. For example, the reconstructed Eagle Theatre, 921 Front Street, which opened in 1849, was California’s first theater building.

Exploring Downtown Sacramento

After you leave Old Sacramento, stop by to visit the domed State Capitol Building. Firstly,  visit The Capitol, serving from 1874, lies at 11th and L Streets. For details on the museum, call 916/324-0333. Guided tours are available. Museum rooms in the Capitol recall California’s governors and politics.

A further interesting stop is the Crocker Art Museum (216 O St.; 916/808-7000; https://www.crockerart.org). In short, Crocker is the oldest art museum in the west. It was built by Judge Edwin B. Crocker in 1873 to house his private art collection. The museum shows 19th– and 20th-century California art, some Old Masters, and various Asian pieces.

You can no longer visit the Governor’s Mansion, a lovely 1877 Victorian at 1526 H Street. However, you can walk around it and take pictures. Thirteen of California’s governors from 1913 to 1967 lived in the structure.

One of the best and newer history museums in downtown Sacramento is the California Museum (1020 O St.; 916/653-7524; http://www.californiamuseum.org). Among its signature exhibits are people telling stories about early Spanish missions, Indians, and community leaders and activists.

Getting There 

Sacramento is 90 miles (about 1 ½ hours) east of San Francisco on Interstate 80. As you approach Sacramento, look for the Old Sacramento turnoff sign. The road will take you across the Sacramento River. Old Sacramento will be on your immediate left.

Be Sure to See 

The California State Railroad Museum (125 I St.; 916/445-7387; https://www.californiarailroad.museum) is the highlight of Old Sacramento. Beyond that, the immense dome of the California State Capitol suggests the power of California. The other suggested Sacramento museums can make your adventure a full and exciting day.

Best Time of Year 

Any time of the year is good for Old Sacramento. The annual Farm-to-Fork celebration, held in September, is an especially festive affair at Capitol Mall. The two-day event features fresh food, music, and wine tasting. Sacramento is both a premier historic and a vitally modern travel destination.



The Delta King Hotel along the Old Sacramento waterfront is the unique historic inn for the region. Formerly, the Delta King was an actual riverboat plying the waters between San Francisco and Sacramento. Subsequently, it has now been modernized to function as a permanent hotel. In short, The Delta King now has 44 staterooms and two restaurants. Contact Delta King Hotel (1000 Front St.; 916/444-5464; https://deltaking.com/). 


Rio City Café, adjacent to the Delta King, is a lively restaurant along the Sacramento waterfront. Above all, Rio City Cafe offers a venue in the open air for enjoying the river and the scene. Try the grilled salmon. Rio City Café is at 1110 Front St.; 916/442-8226; www.riocitycafe.com). 

For Further Information 

Contact Visit Sacramento (1608 I St.; 916/226-5783; https://www.visitsacramento.co). Old Sacramento has its own website at www.oldsacramento.com. Moreover, all the museums in this culturally rich city can be accessed at www.sacmuseums.org.




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