The Sacramento shop yards were once the hub of economic activity and innovation in the region. At its peak, thousands of employees clocked in and out of the central shops in the railyards. Over time, new technologies emerged and the work performed in the railyards was transferred out of Sacramento up until the yard was closed in 1999. Many building and structures were demolished after the railyards were shut down. Only a single water tower and a complex of eight buildings, the central shops, remained.
The Railyards Central Shops
Today, the central shop buildings -- the Boiler Shop, Erecting/Machine Shop, Planing Mill, Car Shop No. 3, Blacksmith Shop, Car Machine Shop, Paint Shop, and privy, remain standing. As the Railyards is poised to make a comeback, these buildings are about to be preserved and repurposed to meet the needs of a new century.
The Central Shops Historic District was listed in the Sacramento Register of Historic and Cultural Resources in 2007 for its important role in the construction and initial operation of the Transcontinental Railroad and subsequent expansion of the railroad nationwide.
The Sacramento shop yard was established in 1868. During the first 80 years or so the Central Shops complex was recognized as the largest integrated industrial complex west of the Rocky Mountains. As late as World War II they retained industrial capabilities found nowhere else in the West; giant metal rollers were produced for the wartime Kaiser steel plant in Fontana, California.
The Central Shops were by far the largest single employer in the Sacramento region until after World War Il, with workers playing a major part in the economic, social, cultural, and political development of the Sacramento region.
The central shops were a major center for early innovation, invention, and technology.
Today, the Railyards are finding new life as one of the nation’s largest infill projects is moving forward. The Railyards mixed-use development will essentially double the size of downtown Sacramento, and the historic Central Shops will find a new purpose.
The Railyards has teamed up with BCV Architects to find a new vision for the Central Shops. BCV Architects is responsible for transforming San Francisco’s Ferry Building from a declining and underused transportation building into a thriving, world-renowned public marketplace.
In the Railyards, shops where towering steam engines were once built and maintained could soon become a place where Sacramento residents and visitors come together to shop, dine, and gather. Like the Ferry Building, the Central Shops will retain their historical significance and their distinct architectural designs, while being repurposed to serve the modern day needs of Sacramento.
500 hundred feet away and within eyesight of the shops, another historic landmark stands.
The Sacramento Railyards Water Tower
The Sacramento Railyards Water Tower has been listed as a historic landmark in the Sacramento Register for its major role in supporting the operations of the Sacramento shop yard, having provided a crucial supply of water to the facility.
The 100,000 gallon tank was constructed by Chicago Bridge & Iron Works around 1931 during a period of growth in the Sacramento shop yard that began in 1910 and ran through the 1930s. During this time, Sacramento, known as the “Steel City,” doubled in size and employed more than 3,000 people who produced and repaired locomotives and passenger cars. By 1970, employment at the Sacramento shop yards peaked with over 7,000 employees clocking in daily.
The Water Tower held a tremendous amount of pressurized water that provided a constant water supply for the operation as well as the shop yard’s internal fire department.
The Water Tower, along with the remaining Central Shops buildings, is one of the few structures that remains after the shop yard closing down in 1999, after 130 years of operation.
The city council found that the Sacramento Railyards Water Tower is eligible to be listed on the Sacramento Register as a historic landmark, finding that “the Water Tower is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of the history of the city… With its large storage capacity the Water Tower delivered a constant and reliable source of water used throughout the facility daily and and during emergencies such as fires. In turn, this allowed the Sacramento shop yard to run continually and efficiently and its employees to manufacture, maintain, and repair steam locomotives and rail cars that contributed greatly to the local, state, and national economy.”
The Sacramento Historic Preservation Program began in 1974 and aims to identify, protect, and assist in the preservation, rehabilitation, adaptive reuse, and awareness of the City’s historic and cultural resources. The Railyards Water Tower has joined other historic landmarks in the Sacramento Register of Historic and Cultural Resources, including the Jibboon Street Bridge, Capital Park, and the Alhambra Theater Fountain, to name a few.
With its inclusion in the register, the Water Tower in the Railyards is sure to stand tall for another century, reminding us of the role that the shop yards played in Sacramento’s past and future.
Railyard Central Shop image courtesy of Julie Haas.