During a long weekend in Sacramento with my older two kids, we visited the California Railroad Museum. It is located on the north end of Old Town Sacramento in a brick building (part of which is actually an old roundhouse, which is super cool).
Admission to the California Railroad Museum
The California Railroad Museum is managed by the State Park system. Adult admission is $12, while kids between 6 and 17 ring up at $6. Kids 5 and under are free.
The museum didn’t feel busy when we arrived, but there was a line of several people.
In the meantime, we decided to examine the small steam engine that greeted us.
The kids were excited. I don’t believe either have ever traveled by train, and they were very interested in seeing what trains were all about. After paying the admission, we decided we’d explore the place floor by floor.
All the coolest stuff is on the first floor. Ok, that may have already spoiled floors two and three. But it’s true. You can’t really stick full size locomotives or railcars on the upper floors without some more serious engineering, so it follows that all of those at ground level. Which makes the first floor the coolest.
The first section focuses on the history of the railroad in California. Specifically, it highlights the Transcontinental Railroad. As a kid, this was a section of history I thoroughly enjoyed, and the fascination with the race to span a continent has not faded. I started to read every part of the exhibit.
The kids quickly grew bored of this and ran ahead while I was engrossed in the details of the Central Pacific Railroad, the company racing eastward from California. If you’re not familiar with this section of American history, the Federal government offered financed the construction of the railroad by offering $16,000 per mile of track. The Central Pacific Railroad was the company constructing track eastward from California, eventually meeting the Union Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah.
The kids eventually arrived to drag me further into the museum. I seriously could have spent most of an hour in the first rooms.
The railroad revolutionized the economy in California by linking the Golden State with the rest of the country. The next area focuses on the development and impact of the railroad in our own state. One section in particular highlights Sacramento, including it’s role in the Pullman strike.
Further along there are a variety of locomotives and railcars, some historic, others new.
You are able to walk inside several. One of the kids’ favorites was the bullet train.
I also enjoyed the mail car. There were park staff inside who explained how the sorters managed the mail as the train clicked along the track, picking up new bags and delivering sorted ones.
Dining and Pullman coaches
The most interesting cars at the California Railroad Museum were the Pullman sleeper car and the dining car. I’d read about Pullman cars and knew that they were the standard for sleeper cars in their time, but it was way cooler to actually experience one!
The general layout resembles Amtrak’s modern Roomettes. I may be dreaming, but the beds in the Pullman look both wider and more comfy. You lose the privacy of the modern version, though, as you only have curtains to block out your car companions.
Connected to the Pullman sleeper is an exquisite dining car from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe named “Cochiti.” It has quite the kitchen! No, the cook is not real.
Displayed in the car are a large number of china sets from various trains. Unlike air travel where every pound counts, train china was designed to be beefy so it wouldn’t slide off the table as the train swayed.
There was also a menu displayed. If only prices were still this reasonable. Caviar for $1.75, anyone?
We spent a good amount of time on the first floor, but eventually it was time to check out the other sections of the California Railroad Museum.
The second floor of the museum contains some exhibits on high-speed rail, the museum theater, and…the simulator. This was a big hit with the kids. Both of them were up for waiting in line to drive a simulated Japanese bullet train. This might not sound as thrilling as an airplane simulator, but it was still fun for them.
The goal of the simulator is to take the train from one station to the next. You get to release the brakes and pull out of the station, carefully managing the throttle based on what section of track you’re on.
Later, the simulator skips to full speed, which is approaching 200 mph!
Finally, you get to stop the train at the next station. The goal is to park it as perfectly as possible and at the end it’ll tell you how how far off you were.
I as so engrossed watching my kids that I completely forgot to take pictures. Sorry.
The third floor of the California Railroad Museum is geared toward both kids and collectors. There are a large number of model trains displayed in cases, including many of the pieces that you’d use to set up a really nice diorama.
Maybe alluding to the Empire Builder Amtrak service?
There are also several full dioramas featuring moving trains at various scales. We enjoyed watching these.
The last section is the children’s play area. You also get a good view of the first floor laid out below you.
At the very end we stopped for a bit and played with the toy trains. There were a bunch of other kids there and it was sorta wild, so my two ended up wanting to head out pretty quickly.
Our visit to the California Railroad Museum made for a great half day excursion. I enjoyed reading the history of the railroad in California, seeing a variety of rail cars, and watching my kids enjoy themselves. I highly recommend the California Railroad Museum as a must-see if you are ever in the Sacramento area!