Sacramento Historic Southern Pacific Railroad Shops Brought To Life

Updated: Jan 15


By Kevin Knauss

A Legacy In Brick & Iron by authors Helmich and Bunker is a comprehensive review of the development of the historic Sacramento railroad shops initially constructed by the Central Pacific Railroad and then fully developed by the Southern Pacific Railroad. The amount of technical research, photographs, diagrams, maps, and profiles of men who played a significant role in the railroad shops development is both a joy to read and solid point of reference for future historical research.



The Sacramento railroad shops, now virtually dismantled for urban development, was a hub of economic activity and innovation on the west coast. From the late 1860s into the 1980s the railroad shops were the focal point for the repair and construction of almost all aspects of railroading. The work and innovations at the railroad shops spread throughout the Sacramento region and across the country.



The book begins with a short but detailed discussion of the genesis of the Central Pacific Railroad as part of the larger Transcontinental Railroad project. The bulk of the book is focused on the challenges of developing the large complex of railroad shops that were hemmed in by the Sacramento River on the west, the American River on the North, and Sutter Lake (also known as China Slough) to the south.


A Legacy In Brick and Iron tells the remarkable story of Sacramento’s railroad shops, one of the most important industrial facilities in the west. Built to support the operations of the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s, the Sacramento Shops were an important industrial force in Sacramento for more than a century. Beautifully illustrated with rarely seen photos, this book tells the important story of transportation in the American west during the nation’s formative era. Railfans and history lovers will find a trove of fascinating information in this compelling book.” – Bill George Filmmaker and Railroad Historian


Through historic photographs and maps, A Legacy In Brick & Iron illustrates the expansion of the shops as Sutter Lake was slowly filled with earth to create dry land. Along the way the book details the various operations of repair and manufacturing of railroad equipment to support the fleet of engines and cars for the railroad.



The wonderfully formatted book is a visual delight that does not detract from the historical information presented. One detail that historians will appreciate are the graphic inserts that highlight significant dates in the development of the particular shop function being discussed.



Another element that is woven into the book are profiles of men who played significant roles in the construction or operation of the railroad shops. Men such as Cornwall, England, born Stephen Uren who was hired as a blacksmith in 1866 and went on to become a foreman in 1876. Between 1870 and 1900 Uren obtained eight U.S. patents related to improvements for a variety of elements related to braking and linking railroad cars.


“The birthplace of the Gilded Age was the Central Pacific Railroad Shops. This is the story of the facility and people that spread enlightenment, science, and education throughout the west.” – Gregg Lukenbill



The book is written in a fashion that allows for quick bite-size reading or an in-depth study of the material presented. There is a nice chronological presentation of when the various shops were built, the shop evolution, and whether it is still standing in 2018. There are detailed appendices that include a timeline of the construction of the shops, original employees, position, and birth place, plus, an appendix on U.S. Patents granted to shop employees.



What is also notable is that lead author, Mary Helmich, lives in Sacramento and has been steeped in the local history for decades. She has a unique perspective on the importance the Railroad Shops played in Sacramento and on its contribution to railroading across the country. The book will be entertaining to both the casual history reader and hardcore railroad aficionado. The level of detail about the Southern Pacific railroad shops also makes this an excellent reference book and insures its place on the list of important books on railroad history in Sacramento.


The Sacramento Historical Society is proud to offer A Legacy In Brick & Iron for sale. You can now purchase the book online here: https://www.sachistoricalsociety.org/legacyinbrickandiron

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