Railroad museum exhibit marks 150 years of California state parks

Rachel Cohen was amused Saturday while her two sons, 5-year-old Jacob and 2-year-old Zachary, pressed their hands and noses against the glass case containing a beach diorama at the California State Railroad Museum.

“It’s like going to the beach,” she said, looking at the photographic cut-out figures placed in the sand. “It reminds me of (Lake) Elsinore.”

The diorama is part of a new exhibit, “California State Parks: 150 Years: A Gift from the People, To the People,” which opened Saturday at the museum in Old Sacramento.

“I like coming here and seeing new things,” said Cohen, 43, of Sacramento, as her two boys touched the various park signs that flank the beach diorama. “I like to learn what is part of California state history. I hope by doing this with them (her sons), they can appreciate it.”

The exhibit in the lobby of the museum consists of 15 historic photos, six modern photo montages and two cases of artifacts from the Capital District collection of the California State Park Archives.

The first state park was created in 1864, when the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove were granted to California by the federal government. They became part of Yosemite National Park in 1906.

Although the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the California State Parks system isn’t until next year, the railroad museum decided to get a jump on the celebration this month.

“A lot of people are visiting relatives, and the railroad museum is a go-to destination for out-of-town guests,” said Robert Mistachenko, a California State Parks interpreter based at the railroad museum. “So we want to take advantage of that bump in our visitation and give people a peek at the exhibit.”

Max Martinez, 64, of Pleasanton, was waiting in the lobby for his 3-year old grandson, Caleb Carlson of Tracy, to arrive with his mother. “I used to have a trailer like that,” he said, pointing to one of the historical photos showing a trailer being pulled by a car.

But he was puzzled about why the railroad museum would have an exhibit on state parks. He didn’t know that the museum is part of the Old Sacramento State Historic Park, which became a state park in the 1970s.

“We get 500,000 visitors a year,” said Phil Sexton, state park interpreter with the Capital District State Museums and Historic Parks. “It shows that state parks are more than what you think. Many people don’t think about museums as state parks.”

It took Mistachenko almost three months to research and put together the exhibit. It includes images and logos of the Yosemite Valley Railroad, replicas of travel brochures put out by the railroad companies and many photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, when development of the state parks system was at its height.

“The 1940s was when visitors and facilities increased, and new highways were being built and improved, and more people had access to state parks than ever before,” Mistachenko said.

He noted that railroad not only made it possible for people to visit the early state parks, but also provided the impetus to create them in the first place. “With the transcontinental railroad being built, people could see that we could run out of wild places, which set the philosophers and politicians thinking about preserving them,” he said. “People could see that machinery could change the face of the earth.”

Railroad companies also promoted state parks heavily as a way to drum up business.“They advertised as going to these wonderful places – they were selling state parks as appealing places to take your families,” he said. “California state parks benefited from the railroads.”

On Saturday, Cheryl McKinney, 64, of Carmichael was taking in the eclectic collection of objects in one of the glass cases of the exhibit. There was a set of bolas, a Chinese bowl with a phoenix pattern, a spur dating back to the Spanish colonial period, and an African American sculpture that had mirrors, screws, wheels and other objects embedded in a metal base.

She was especially drawn to the photos of a Spanish mission and the spur, which she said reminded her of the things she saw on a recent trip to Ecuador. “I’m excited to be at a state park,” she said. “It’s so valuable for all of us to keep our cultural heritage alive.”

Sexton was pleased to get such reactions to the exhibit.

“We are not thinking it will be a major draw, but more like adding seasoning to a pretty good stew,” he said. “It reminds people that there is a wide wonderful world around us, and we want them to visit us, but also to visit the other places when they can.”

The exhibit runs through Dec. 31, 2014.