Phantom trains of the valley

North of downtown is the spot where Sacramento made its leap from the 19th-century Gold Rush into the Industrial Revolution

Petticoat … Junction! An aging but potentially powerful steam engine awaits restoration in Sacramento’s old rail yard.

Petticoat … Junction! An aging but potentially powerful steam engine awaits restoration in Sacramento’s old rail yard.

Photo By Jill Wagner

You may have noticed the ghost trains.

They are parked on a siding in the extensive Union Pacific yards, which sit at the north end of downtown; you can view them from the I Street viaduct. Nearby, stands a giant, corrugated-steel building with Sacramento Locomotive Works painted on its west-facing wall. Across the tracks from the cathedral-like Amtrak Station, there is a red-brick building with a curious three-peaked roof, which rises progressively toward the west—just like the 19th-century expansion of the United States.

What began as the Central Pacific Railroad’s terminus for its transcontinental line incidentally became the birthplace of industry in California, if not for the West Coast of North America. This site, which some local politicians and developers see as an eyesore, originally was the Sacramento general shop for the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. In its heyday, during World War II, it covered 190 acres, had 18 major structures and employed 4,000 people.

“They literally did everything here,” said Leonard Jones, a retired railroad worker who has served as a volunteer for the California State Railroad Museum since 1979, when Southern Pacific started moving crews in preparation for the museum. Jones contributes to it as a machinist, a blacksmith and a forklift, crane and broom operator, and he uses his considerable skills to assist in refurbishing engines and cars for the museum.

Before the coming of the rail yards, California had no heavy industry. Everything that was needed was manufactured on the East Coast and

then shipped around Cape Horn—an arduous, six-month, 14,000-mile trip. The transcontinental railroad’s western starting point needed a manufacturing site, so railroad officials imported the initial machinery and materials and started making everything they needed right here in Sacramento.

“This Sacramento general shop was a sight to be seen,” said Jones. “I’ve seen early photographs. Each shop had its own [marching] band!”

The yard had two foundries for iron and brass, along with a rolling mill; a generator plant for steam and compressed air; plants for plating and the manufacture of batteries, sheet metal and signals; and an automotive and tin shop that made everything from oil cans to headlight covers. The railroad made its own glass and bricks and even made its own silver and flatware for the dining cars.

The rail yards provided stable employment in Sacramento. Before the 1870s, the city had a large transient population; during the Gold Rush, Sacramento was the entry point for prospective miners, who stopped here to get supplies and tie one on before going into the foothills to seek their claims. And more often than not, they came back broke, stranded hundreds of miles from home. The rail yard provided steady work at good wages and gave workers valuable skills. Those employees took their pay, bought homes and raised families in Sacramento. This is one of the major reasons Sacramento was a city of homes and not tenement housing.

“This was the single largest employer of men west of the Mississippi for years,” said Jones. “A lot of the early manhole covers and fire hydrants were cast right here for the city of Sacramento.”

The boiler and erector shops are owned by the California State Railroad Museum. The museum uses the giant, weathered, corrugated-steel boiler shop as its restoration headquarters. At any given time, 60 percent of the museum’s rolling stock can be fired up, moved or driven with minimal preparation. The cavernous building contains dozens of light machine shops with mills, drill presses and lathes of all sizes. Six-foot-long wrenches hang on the walls and in lockers. Giant doors, 30 feet tall, allow engines and cars into the building. The building also has a drop table, basically a giant jack to remove wheels, some of them 6 feet in diameter.

Deuces wild in the bar car. Or maybe it’s just a passenger car, manufactured right here in River City.

Photo By Jill Wagner

The three-peaked red-brick building will house the Railroad Technology Museum one day. The northeast corner of the building was originally built in 1869; two more additions followed, as the importance of the structure increased. Steam engines and passenger cars were assembled in this building after being manufactured in the various shops. The building’s wooden trusses hold the massive ceiling aloft—a good 60 feet up—with the help of riveted iron braces. Inside are more drill presses, lathes and welding stations. Hundreds of steel wheels that range from 1 to 6 feet in diameter are in neat rows. Other spare parts and half-assembled or refurbished engines and cars fill this cathedral of industry.

Between the two buildings is a brand-new transfer table—a bridge-like structure that is basically a horizontal elevator—which allows access to the 25 work bays in the future museum. The transfer table will make it possible to keep many of the locomotives and cars in the museum’s collection that now sit outside, awaiting restoration. The half-million-dollar transfer table took one-and-a-half years to construct.

To the east of the erecting shop is a ghost town, with weeds growing out of the pavement. Three- and four-story red-brick buildings surround a narrow road and plaza. Seventy-five years ago, this was one of the busiest places in California; now, you can hear a mouse pissing on cotton. If this yard were in Amsterdam, it would have been squatted years ago.

Behind the yard, the wonders of bygone technology sit baking in the sun. On the roundtable is a set of powerful-looking steam engines with hoppers from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Co.; the set, awaiting its turn for restoration, represents the pinnacle of engineering from the last generation of steam power. There is a beautiful patina on the giant drive shafts where the Rust-Oleum, which covers the rest of the engine, has worn off. The Rust-Oleum makes everything look like it has a fine coat of rust on it.

Behind the steam engines, in bright blue and yellow, sit their successors—the diesel engines that made the steamers obsolete in the postwar world.

Baggage, mail and passenger cars are positioned as if they’re ready to leave the station. Three generations of hulking cranes sit on iron flatbeds. They were used to clear up derailments, collisions and other accidents on the Southern Pacific line. A couple of red wooden boxcars hunker under the I-5 viaduct. These cars must have been hidden for years on a siding out in the middle of nowhere because the railroad converted its old wooden boxcars into steel in the 1920s—right here at the Sacramento facilities.

Utility vehicles, such as grinders, smaller cranes and gravel machines, sprawl between rows of commuter cars from the San Jose-to-San Francisco run. These battered gray passenger cars spent their entire careers going up and down the peninsula.

An engine with only its firebox and boiler left, an experimental snowplow, flatbed trailers, tank cars and about a dozen more passenger cars all wait their turn in the restoration shop.

“I personally am not a hardcore railroad fanatic, like some of the people here,” confessed welder Steve Mathias, who was busy working. “I just enjoy being in an environment where they are manufacturing stuff. There’s a lot of big, neat stuff to work on. Big machines, big wrenches, you know … it’s just big stuff, and it is an interesting environment to be in.”

The 30-something Mathias has been volunteering at the museum for five years, working with the “away” crew that maintains tracks, switches, ties and the right of way. Mathias also worked on the transfer table and car restoration.

Another volunteer, Keith Houghton, looks like he spent his life working on the railroad. “I never worked for a railroad,” said the retired Houghton, “but everybody asks me that.”

Houghton and his wife, Becky, work in maintenance, on the track and on the transfer table. They also work for Sacramento Southern, the museum’s excursion train, as a car attendant and brakeman.

“My model is 12 inches to the foot,” said Houghton. “Yeah, I play with the big trains. It’s a lot of fun.”