The late Walter P. Gray III, state archivist and unabashed train buff, often noted that the Gold Rush made Sacramento a place, but it was the railroad that made the city a permanent place.
The Southern Pacific Railroad once ran a big downtown yard, and the Western Pacific Railroad had a presence on the edge of Curtis Park.
This weekend, a big train shindig planned for Old Sacramento celebrates the railroad company most important to the city this century: the Union Pacific.
"There will be a main stage. Union Pacific is bringing a high-tech exhibit. The UP 844 locomotive steam engine will be there," said Paul Hammond, director of the State Railroad Museum. "There will be roving entertainment. The railroad museum will be open for free and the excursion rides will be free.
"It will be more than just a couple of trains. It will be an entertainment event."
The big celebration on Saturday and Sunday marks the 150th birthday of UP.
"Union Pacific's 150th anniversary gives us a special chance to celebrate our historic past with the communities that are important to our future," said Scott Moore, a Union Pacific vice president.
The railroad is celebrating its sesquicentennial in many cities, but Sacramento will have the biggest party. Moore said it is appropriate that the railroad's "Building America for 150 Years" celebration will occur in Old Sacramento, given the area's rich history.
Among the events planned for Saturday and Sunday:
A look inside the engineer's cab of the steam locomotive No. 844, known as the "Living Legend."
Historical passenger cars.
Free train rides along the river.
Free entrance to the railroad museum.
Free entrance to the Sacramento History Museum.
A 1960s vintage baggage car retrofitted as a state-of-the art museum.
A pageant telling the story of railroading.
Of special note are opening ceremonies at 10 a.m. Saturday. The first 500 people to arrive at 9:30 a.m. before the kickoff will receive a limited-edition 150th anniversary pin from Union Pacific.
In addition, live music and performances by actors in period costumes will occur throughout the area in front of the railroad and history museums.
Appropriately, the railroad museum will unveil a special exhibit showcasing Union Pacific's role in the development of the country.
The exhibit, titled "Building America: Abraham Lincoln, California and the Union Pacific Railroad" opens Saturday on the second floor of the museum. The exhibit includes photos, maps and artifacts covering 150 years of railroad history.
"It gives a broad brush of that legacy of transcontinental rail connecting the country and UP having a presence here in Sacramento and California," said Hammond. "It can be too easy to say that UP is a late arrival to Sacramento. It has had a lot of connections."
When Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of July 1, 1862, the original Union Pacific was created. The Union Pacific, building westward, and the Central Pacific, heading east from Sacramento, worked to create a transcontinental rail route.
The efforts converged at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869. Today, the Union Pacific owns the tracks that flow through Sacramento.
"Only in the 1980s has Union Pacific had territory here in Northern California," said Hammond. "It bought the Western Pacific and ultimately bought the Southern Pacific."
The company employs a fleet of 8,000 locomotives traveling in 23 states over 32,000 miles of track. A Fortune 200 company, Union Pacific has nearly 45,000 workers.
One of the big draws to the rail event is Engine 844, the last steam locomotive built for UP. Delivered in 1944, the high-speed passenger engine eventually became a freight-pulling engine after the advent of diesel.
Saved from the scrap heap in 1960, it is called upon for special events, such as this weekend's event and the 1981 opening of the railroad museum.
"Every year it travels around," said Jeff Asay, a retired UP attorney who will be signing his book "The Union Pacific in the Los Angeles Basin," a history of how UP got to Los Angeles.
Hammond said that although the big shops of SP and WP no longer operate, Sacramento still has a busy train depot with Capitol Corridor and long-distance Amtrak trains traveling through every day.
Those trains travel on the same track used by Union Pacific freight cars. And up the road is the busy UP Roseville railyard.
BUILDING AMERICA FOR 150 YEARS
What: Union Pacific Railroad sesquicentennial
Where: Old Sacramento
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Cost: Free museum admission and excursion rides; $15 for rides on the first-class El Dorado car (children 5 and under ride for free)
Opening ceremonies, 10 a.m. Saturday outside California State Railroad Museum, featuring railroad and government officials
Steam locomotive No. 844, known as the "Living Legend"
First public appearance of UP 9900, an experimental locomotive equipped with emissions-reducing technology
A traveling museum housed in a 1960s vintage Promontory baggage car
Passenger cars and equipment
Modern UP police and maintenance vehicles
Free rides on Union Pacific's popular miniature train, UP 956
Free weekend excursion rides on the Sacramento Southern Railroad
For a fee, ride along the Sacramento River aboard the El Dorado luxury railcar
Free entrance to the California State Railroad Museum and the Sacramento History Museum