Sacramento is a city rich with railroad history. From the starting point of the Central Pacific to the repair shops of the Southern Pacific, the railroad has been an integral part of the lives of its citizens for 150 years.
Although not California’s first railroad (that title goes to the Sacramento Valley chartered in 1852,) the Central Pacific is without a doubt the most famous of the capital city’s early lines.
Chartered by the famous “Big Four” in 1861, the railroad’s construction was insured by the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862 and the selection of Sacramento as the line’s western terminus. The ceremonial first spike was driven in 1863 and construction continued for six years until the railroad met the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869. Completed largely with the work of Chinese immigrants, the railroad would be not only responsible for economic growth but also a population boom in northern California.
The railroad would continue to operate independently, and even acquired additional lines through 1885. In that year, the Central Pacific was leased to the Southern Pacific. Full integration into the SP wouldn’t come until 1959, but by then the railroad had long since lost its unique identity.
For more than 100 years the Southern Pacific was the major rail player in Sacramento. The city was more than a rail hub, it was also home to the SP’s largest locomotive shops.
These shops not only performed heavy repairs and rebuilding programs, but even built new steam locomotives from 1873 to 1931 (including those built for the Central Pacific.) The shops also built passenger and freight cars for the Southern Pacific and for other local railroads. Although the shops were closed in 1999 following consolidations after the Union Pacific merger, much of the facilities remain today as part of the California State Railroad Museum.
Sacramento was a key junction for the Southern Pacific. Here the route east to Utah met with several mainlines connecting Portland and other northern points with Los Angeles and points south and east on the SP’s southern transcontinental route.
There were actually two Western Pacific’s to call Sacramento home. The first was a small line connecting Sacramento and Oakland which was acquired by the Central Pacific in 1870. The Western Pacific most of us are more familiar with arrived much later.
The Western Pacific was built specifically to challenge the Southern Pacific for business along the Overland Route (the original transcontinental route). Funded through Jay Gould and the Rio Grande, the railroad’s mainline closely paralleled the SP from Utah.
The WP’s mainline actually had a mostly north-south profile through Sacramento itself on its way to a terminus in San Francisco. The WP also controlled the Sacramento Northern, a local shortline.
Through acquisitions of both the Western Pacific in 1983 and Southern Pacific in 1996, Union Pacific has become the key railroad player in town. While the operations have been greatly simplified since the days of multiple lines and the major shop complexes have closed, Union Pacific still funnels a lot of traffic through and around the city.
Traffic is still constant around Sacramento and there are lots of great places to watch trains safely. Of course you can also get closer to the railroad history of the city and the state at the California State Railroad Museum. The museum holds an amazing collection, including some prototypes for famous Lionel models, along with world-class exhibits and programming. So if you’re headed out to join us at the World’s Greatest Hobby Show this weekend, plan on making a few more stops along the way!