Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Precision and praise

Now, I already have a reputation among the Sactosphere as a nit-picking know-it-all, even pointing out spelling errors in other bloggers' blog posts. I will now expand this criticism to the editorial page of the Sacramento Bee, but at least it's not just a grammar flame.

Being a historian means paying attention to details, and focusing on accuracy, sometimes well beyond the point of politeness. These are natural tendencies for me, and my profession has only escalated these tendencies, to the point where it's no wonder that I don't get invited to more parties. On to the nitpicking.

This Sunday, the Bee featured a lovely booster-ish editorial about the under-appreciated wonders of Sacramento, entitled "A 'sacred' city" by Elaine Gale. Now, I am always happy to see people singing Sacramento's praises, but this bit kind of got my goat:

Trains: Our metronome, our link

The next perhaps not-so-obvious sacrament is the trains.

They may seem antiquated, irrelevant, or as if they belong in a past century, but the matrix of train tracks that crisscrosses this city seems to be extremely sacramental.

When we first moved here, we lived on B Street in a house literally in front of the train tracks. In the beginning, when a train screeched to a stop or came barreling down the tracks, we were a bit rattled. After a month or two, we barely noticed the sound.

The rattle and clang of the big locomotives, the piercing train whistle and clackety-clack have become a predictable percussion of life.

I am a sixth-generation Nebraskan and grew up in North Platte,home of the world's largest railyard. The fact that the First Transcontinental Railroad line originated in Omaha and ended near Sacramento is a comfort and connects me to the Great Plains of my ancestors.

When a train rumbles by during a live performance at the B Street Theater, the whole structure shakes and experienced theater-goers glance at each other with a knowing smile. The trains provide a stabilizing presence and help us practice patience.

They are a sacrament of efficiency, heritage and tradition. They bring important cargo from here to there, and connect us to the rest of the country and the world.

The point about trains being antiquated I can let slide; even though railroads carry more freight today than ever before, far more than during the "golden age" of railroad travel, rail passenger travel is experiencing its greatest resurgence in a century, and modern high-speed trains bear less resemblance to 19th century steam locomotives than modern cars do to Model Ts. The point that gets me is the idea that the first transcontinental originated in Omaha and "ended near Sacramento."

I encourage Ms. Gale to take another visit to the Railroad Museum to get the story right. Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad started at both ends, and ended in the middle. Union Pacific started in Omaha, while Central Pacific started in Sacramento. Construction started at both ends and ended at Promontory Summit, Utah.

I'm wondering where she thought it ended? Promontory Summit certainly isn't anywhere near Sacramento. The actual point where the railroad started from the Sacramento end is just at the foot of K Street by the river, at the time the busiest point in the city, along the waterfront docks and levee. That was the point where freight and passengers could be transferred to riverboats and barges down the Sacramento River to the Bay Area, at least until a couple of years later when Central Pacific completed railroad routes to the East Bay and the Peninsula (or, more correctly, bought out the railroad companies that had built those lines.)

The "Big Four" behind the Central Pacific, and engineer Theodore Judah, were instrumental in ensuring, not just that the western terminus would go to Sacramento (other cities from Seattle to San Diego were all competing for the railroad) but that the Pacific railroad (as it was then known) would be built at all. The political and financial support to build the railroad came from the east, but the drive to build the railroad came from the west--and Sacramento played the critical role. Central Pacific, under the leadership of Leland Stanford (also governor of California at the time, with close party connections to new president Abraham Lincoln) was the organization that advocated for the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 that resulted in the creation of the Union Pacific. No offense to Omaha, but the Transcontinental Railroad started here--not just the tracks themselves, but the dream, the design and the political will.

Anyhow, I realize that the point will be lost except on a few foamers like myself. But dammit, if you're going to sing Sacramento's praises, make sure you're hitting the right notes.


Jeff M. said...

Yeah, that gaffe turned my ears red. Thanks for catching it for me.

The nit-picker gets no love, but we'd be worse off without him or her.

ianmerk said...

A cheesy little film called "My Life in Ruins" from the makers of "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding" puts it in perspective. A tour guide in Greece is forced to give careless Americans who care more for buying trinkets and finding the Hard Rock Cafe, tours of the ancient masterpieces. None of them care a lick what year and what style and who dominated politics. When the guide gives them an emotional connection to history, and asks them to listen to the wind through the columns of the Acropolis and consider the virgin angst of the Oracle, history becomes wonderful. The sacramental part of history is far more important to the layman. As long as this writer got the part right about the romance of the trains, mainstream American media will live another day. Let the true historians have their academic treatises.

wburg said...

I'm a historian, academic treatises are my business. I know that reaching an audience at a museum or historic site requires making a personal connection--interpretation is 90% how you say something and 10% what you say.

But it is worthless to "hook" an audience when telling a story and then give them the wrong information. If you care enough about the subject matter to make an effort to reach people in an effective way, it doesn't require much more effort to tell accurate information. Good storytelling and bad history just guarantees that your audience will go away with the wrong message.

gennysent said...

I can't seem to find any information about the bel-vue apartment demolition issue past August. Do you have any idea what is going on with that question of whether to demolish it or not (can you point me to a good site for more info?) I am thinking about writing about it for a paper in a class, but without more recent info, I don't think I can. Thank you for any info!


Keely S. Dorran said...

You have an open invite to all my parties. They all happen tomorrow. All Tomorrow's Parties. But seriously, I like your approach to history and its relevance to the present and the public. You are very accessible as a writer and person but beyond that, your love for history and its details is contagious and addicting. Thank you!