California State Railroad Museum


On the way back from the sierras, we drove through Sacramento. So I took the opportunity to take my son to the California State Railroad Museum. I remember going there as a kid but it’s been two dozen years since I last visited. I don’t think it’s changed much.

First, it’s not like they can change their artifacts (train engines and rolling stock) easily. They’re pretty much stuck with what they have. So it’s a question of what stories to tell.

In this case, it’s all about the mythology of railroads. Great fun for kids and enthusiasts but a little disappointing for people wanting a nuanced view. Lots of information about manifest destiny, westward expansion, and taming the west. Much much less about robber barons, cheap immigrant labor, and the way the land changed because of railroads.

And lots of information about the golden age of railroad travel between 1920 and 1960 when it was the only way to get between cities. As I wandered through the sleeping and dining cars, I found myself wondering why, since the main appeal of long train trips now is this nostalgia kick, modern trains don’t try and really play up the romance of it all.

There is no 21st Century Limited with fancy streamlined engines. Diesel engines  now all look the same. Train cars are also mostly utilitarian too. It’s a shame that you have to go to a museum in order to take part in the nostagia.*

*Or you can ride the vintage streetcars on Market Street or take the game train on CalTrain.

little boy heaven

There was one new area to me in the museum. Upstairs is a model train section consisting of a massive bequest of model trains. It’s awesome.* Every male still has a little boy inside who wanted a massive train layout. So seeing the layouts and all the different trains and train cars is great fun. As is seeing all the little boys’ eyes light up when they reach the top of the stairs.

*Though, again, model train kits seem to push the same mythology of trains.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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