Sacramento railyard reveals past industrial prowess, bygone era

sacramento railroad shop

Sacramento, like many state capitals, is known today for being a government town, but it wasn’t always that way.

As the terminus of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, Sacramento quickly saw its population swell in the second half of the 19th century as blue-collar laborers poured into the city in droves to secure work as machinists, painters, carpenters and boilermakers for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

By 1900 as much as one-third of all workers in Sacramento were employed by Southern Pacific at the corporation’s massive Sacramento industrial complex, the largest industrial site west of the Mississippi River.

Among them was my great-grandfather’s brother, who worked as blacksmith for Southern Pacific in the 1890s.

Today, the complex, shuttered in 1999, is a shell of its former self, with just eight of 50 structures remaining. The survivors, many of which are still-impressive brick buildings that show the ravages of time, weather and use, appear to be biding their time until a colossal housing development is built on the location.

Like much of California, Sacramento’s railroad shops grew quickly.

Just 14 years after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and only a dozen years after the state was admitted to the Union, four Sacramento merchants – Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker – joined with Theodore Judah, who had surveyed and engineered the Sacramento Valley Railroad, to incorporate the Central Pacific Railroad.

Their plan was as straightforward as it was audacious: Build a rail line over the Sierra Mountains and on further east, where it would become part of the first transcontinental railroad.

“The groundbreaking ceremony took place on Jan. 3, 1863, at the foot of K Street in what is now Old Sacramento,” according to Kevin W. Hecteman in his work Sacramento’s Southern Pacific Shops. “Stanford, who at the time was the president of the Central Pacific and the governor of California, deposited the first shovelful of dirt for the railroad’s embankment …”

Designs were in place for the Sacramento shops by 1867 and two years later, by the time the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad had joined together at Promontory Summit in Utah, connecting the nation by rail, a machine shop, blacksmith shop and car shop had already been constructed in California’s capital.

These were the first of what would become a massive complex that by the early 20th century, as Central Pacific morphed into the Southern Pacific, had evolved into Sacramento’s largest employer.

From 15 workers in 1863, some 3,000 individuals were at work at the complex 20 years later. That number expanded to 7,000 during World War II.

Sacramento's Southern Pacific shops, seen most likely during the first half of the 20th century. Photo courtesy of Architectural Resources Group Ltd.

Sacramento’s Southern Pacific shops, seen most likely during the first half of the 20th century. Photo courtesy of Architectural Resources Group Ltd.

Given the number of people engaged and the size of the operation, it’s not surprising that the SP shops were capable of much more than just repairs and maintenance.

“They could build entire trains from scratch: locomotives, freight cars, cabooses, passenger cars and passenger car conversions …” according to Sacramento’s Southern Pacific Shops. “They could even build non-railroad items such as boilers and other parts for (Southern Pacific’s) San Francisco Bay ferries or water pumps for non-railroad use.”

Southern Pacific’s employment rolls in Sacramento were more than halved with the end of World War II. They further shrank with the advent of the diesel locomotive and the decline of passenger train service. The first took place in the 1950s; the latter officially ended in 1971.

In 1988 Southern Pacific was absorbed by the company that controlled the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, even though the Southern Pacific name was retained, and heavy repair work was transferred to a facility in Denver.

In 1996, Southern Pacific became part of the Union Pacific Railroad and three years later UP closed the Sacramento operations, ending 130 years of continuous activity in the California capital.

Today, the complex remains largely shuttered, with a good portion of the site having been razed during the past 15 years.

Not all is abandoned, however. The California State Railroad Museum uses the former Southern Pacific boiler room for equipment maintenance and restoration and the former erecting/machine shop for storage.

Plans are underway for a national developer to remake the old Southern Pacific yard, which is north of downtown Sacramento, into a new neighborhood with as many as 10,000 homes on the 240-acre site.

Despite the uncertain future for what is left of this important part of California history, the imposing presence of Southern Pacific’s once-dominant role in Sacramento remains evident among the few surviving structures that endure.

(Top: The erecting/machine shop, as seen last month. Each white door is a bay which could be opened for cars to be moved in and out of as needed. In front is a transfer station that moved cars perpendicularly to bays.)

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