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The Railroad

Gateway to History Series

Drawing of SVRR 

Initial run of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, August 17, 1855. Southern Pacific Railroad Collection, 1968/127/002

The railroad was vital to the development of California and became a crucial connection to the thriving cities on the East Coast. Sacramento became a flashpoint for the origin of the rail business. On a cold February day in 1856, the Sacramento Valley Railroad made its maiden run to the town of Folsom. The accomplishment increased agricultural demand, established a transportation monopoly, incited political corruption, and transformed towns into prosperous cities.

CSH archival holdings reflect the influence the railroad had in the transformation of an isolated territory, to one whose fortune melded in with the nation. The story goes far beyond four shop keepers: Huntington, Hopkins, Crocker, and Stanford, who became the "Railroad Kings, guiding the destiny of the fledgling business. Hundreds of mid-level managers, engineers, and journalists shaped rail policy, designed routes, and implemented railroad activities ensuring successful transportation reality.

Student researchers can interact with source material to discover personal stories, vicariously experience early life on the rails, and the changing face of Sacramento history during the settlement period and beyond. The Gateway to History series identifies illustrative resources and educational approaches, encouraging both educators and students to avail themselves of the CSH. The resources answer such questions as: What was it like to ride the railroad in the 1860s; who were the Railroad Kings and how did they gain unprecedented power; who were Theodore Judah and James Carroll; and what impact did the rails have on Sacramento?

Sample Resources at the Center for Sacramento History (CSH)

History of Sacramento County (1880), Chapter XLIII, pages 196-201.
CSH Call Number: F868 S12 1960
This history chronicles the construction of California's first railroad, the Sacramento Valley Railroad. Theodore Judah, Chief Engineer, was responsible for shepherding the rail route, by surveying the Sierra Nevada which led to the transcontinental railroad, and galvanizing support for a rail system. The material covers the initial line, impact of rail service between Sacramento and Folsom, and economic, political, and social transformations.

Golden Notes (1963)
CSH Call Number: Golden Notes vol. 9, no. 3, part 2
A publication of the Sacramento County Historical Society, this issue documents the history of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, its construction, and expansion to Folsom, Marysville, Shingle Springs. The narrative includes vintage photographs.

The Big Four (1938)
CSH Call Number: F860 L44
Author Oscar Lewis chronicles the lives and unprecedented power of the railroad barons. He details their personalities, business acumen, foibles, and extensive influence. The book describes: polarized North and South over slavery, the attractiveness of the railroads, the need for rail service, construction process, and establishment of the Central Pacific Railroad.

James Carroll Daily Pocket Diaries (1855-1859)
CSH Call Number: Carrol and Bettie Flint Collection, 1976/049/01-05, Box 1, Folders 1-2
James Carroll, Chief Engineer of the SVRR, kept an annual diary with personal entries to his wife and business associates. He built the first turntable and turned the first locomotive. Carroll's business entries in the five diaries reflected transactions and costs of materials.

Central Pacific Railroad Passenger Station (1976)
CSH Call Number: SITE FEL
A study was conducted prior to the reconstruction of the old CPR passenger station, its suitability as part of the remodeling of Old Town Sacramento. The study offers a historic review, archeological methodology, and excavation logistics.

Sunset Limited (2005)
CSH Call Number:
Historian Richard Orsi conducted extensive research regarding the complex relationships between corporate and public interests, land distribution, environmental practices, industrial strife, and crushing debts. The railroad advertised land grants for small farms, but maintained control until the occupants improved the land within three months or forfeited the land. The promotion of settlements along the rail routes changed the regional landscape, and opened opportunities to develop other enterprises, usually under the authority and control of railroad policies.

Suggested Activities

Activity A
In small groups, design an advertisement to encourage ridership on the railroad, circa 1860s to 1880s. John Muir (1901) rode often on the Southern Pacific, and complained about the dismal outlook. "Every train rolls on through dismal smoke and barbarous melancholy ruins. What was it like to ride the rails at that time? Cinders from locomotives ignited grassland, trash accumulated by the tracks, deafening noise, clouds of dust, smoke, and soot everywhere. Emphasize the advantages and experiences despite the shortcomings.

Activity B
Identify several individuals who contributed to the evolution of the railroad. Divide the class so each group will research one person. Class brainstorming interview questions for a newspaper article showcasing each person. Students rotate to different groups interviewing student's designated historic figure.

Activity C
Storyboard — students create a graphic depiction of the railroad's immediate impacts on the towns of Sacramento, Folsom, Marysville, and Roseville based on primary and secondary sources from CSH archives.

Activity D
In small working groups, create a one page talking points paper for establishing a high speed train between Sacramento and Los Angeles. Discuss issues, benefits, and areas requiring compromise.

Activity E
Provide a variety of primary sources related to the development of the transcontinental railroad. Have students compare and contrast the items, analyzing the information, making inferences, and drawing conclusions about a specific period. Students may question their assumptions about the past, observe other interpretations from a group of documents, and support their interpretations using good historical evidence.

Activity F
Visualization — Examine a photograph of driving the last spike at Promontory, Utah, the final connection for the transcontinental railroad. Place yourself in this photograph and imagine that you are a Sacramento Bee reporter witnessing this monumental event. Where are you in the photograph? Who is standing next to you? What is the weather like? The train is approaching, prominent people are making speeches, and celebrations begin. Report the scene and how you are feeling. You begin to interview others: who are they, what is their reaction, why are they participating?