California State Railroad Museum

 

How many times do you visit an area, and think, “I really want to go there”, but then you don’t go.  That was me and the Railroad Museum.  Yesterday the Tulare County Teaching American History Grant Institute scheduled the trip, and I finally got my wish.

For a museum-aholic like me, it is really hard for a museum to reach the status of favorite, but this one may come very close.  How fortunate for us today that the  museum did not get built in San Francisco by the organization that collected these beautiful trains, the Railroad and Locomotive Historical Society.

The trains here are all huge and most of all immaculate.   The guides are  knowledgeable, and congenial.  Like Colonial Williamsburg where you have townspeople milling around town able to answer random questions from tourists, there are “railroad employees” interspersed among the visitors who wave, and answer questions as well.

They might be playing my brother’s favorite childhood song,  “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” on their harmonica.

Whatever they are doing looks like fun even when they aren’t conducting tours.  All aboard!

The railroad changed the West in so many ways.  When the Gold Rush started in 1849, it took 6 months at best to get from St. Louis to the gold fields near Sacramento, and even longer when someone came from the East Coast.  After the trains were completed, it took 8 days, and it wasn’t nearly so dangerous.

In 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed,  engines looked like this, just like the little locomotive in one of my first children’s books, The Little Engine that Could.  It was first published in 1906, then rewritten several times until the version that I knew that appeared in 1954.  The third locomotive in operation on the Transcontinental Railroad’s Southern Pacific line,  the Huntington#1, was built in Patterson, NJ in 1863.  Trains have a shelf life of 30 to 40 years, so by 1915 the Huntington started its work as a show engine, traveling from show to show until finally coming home to the museum in 1980, and holds the honor of being the oldest engine on board.

You will have to forgive me for losing my focus here.  The trains were absolutely dazzling, but the sight of all these orange t-shirted K-2nd graders listening to the telephone (not cell phone-shaped) explanations distracted me from telling the train story.  I forgot to even ask the name of the train.  I hope you all can forgive me for that one.

Some of them took the information so seriously.

The very first locomotive in use by the Transcontinental Railroad was the Leland Stanford, partially pictured here.  In 1862 a freshman Congressman named Aaron Smith, reminded the Union legislators that much of the money to fund the Civil War came from California.  Using scare tactics he intimated that without better transcontinental transportation the South might very well win the war instead of the North.  Acting on that  a threat, Congress changed its protocol of  from its normal Civil War discourse and passed bills to begin work building the Transcontinental Railroad.  Seven years later the feat was accomplished.  Of course the Civil War was officially over by then, and the Congressman had served his constituents well.

Crossing the mountains was no small accomplishment, and required a special engine.  This giant tunnel engine was one of my favorite stories.  Notice the vents across the top.  A steam engine built in the 1950s it was completely rebuilt in the shop in the 1970s.  It stayed in operation until the early 2000s.

Engines like this serviceable display which stayed in service so long forced the locomotive builders to upgrade their models so that the railroad companies would buy new engines instead of repairing the old ones.  New engines now operate each wheel individually which allows them to run trains faster and safer now that they were running 40 years ago.

Tomorrow I will post the rest of the story taking you to the materials inside the trains, and the growth of what many little boys of the 50s found under the Christmas tree or received at some point in their lives – the toy trains.

 

2 thoughts on “California State Railroad Museum”

  1. I love the awe of walking in the first room of this museum and seeing that huge locomotive and Sequoia tree together.

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