Technology's dinosaurs glow in museum of railroading

It stretches for almost 126 feet, a million-pound behemoth. The 16 drive wheels stand as tall as a man. Pipes and tubes slither in and out of the massive cylindrical body.

This was technology at its brawniest - 6,000 horsepower. But sheer brawn wasn't enough to keep Southern Pacific locomotive No. 4294 in favor. The distinctive cab-ahead engine pulled its last freight over the Sierras some 30 years ago.

Now this paragon from the age of steam seems a dinosaur. Like those great beasts, the steam locomotive took ever bigger and more powerful forms before its rapid decline. Cheaper and more efficient diesels finished off, at least in the United States, a line that began with James Watt's hissing and chugging machine in 1769.

The strength and artistry of an epic-making technology - that's one thing that strikes a visitor to the California State Railroad Museum here. The main building and nearby depot exhibit are located in the renovated Old Sacramento section of town near the banks of the Sacramento River.

The museum's drawing power attests to Americans' continued fascination with rails, locomotives, other rolling stock, and the rich history woven around them. Since its doors opened in May 1981, over a million people have stared at and pondered the 21 engines and cars, plus historical and explanatory exhibits.

What's the attraction? Today, certainly, rail travel is an ever-less-familiar experience, and our technology has turned from massive works in iron and steel to the Lilliputian world of silicon chips and microprocessors.

For many, the museum brings a rush of memories. As museum archivist Walter Gray puts it, walking among these mementos of railroading's glory days can be ''a profoundly nostalgic experience.'' Older visitors may, for instance, recall hours spent traveling in Pullman cars on trips or vacations. And the Pullman exhibit enhances the nostalgia by re-creating the sounds and motion, as well as the sights, of bygone rail travel.

But Mr. Gray points out that the experience memorialized here is far broader than individuals' contacts with the world of railroading. A fundamental purpose of the museum, he says, is to provide an insight into the role railroads had in shaping the American West.

It was a glorious role, and sometimes a shameful one. And it burst onto the stage of history right here in Sacramento, the Western terminus for one of the nation's great private-public undertakings. That momentous project - the backbreaking, mountain-moving completion of the first transcontinental rail link - gives this museum a focus, a starting point.

A tour begins with a slide and motion-picture presentation featuring scenes from the 1860s, when the toil of pushing the ''iron horse'' through the Sierras, the desert, the Rockies, and the plains was in full swing. The first thing that captures your eye on stepping from the screening area is the gleaming Central Pacific locomotive No. 1, the Gov. Stanford. It's a jewellike piece of antique hardware, but it must have seemed a modern-day wonder to the provincial crowd of gawking children, laborers, and merchants who greeted it and other locomotives at Sacramento's docks in the early 1860s, not far from the museum's present location.

Leland Stanford, the engine's namesake, had been one of those merchants. But he and the three other wealthy local businessmen who put up the cash to back the Western half of the great transcontinental undertaking were hardly provincial in outlook. They were men of vision, although their vision was of a different order than that which drove Theodore -Judah, the engineer who first conceived of slicing a rail line through the towering Sierras. Judah was a man possessed by an idea, a fanatic, some thought. Historians have noted that he was the true father of the transcontinental railroad.

Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins - the ''Big Four,'' as they came to be known - were above all men of business. Their vision was shaped by the promise of profits. Their cool-eye pragmatism saw the project through, launching a Western rail empire that evolved into the huge Southern Pacific system.

Old photos and other displays illustrate the magnitude of the task that faced the engineers, foremen, and Chinese work crews that inched the Central Pacific (as the line was then named) eastward. They literally blasted their way through the Sierras' granite massif, using black powder, and, later, nitroglycerin. And as the muscles of men and draft animals strained to lay track, the financiers and politicians laid another kind of groundwork.

Railroads were the ''growth industries'' of their day. Many in government were just as eager to smooth the way for the would-be rail barons as present-day politicians are to boost the prosperity of high-tech firms. Then, as now, national security was a ready rationale. The Union, after all, was in the throes of civil war. President Lincoln was quick to appreciate the importance of the railroad for troop transport to far-flung territories and states.

The Railroad Act of 1862 was an early, and monumental, example of an industrial policy designed to encourage - virtually underwrite, really - what was ostensibly a private undertaking. And it was only the first of a series of laws that granted the Western rail companies ample subsidies and vast tracts of public land for rights of way. As Lynne Rhodes Mayer and Kenneth Vose explain in their book, ''Makin' Tracks,'' such generosity ''was based on the philosophy that if the country badly needed a particular project, the government should help to pay for it by supporting private enterprise in both its endeavors - to get the job done and to profit from it.''

The entrepreneurs, such as the Big Four out West and the consortium of Eastern businessmen who launched the Union Pacific west from Omaha, Neb., responded to such encouragement - and sometimes took liberties with it. Mayer and Vose recount how Collis Huntington squeezed some more money out of Uncle Sam by convincing President Lincoln that the Sierras began at a point much nearer Sacramento than the point already agreed to by the Central Pacific's chief engineer, Theodore Judah. This bit of sharp dealing meant that virtually flat land could be counted as mountains and thus receive the higher government subsidy allowed for such terrain. The result, Mayer and Vose relate, was a ''windfall of $768,000.''

The men building westward from Nebraska were, if anything, even more calculating. The Credit Mobilier scandal, which came to light shortly after the transcontinental line was finished, exposed an elaborate scheme of fraud and graft centered in the holding company that managed Union Pacific finances. The revelations moved Massachusetts Sen. George Hoar to lament that ''every step of that mighty enterprise had been taken in fraud.''

Such is the dark side of railroading's history. But there is no escaping the positive impact that rail transport had on the West's then fledgling economy. As archivist Gray sums it up, ''The story of railroads in the West is the story of California.'' The rails opened East Coast markets to California's prolific farms. And, as Gray points out, Southern Pacific and other companies did all they could to promote the state and its products. They invented the California image; the term ''Golden State'' came from the typewriter of an Southern Pacific publicist, says Gray.

It was essentially the prominent role railroads played in the state's history that led to the establishment of the museum. California's legislators lined up behind the project, as did the state's voters, who OK'd a $200 million parks bond issue in 1970 that included funding for the museum. Fortunately for the museum's backers, groundbreaking began a month before those same voters ushered in Proposition 13 and an era of state fiscal restraint.

The federal government chipped in some money, too, and Southern Pacific donated the facilities needed for the extensive task of renovating and repairing cars and locomotives.

The job of locating and collecting discarded equipment had begun decades earlier, in the 1930s, Gray says. It was then that some rail enthusiasts in the Bay Area realized that a valuable technological heritage was rusting away on obscure sidings and junk heaps. They formed the Pacific Coast Chapter of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society and began acquiring pieces of equipment. Parts of that collection have been refurbished and are now on exhibit here.

The refurbishing is no simple job, according to Gray. A prime example is the exquisite narrow-gauge locomotive, the Sonoma, built in 1876. All the restorers had of the original engine, Gray recalls, was a frame, the running gear, and a vestige of the cab. But they had documents showing every detail of its original appearance. So ''we manufactured half of what you see'' - including ornamental brass work, the boiler fittings, and the entire tender,'' Grays says. That, he adds, was the most expensive restoration of the lot, costing $120,000.

That sort of care is evident throughout the museum. The ingeniously designed building itself includes such features as an elevated display of a narrow-gauge freight train and an operating turntable. Lifelike mannequins depict porters, brakemen, and other railroad figures. The visitor strolls from one rail epoch to the next - from a colorful 19th-century locomotive to one of the early refrigerator cars that allowed California produce to rumble east, then on to the lavishly customized private car used by journalist and author Lucius Beebe in the 1940s.

It's an engaging walk through history. And at $2 for adults and half that for those under 17, it's a bargain that might have pleased even the shrewdest of the Big Four.

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