CLICK HERE if you are having trouble viewing these photos on a mobile device
In case you haven’t been keeping track, the 150th anniversary of the completion of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad is comin’ ’round the bend this May.
And there’s a trainload of sesquicentennial celebrations, commemorations, exhibits, parades and costumed reenactments of driving in the famed Golden Spike — and much, much more — happening here in Northern California and beyond.
But first, a little more on what you’ll be celebrating.
The big day was officially, May 10, 1869. The Transcontinental Railroad was declared complete when Leland Stanford – one of the famous Big Four railroad tycoons — tapped a ceremonial golden spike into the connecting tie at Promontory Summit, Utah, forever linking the Eastern United States to the Western frontier.
“We think of these events as ancient history,” says Ty Smith, director of the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. “But the reason we’re here in California right now is because of the Transcontinental Railroad. It had more lasting impact than even the Gold Rush and shaped us as a people culturally, in the state and in the country.”
The 1,912-mile continuous railroad line is often considered the greatest technological feat of the 19th century. But back then, it wasn’t entirely the celebrated event that’s since been depicted in movies and history books.
“We usually assume it was a very welcome, beloved infrastructure project, symbolically uniting the country after the Civil War,” says Natalie Pellolio, curator of a Transcontinental exhibit at the California Historical Society in San Francisco. “But a lot of people felt there really wasn’t enough demand to justify what it cost the government to do this. People were critical that workers were so severely underpaid while the company owners made lots of money.
“It echoes through the decades,” she says. “I didn’t have a hard time imagining the contemporary relevance at all.”
Still, as we know, it happened anyway.
“And the history of the railroads is not over at all,” Smith says. “Not only because of transporting goods and services. But our lives are made of railroad stories. We even think in railroad terms. Someone has a ‘full head of steam.’ Or they’re getting ‘off track.’ Something’s a ‘train wreck.’ Baseball games are ‘double headers.’ The railroads have a big impact on our lives, and it’s worth celebrating.”
To do just that, here are a few events so you can get “all aboard” with the fun:
For more travel coverage from the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond, follow us on TripAdvisor.
California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento
Train history looms large at the museum any time of year with its beautifully restored railroad cars and massive locomotives. But the free Community Sesquicentennial Event will be an extra treat with a historic re-creation of the Sacramento parade that took place on May 8, 1869, (two days earlier than everyone else — the original projected completion date of the railroad).
There will be flags, music, a historic fire brigade, horse-drawn carriages, free rides aboard the Sacramento Southern Railroad, a melodramatic performance in the Eagle Theatre and a community picnic – bring a sack lunch to enjoy on the big grassy area in front of the museum. Inside, view the priceless “lost” Golden Spike, cast at the same time as the Golden Spike used at the Utah ceremony. (Yes, there were was more than one.)
Details: Day-long celebration starts at 10 a.m. on May 8 at 125 I St., Sacramento; www.railroad150.org.
Oakland Museum of California, Oakland
Get an epic view into the past through historic images by one of the most important photographers of the 19th century, as seen in the new exhibit, “Pushing West: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell.” Russell was commissioned to document the development of the Transcontinental Railroad’s western expansion. His stunning images reveal the tensions between economic/technological advances of the project and the railroad’s impact on western landscapes and native peoples. Giant locomotive engines are set among vast plains and colossal mountain ranges in vintage and digital prints, as well as 3D images and original collodion negatives.
Details: On view May 4 through Sept. 1 at 1000 Oak St., Oakland; www.museumca.org.
Niles Canyon Railway, Fremont
The Niles Canyon Railway regularly runs historic trains along the last leg of the Transcontinental Railroad – through Niles Canyon, between Fremont and Sunol. But for this special anniversary, visitors will have a chance to ride behind two iconic Mallet locomotives, the 2-6-6-2T Clover Valley Lumber Company No. 4 and the 2-4-4-2 Columbia River Belt Line Railway No. 7.
Details: Tickets for these special train rides on May 11-12 are $60-$120. 37029 Mission Blvd., Fremont; www.ncry.org
California Historical Society, San Francisco
Two concurrent exhibitions dig deeper into the history of the railroad in California. The first, titled “Mark Ruwedel: Westward the Course of Empire,” presents Ruwedel’s photographic work series (1994-2008) in which he documented the physical traces of abandoned or never-completed railroads throughout the American and Canadian West.
The second exhibit is “Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad,” which examines the railroad’s impact on the industry and culture of the state through photographs, stereocards, historical objects and ephemera from the historical society’s vast archives. It also explores the railroad’s complex labor history and how the major railroad companies used marketing images to promote their lines.
As a special treat, a rarely seen golden spike will be on display on select dates. It’s not the spike driven in Utah, but an important one to California — driven in 1876 in the Santa Clarita Valley to connect rail lines from Los Angeles to San Francisco and ultimately to the East Coast.
Details: Both exhibits are on view through Sept. 8 at 678 Mission St., San Francisco; www.californiahistoricalsociety.org.
Truckee-Donner Historical and Railroad Society, Truckee
An entire summer’s worth of events is planned from May 10 to Sept. 2 to celebrate the railroad’s completion over Donner Pass and through the town of Truckee. There will be train rides, special exhibits, guided hikes and walking tours, a tour of the Old Jail, a picnic and historical talks on topics such as the role of the Chinese laborers who laid tracks over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the history of the snowsheds and the past and future of railroad locomotion. Visitors get to fill out souvenir “railroad passports” and have them stamped at locations around town.
Details: Events run from May 10 through Sept. 2 in downtown Truckee. Find schedules and more information at www.goldspike.org.
Golden Spike National Historic Park, Utah
For the biggest hoopla of all, head to the official source in Promontory. There’s a long schedule of events including a celebratory ceremony and festival, reenactments of the famous “Last Spike” ceremony, music performances, storytelling events and steam engine replicas of the original Jupiter and No. 119 on display.
Details: May 11-12. The park is located 32 miles west of Brigham City, Utah; www.nps.gov/gosp/index.htm.