Sacramento railyard: A cultural treasure at a crossroad

Published: Sunday, Sep. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am

Two of the most historically significant buildings in all of Sacramento still stand. They are significant not only to California’s history but also to the history of the nation. They played a fundamental role here in the West in the making of our United States, from the 1860s on.

The buildings are the Central Pacific Railroad’s old workshops in our capital’s former railyard. One saw completion in 1869 (the year of the golden spike), and the other in 1888. They’ll need care and considerable investment, as determined by city and state decision-makers to be reborn as the irreplaceable cultural, educational and national legacies and icons they are.

Which decision-makers? Primarily, I believe, California State Parks should lead the way. While commercial, multi-use development proceeds on the rest of the railyard, State Park’s project manager for the two buildings will continue to assess their rehabilitation and public educational use. That assessment is going forward under the close direction of our State Parks Director, Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson (a fellow military vet, I’m pleased to note). That effort is to be applauded. And it will be realistic.

All the shop buildings presently in the downtown railyard are historic in one way or another. Limited public funding, however, clearly requires that State Parks’ work can only encompass the two most significant structures.

That significance is dual and specific: Both buildings directly supported the economic development of our continental country, from coast to coast. At the same time, they signify and are a legacy of the too-seldom celebrated working people who built our city.

In a real sense, the two buildings can stand as Sacramento’s most visible tribute to the work ethic that motivated so many thousands of city residents – thousands of highly skilled craftspeople, thousands more laborers who did the meanest work, and their families.

The shops’ cultural value is in their human stories, crying out to be told to Californians and to all Americans. The forgotten Sacramentans who worked in those buildings built our city, just as did civic and development leaders.

What about those thousands of Sacramento shopcraft people? In the 1860s they were mostly whites of no recorded background. But during the railyard’s heyday in the early 20th century, citizens of many backgrounds worked there as skilled craftsmen. In the 1910s there were some 3,000-4,000, of all skills. In the shops’ peak, 7,000 – supporting perhaps 5,000 families. According to National Park Service research, the workforce included Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Italians, Scots, Irishmen, Cornishmen from England, Yugoslavs, Jews and Hindis (the last two as they were recorded back then). From the 1920s through the ’40s came more African Americans, Eastern Europeans and emigrated Russians. In the 1960s came many more Latinos.

And women. In both world wars, “Rosie the Riveter” contributed crucially, working in the Sac Shops. In World War II, women there supported the civilized world’s defense against the most powerful threats ever mounted to democracy in Europe and the United States. In the shops in 1942 worked some 2,000 women, many in skilled trades.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, every Sacramentan was economically dependent on the railroad, the biggest employer in town by far. The shops were the largest industrial complex west of the Mississippi River.

Two other local sites, nowhere near the railyard, are associated. A question: What connects the railyard with a statue that stands today in Cesar Chavez Plaza? And a bronze memorial that’s in Old Sac? Both the statue and the memorial are there, paid for decades ago by working people.

The statue in Cesar Chavez Plaza is of the Central Pacific’s most accomplished mechanical-engineering chief, the self-taught Andrew Stevens. He fostered an atmosphere of innovation and was incredibly innovative himself. Shops staff admired him, genuinely. At the statue’s dedication, a principal speaker said, “For the first time in the history of the world the people of a city are gathered together (to witness) the unveiling, by mechanics, of the statue of a mechanic.”

The memorial in Old Sac is at Second and L streets. It’s to Theodore Judah, who first proposed and initially surveyed the crucial rail route over the Sierra. Like Stevens’ statue, Judah’s memorial, little noticed today, was funded not by politicians or business magnates but by railroad employees.

We all stand squarely on the shoulders of those who came before us. The two oldest railroad shop buildings in the railyard can be an immersive, deeply educational and fitting memorial to the many thousands of those all-important shoulders.

Bill Withuhn, retired in 2010 as curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, lives with his wife, Gail, in Northern California.

Read more articles by Bill Withuhn

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