By LANCE ARMSTRONG, Valley Community Newspapers writer
A favorite among locals and tourists from throughout the world, the California State Railroad Museum is undoubtedly a king of railroad museums.
Widely regarded as North America’s finest and most-visited railroad museum, Sacramento’s railroad museum predates the arrival of the NBA team that won the hearts of people throughout the region after it was relocated from Kansas City, Mo. in 1985.
But unlike the local professional basketball team that with the exception of a few years failed to place an overall winning combination on the floor, the railroad museum has yet to experience a losing season on its home floor.
Whether the Kings won or loss, their popularity remained strong, thus earning Sacramento Kings fans recognition as “the best fans in the NBA.”
Fortunately for the railroad museum, however, there are no restrictions regarding its continued operation in a building that is actually older than the former Arco Arena/now Power Balance Pavilion – an outdated building by NBA standards – at 1 Sports Parkway in the Natomas area of the city.
Instead, various upgrades to the three-story, 100,000-square-foot, brick museum building at 111 I St. in Old Sacramento has allowed the museum to continuously thrive as a very acceptable venue, which receives more than 500,000 visitors per year.
The success of the museum has placed it in a position to celebrate a pair of notable anniversaries this year.
The first of these anniversaries will occur on May 2 with the 30th anniversary of the public opening of the aforementioned brick museum structure – the primary exhibit building, which is known as the Museum of Railroad History.
And as the community celebrates the nation’s 235th birthday this July 4, this year’s Independence Day will also mark 35 years since the opening of the reconstruction of the 1867 Central Pacific Railroad passenger station at the northwest corner of Front and J streets.
Although many people solely think of the aforementioned brick museum structure when it comes to thinking about railroad-related attractions in Old Sacramento, this building is actually only one of several structures, which Paul Hammond, the museum’s director, collectively refers to as the “museum campus.”
The “campus” or complex includes six buildings that were completed at a cost of $30 million.
In addition to the reconstructed Central Pacific Railroad passenger station and the Museum of Railroad History, the complex of buildings, which are all located in the same general vicinity, near the river in Old Sacramento, include the Central Pacific Railroad freight depot, the “Big Four Building,” the Dingley Spice Mill Building and the 1849 Eagle Theatre.
Herbert Yee, a 58-year resident of South Land Park and the oldest member of the railroad museum’s board, said that Sacramento is very fortunate to have such a fine railroad museum.
“It’s great that we have the (railroad) museum here,” said Yee, whose great-grandfather Yee Fung Jeong came to the United States in 1851. “It’s the greatest attraction in Sacramento and it is a (fitting) place for the museum, actually, because it is symbolic, because (Sacramento) was the (western) hub of the (first) Transcontinental Railroad.”
The idea to construct a railroad museum in the capital city dates back to mid-1969, when a decision was made to develop the museum complex as part of the Old Sacramento State Historic Park.
An important step in the creation of the museum, as well as the success of Old Sacramento, was referred to in the June 23, 1974 edition of The Sacramento Bee as follows: “Voter approval early this month of Proposition 1, the state bond issue, assured enough money to complete the railroad museum. But more importantly, it probably assured the success of Old Sacramento, a project which has lagged for several years, but has the potential of becoming Sacramento’s biggest tourist magnet.”
Old Sacramento with its railroad museum undoubtedly evolved into a must-see destination for visitors of the capital city.
Assisting in the recognition and popularity of the museum were its three Railfair events, which featured operating railroad equipment, interpretive exhibits and large, theatrical railroad productions.
The first of these events occurred with the 1981 opening of the Museum of Railroad History.
Although no specific date is set for the next Railfair, the event is scheduled to be held in celebration of the opening of the Railroad Technology Museum, which will open in the historic Southern Pacific rail yard, north of I Street, as early as 2020.
Visitors of the 30-year-old railroad museum can view such historic, restored railroad equipment as Gov. Stanford, Central Pacific’s first locomotive, C.P. Huntington, the former Central Pacific locomotive that became the No. 1 engine of the Southern Pacific Railroad, Southern Pacific Cab Forward No. 4294, the first California cab-forward or cab-ahead designed engine, and Fruit Growers Express Company Refrigerator Car No. 35832.
Currently at the site of the latter mentioned railroad relic is the popular “Pick Me! Fruit Crate Art and the California Dream” exhibit, which showcases more than 80 detailed and colorful, vintage fruit crate labels. The exhibit, which also includes “kid-friendly,” interactive features, continues through March 30, 2012.
It is recommended that visitors of this family-oriented museum reserve about two hours of their time to view the museum’s trains and exhibits.
In addition to his dedicated work for the museum, Hammond follows the progress of the city, as well as details about the Kings probable departure to Anaheim.
And although the capital city will likely be losing the Kings, Hammond said that Sacramento will remain a “unique city” with many offerings and a great heritage.
“I have to admit, I’m not a sports fan, but that doesn’t influence my decision to worry about the Kings,” Hammond said. “I prefer they don’t go, just because they’re one of those icon things for the city. But this city has got plenty of things going for it and the incredible heritage is a big part of it.”
And fortunately for Sacramento, a major part of that heritage is celebrated in Old Sacramento at the California State Railroad Museum.
The museum is open daily, excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission is $9/adults, $4/youth, ages 6 to 17 years old, and free/children, 5 years old or younger.
For additional information regarding the museum, call (916) 445-7387 (Mondays through Fridays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.), (916) 445-6645 (24-hour recorded information) or visit the Web site www.csrmf.org.