Monday, July 15, 2019

Photo Essay: Glimpses of Sacramento, California

You might think that the first place I'd visit during my first time in our state's capital city of Sacramento would be its capitol building.

I eventually got there...

...but the first thing I did was ride the historic train.

The California State Railroad Museum provides scenic excursions along the the Sacramento Southern Railroad...

...pulled by a vintage locomotive.

Not knowing I had a choice, I bought a ticket for coach class...

...and sat in one of the closed cars (rather than the first-class observation car)...

...and watched as we passed through Old Sacramento along the Sacramento River, down two miles of track to the turnaround at Baths (just south of Miller Regional Park).

At that point, our steam locomotive (Granite Rock No. 10) detached from the front and scooted past us to reattach to the back... we could go back the way we'd come, back to the Central Pacific Railroad Freight Depot.

The starting and ending point is just about at the location of the "first spike"—or the groundbreaking—of the Transcontinental Railroad, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of its completion this year.

The "last spike" was driven at Promontory, Utah in 1869.

And finally, the U.S. was linked by rail—from West to East.

I was surprised to see how much of "Old Sac" had been preserved, looking like an Old West movie set straight out of Hollywood.

There are the Victorian-style residences (like Clarendon House) with patios and balconies... well as dusty old storefronts and saloons...

...which harken back to the days when Mark Twain dubbed Sacramento the "City of Saloons."

Twain was renowned for his contributions to The Sacramento Union daily newspaper in the 19th century. Ultimately, the Union was put out of business by The Sacramento Bee, whose early equipment is on display at the Sacramento History Museum.

For me, the stronger draw to the museum was its guided walking tour, which took our group outside, past a replica of Sacramento's first performing arts theater, the Eagle Theatre (made from salvaged materials from ships left abandoned on the river)... Pioneer Park, a sunken public space (where a butcher shop once stood, facing J Street) that gives clues to the "hidden city" below Sacramento.

From there, we headed down Firehouse Alley, past fire escapes foolishly constructed of wood...

...and down into the subterranean level of the B.F. Hastings building (now the Sacramento Visitors Center), which once served as Sacramento's original street level.

Like Seattle, Sacramento suffered such severe flooding (here, from the Sacramento and American Rivers in 1861 and 1862) that city officials voted to "jack up" its waterfront district buildings and raise the level of the streets and sidewalks.

That left sunken alleyways and abandoned basements galore—some of which have been excavated and preserved as part of the legacy of this "City of Floods."

Fortunately, Sacramento no longer floods, thanks to a series of reinforced levees and the historic realignment of where the Sacramento and American Rivers converge. At the time, there was so much disagreement as to which of the three fixes would be best that they ended up doing all of them.

Some buildings that succumbed to floods, however, were simply razed and never rebuilt—exposing underground spaces, like the courtyard at Pioneer Square, below Danny's Mini Donuts and at the entrance to the Underground Tasting Room (home to Twisted Twig and Rendez-vous wineries). An assay office serving Gold Rush miners probably stood here until the 1860s.

There's no less history, of course, when you head away from the River and explore the area east of the Capitol Building—where Sacramento's European history began with the arrival of Captain John A. Sutter in 1839.

The Swiss pioneer (born Johann August Suter) and Native American slavemaster established a fort and called the settlement "New Helvetia" (or "New Switzerland")—though he's more famous for his mill in Coloma, where the "Gold Rush" reportedly began in 1848.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament (completed 1889)—one of the largest cathedrals west of the Mississippi—has been considered one of the capital city's three most historic buildings, next to the Capitol Building and City Hall (which the cathedral is situated directly between).

Funerals for California state governors, including Pat Brown, have been held here as well—making it a civic as well as religious landmark.

Around the corner, towering above a Claim Jumper restaurant at street level, is the Sacramento Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (B.P.O.E.) tower—a 14-story brick temple erected in 1926.

An example of Italian Renaissance architecture from the early 20th century, the Elks Temple has been rebranded as the Elks Tower Casino and Event Center and no longer serves as the Elks Lodge #6.

But Freemasons can find their lodge next door, separated from the Elks Tower by only a parking lot.

Built over the course of five years, completed in 1918, and dedicated in 1920, the three-story temple's features (including terracotta from Gladding McBean) is largely intact and mostly unmodified... for the addition of a neon sign.

It's hard to take in a new city when you haven't got any real reason for being there. Whenever I visit a city for the first time, it's really just a scouting mission—because I can only take in glimpses of what it has to offer.

And then I use those to plan for my next visit. And the one after that. And so on.

So, next time I'll take a guided tour of the cathedral and a river tour by boat to hear more about the flooding, catch a good look at the I Street Bridge, and learn about the long-gone floating prison barge.

Stay tuned for detailed photo essays of the Sacramento Capitol Building and Tower Bridge.

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Saturday, July 13, 2019

Photo Essay: Riding the Tijuana-Tecate Tourist Train, Upon the 100th Anniversary of "The Impossible Railroad"

The year 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of of the completion of "The Impossible Railroad," John SpreckelsSan Diego & Arizona Railway.

One of its centennial events brought me past San Diego—into Baja California to the Tijuana Interchange train station.

Originally established in 1915 as part of the "Desert Line"—which went from San Diego to Tijuana and then onto Tecate and Campo—the station has been somewhat revived with a new station building, replacing the historic adobe shack.

But this train isn't for commuters.

The Tren Turístico is for tourists like me—and it no longer freely crosses back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Thanks to Baja California Railroad (BJRR), it still runs between Tijuana and Tecate. Much of the U.S. side of "The Impossible Railroad" was washed out in the 1970s.

On our centennial excursion, however, we were only traveling 7 miles—from the Tijuana station just across the border to the Garcia Transloading Station (circa 1910), also in Tijuana.

We'd be pulled by a Santa Fe diesel locomotive (formerly 2202, now 3808)...

...though its distinctive blue and yellow paint job had faded...

...and the markings of its former railroad company allegiance having been painted over.

The passenger cars were even more intriguing... they were rolling stock that had been repurposed from Chicago's Metra commuter railroad.

Originally patented in 1944, this type of double-decker passenger car was built by Pullman-Standard between the 1950s and 1970s.

Metra still uses these coaches on its Milwaukee District lines and the Union Pacific routes. (This particular car was used at least until 2011.)

This one (#7785) is among several that were acquired for the tourist train operation.

The ride is a bit rough—through no fault of the passenger car, probably, though maybe the track quality.

It's also slow. It takes an hour to go 7 miles.

And while the ride is a certain kind of scenic, it reveals a poverty and destitution that not a lot of American tourists to Tijuana get to see.

People are living—or maybe just squatting—along the train tracks.

And those we passed seemed shocked to actually witness a train go by.

The train horn ("Heeeeere coooooooomes the traaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaain") seemed to deafen them, as they plugged their ears in futility.

We passengers waved at everybody. Most waved back, even leaving their eardrums exposed in the process.

From Estación Tijuana, we passed a lot of junkyards and car part shops...

...and crossed the Tijuana River... well as many an avenue, boulevard, and highway with nary a wigwag signal or a gate arm.

The cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists knew to stop. You couldn't miss our train chugging through.

And when we arrived at Estación García, our trek along the tourist train line had been just a sliver of the complete journey—which extends to the Valle Redondo Station and onto Tecate.

When the BJRR completes its rehabilitation of 57 bridges and 17 tunnels, a train will go back into the U.S. through the tunnel to Campo and onto Miller Creek, Jacumba, Dos Cabezas (the closest station to the famed Goat Canyon Trestle), Coyote Wells, and finally Plaster City (the site of the last industrial narrow gauge railroad in this country, at the gypsum quarry).

It probably won't be a passenger train.

The BJRR sells itself on its ability to carry heavy loads over long distances—which means freight crossing back and forth over the border, not people.

But maybe the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association can work its magic for a special excursion like it did for this trip.

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