From the Museum of Railroad History to the Railroad Technology Museum: Expansion and Changing Focus at the California State Railroad Museum

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From the Museum of Railroad History to the Railroad Technology Museum: expansion and changing focus at the California State Railroad Museum

111 'I' Street, Sacramento, California, 95814. Phone + 1 916 445 7387. Web site:

Built at the western end of America's first transcontinental railroad, the California State Railroad Museum (CSRM) has acquired a richly deserved reputation as one of the world's leading interpreters of transport history. As a unit of the California State Park system, the museum includes several reconstructed buildings in Old Town Sacramento, a ride on the Sacramento Southern excursion railroad, an extensive library of books, primary source documents, and photographs; and, most notably, the 100,000 ft2 Museum of Railroad History, opened in 1981.1 Like any first-rate museum, the CSRM continually reinvents itself to better appeal to its audiences-primarily casual visitors and the state legislators who provide operating funds-by reflecting both academic and popular reinterpretations of what the past 'really' meant. As massive changes to Sacramento's urban transport infrastructure facilitate the development of a new museum of railway technology, the CSRM is once again reinventing itself as residents along the Pacific coast increasingly embrace alternatives to the automobile culture. The CSRM thus faces an unusual paradox, its future tied more than ever before to the resurgence of the railroads, at a time when fewer and fewer visitors have any direct connection to the 'Golden Age' of rail travel that the museum so lovingly portrays.

Virtually every transport museum is built around a core collection of vehicles in various stages of preservation and restoration, and the CSRM certainly excels in this regard. While historians of railway technology might prefer to see locomotives, freight cars, and passenger cars lined up in a logical progression of invention, innovation, and diffusion, in a kind of three-dimensional version of John White's massive compendiums on those subjects, the CSRM has wisely adopted a different and, in the museum setting, perhaps more conventional approach. A life-size, walk-through diorama depicting the construction of a snowshed on the Central Pacific transcontinental railroad over the Sierra Nevada mountains gives way to one of the massive articulated locomotives that the CP's successor, the Southern Pacific, assigned to lug trains through the Sierras many decades later.

In between these two displays visitors encounter narrow-gauge locomotives and cars of the late 1800s. This arrangement is certainly chronologically appropriate and provides visitors with visual evidence of a transitional technology, yet the companies that built and operated cars like the Monterey & Salinas Valley Carter Brothers combination car (a vehicle with accommodation for passengers, baggage and light goods) No. 1 in fact embodied radically different manufacturing and operating methods from the more dominant, standard-gauge Southern Pacific. Intriguingly, it is the Carter Brothers combine that illustrates the CSRM's role as a generator of 'new' primary source material for more conventional written historical analyses. In researching his history of Thomas and Martin Carter, Bruce MacGregor confronted the paucity of written records on the flexible production methods of this pioneering west coast car builder.2 By studying the CSRM's meticulously documented restoration efforts on the Monterey & Salinas Valley car, however, MacGregor was in effect able to reverse engineer the manufacturing techniques employed by the Carters. When combined with thoroughly documented rebuilding efforts at the less well known and less well funded Society for the Preservation of Carter Railroad Resources in Fremont CA he was then able to reconstruct the business practices and the supply chain that the Carter Brothers employed. He also tied those technological and organisational innovations to the emergence of the narrow-gauge movement in California as a response to the presumed economic and political stranglehold of the Southern Pacific. …


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