The Inside Track

Illustration by Martin O'Neill
With May 10 marking the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, we look back at a major moment in our city’s history and look forward to the many ways Sacramento is celebrating the important milestone throughout the year. Full steam ahead!

Training Days

Take a ride through history at these rail-related events and exhibits around town

Center for Sacramento History
Through Oct. 15
 The center highlights the city’s historic railyards with an exhibit titled The Sacramento Shops, which showcases 25 images dating from the late 1880s through the early 1900s. See early blueprints of rail cars and schematics of snowsheds—wooden tunnels designed to enable trains on the Transcontinental Railroad to pass over the Sierra during winter.

Museum of Medical History
Through June 30
 This micro museum hosts Rails to Health, a show covering the four buildings—including refurbished Victorian homes—that were converted into hospitals that treated railyard workers from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Through vintage photos, learn how these makeshift medical centers became harbingers of advancements like the world’s first trauma center.

California State Railroad Museum
Starts April 15
 Three exhibits will honor the Transcontinental Railroad: the presentation of a 66-foot-long map covering the railroad’s route through the Sierra by engineer Theodore Judah (through May 31); a redesigned display centered on a gold spike that never made it to the closing ceremony at Promontory, Utah; and a new permanent show chronicling the contributions of Chinese railroad laborers.

(Image courtesy of The National Park Service)

Gold Spike Lecture Series
April 18–Sept. 7
 This speaker series presented by the Sacramento History Museum will feature talks by Transcontinental Railroad experts, like renowned author Richard White (June 27), who penned the Pulitzer-nominated book Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern

Sesquicentennial Day and Gala
May 8 & 11
 Party like it’s 1869 on May 8 during Sesquicentennial Day, which will kick off with a parade through the Old Sacramento Waterfront featuring horse-drawn carriages that will bear bigwigs from the era (played by docents in period costume) like Leland Stanford. Three days later comes the Sesquicentennial Gala, a black-tie dinner benefiting the California State Railroad Museum.

Waterfront Days
May 25-26
 The new two-day fête celebrates the capital city during its nascent years with performances throughout the Old Sacramento Waterfront, including showings at the Eagle Theatre of an original play in which a young girl travels back in time to meet major Transcontinental Railroad figures like the historic rail line’s designer Theodore Judah.

Crocker Art Museum
June 23-Sept. 29
 The Crocker will host the traveling show The Race to Promontory: The Transcontinental Railroad and the American West, which features roughly 80 photographs documenting the building of the coast-to-coast line taken by Andrew Russell and Alfred Hart, including Russell’s East and West, which captured the meeting of the two railheads at Promontory, Utah.

Rail Historian Bill George

Portrait by Bob Miller

Local historian Bill George takes us on an express train to 19th-century Sacramento via his new documentary about the Transcontinental Railroad. He talks to Sactown about our city’s pivotal role in helping Americans realize the California dream.

So for those of us who don’t remember from grade school, why was the Transcontinental Railroad such a big deal?

It changed everything. California was really remote. You typically had to get here by sea or on foot, and it was a long, hard journey. The [rail line] was completed in 1869, and suddenly, instead of taking up to six months to get here [from the East], you could get here in about a week. So it helped populate the state. The tourism industry also developed—Sunset magazine was developed by a railroad [company] to interest tourists. Of course, California’s agricultural industry was probably the greatest beneficiary. In the East, you couldn’t get fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter. Within a few years, California was the No. 1 agricultural market in the country.

How did it all get started?

Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, and he was a railroad attorney, so he was very familiar with railroads. And Lincoln and his advisors wanted to link the nation by rail. The [original] Pacific Railway Act was passed in 1862, and it designated the Central Pacific Railroad as the winner in a competition to build the railroad across the country, starting in Sacramento. There were four guys [here] who invested: Leland Stanford, Collis Potter Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins—“The Big Four.” They worked with Theodore Judah, a great engineer, to go up into the mountains and do surveys, and off they were.

Sacramento wasn’t the only city that wanted it, though.

No. Other cities were very upset about it. San Francisco wanted it. When the Pacific Railway Act bill came out, it said it had to be built to the Pacific Ocean—or the nearest navigable river. Of course, that was the Sacramento River. When people in San Francisco saw that, they went crazy, called Sacramento all kinds of names—a bunch of crooks and sharpies. They said, “Those same rascals who stole the capital got the Transcontinental Railroad. Will nothing stop them?!” They were real rivals in those days. The guys in Sacramento, they had some sharp elbows, and they were determined to get this thing.

Your forthcoming documentary, How Sacramento Built the Transcontinental Railroad, will debut in May. What made you want to make this film?

I’m really trying to get the point across that it all started here. You read a lot of books that call Sacramento the terminus, which usually means the end, but it wasn’t the end—it was the beginning. That gets lost. People told [The Big Four] that they were crazy, but they plotted and somehow got the money to do it, and they did it ahead of schedule. Without our ancestors, without the people in this city at that time, it just wouldn’t have happened. That’s what I’m trying to scream from the mountaintops.

The Sacramento Historical Society will host a screening of Bill George’s new film on May 28 ($5; 7 p.m. at the Knights of Columbus hall, 5961 Newman Court). For more info, call 530-218-5438 or visit

(Stamps courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service)

Rail Mail

The U.S. Postal Service gets on board for the Transcontinental Railroad anniversary with a new trio of commemorative stamps

On May 10, 1869, a pair of steam engines met at Promontory, Utah—the Jupiter from Sacramento, and locomotive No. 119 from Omaha—and a golden spike was driven into the final track of the Transcontinental Railroad, signifying the historic rail line’s completion. Fast-forward 150 years to May 10, 2019, when the U.S. Postal Service will release a set of commemorative Forever postage stamps in honor of the milestone. The stamps depict the two engine cars cleverly joined by a smaller Golden Spike stamp in the middle. Treat your inner philatelist to a pane of 18 for $9.90. Available at most post offices or at