Big Four Building

A brief history of the Big Four and Nathaniel Dingley Steam Coffee & Spice Mill buildings

Over the last 20 years, the Old Sacramento Historic District has grown and matured into a well-recognized town within a city. Highly visible within the district are the cluster of reconstructed and restored buildings that comprise the California State Railroad Museum and Old Sacramento State Historic Park.

Of these, the combined Huntington, Hopkins & Company Hardware Store and Stanford Brothers Warehouse, which together comprise the "Big Four Building," and the adjacent Nathaniel Dingley Steam Coffee & Spice Mill building play important roles in showcasing Sacramento's early railroad and commercial heritage.

Because today these two structures stand side-by side, and their current uses overlap within their physical boundaries, their histories have been combined into one single story. Historically the two structures stood on completely different city blocks, as the accompanying history documents. Let's journey back in time now, and explore the history surrounding these fascinating and highly symbolic structures.

A Building fit for a Railroad
In 1855, two businessmen from upstate New York joined forces in a Sacramento hardware business. Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins would within just a few years become involved in the scheme to build America's first transcontinental railroad, but at this time they instead were serving as suppliers to a bustling state's industries. Their retail operation was not your average hardware store.

Business concerns throughout California relied on Huntington, Hopkins & Company Hardware for mining equipment, construction and dredging machinery, and blasting powder. Farmers knew they could order stones (for milling grain) and all kinds of plows through the store. Lumber companies could procure axes and adzes, cross-cut saws, and huge band saw blades. The firm also supplied typical hardware needs to a variety of consumers in Sacramento and elsewhere in the Golden State-even some in the territory that would eventually become Nevada. Its catalogs were amazingly complete for the time.

From the late 1850s and into the 1880s, the Big Four Building (as it eventually came to be known), which incorporated space as well for the business interests of Leland Stanford, another soon-to-become transcontinental railroader, occupied much of the entire south side of K Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets. At street level, the Stanford Brothers Warehouse and the Huntington, Hopkins & Company Hardware Store occupied interconnected buildings but functioned as a single retail unit. The store's telegraph address, "54 K Street," was also its physical address; this moniker would soon become celebrated in California as a conduit to eastern merchandise.

At first the second floor spaces were occupied as living quarters by the Huntington and Hopkins families. But as both businessmen became more prosperous and were able to build homes in residential areas, the upper floor of the Huntington, Hopkins & Company side was used as a stockroom and as lodging for the store's clerks. Most important among the Stanford side's upstairs tenants was the Central Pacific Railroad, established by Charles Crocker, Huntington, Hopkins, and Stanford. The Big Four Building would serve as the railroad's first headquarters, throughout the challenging years of construction and into the first decade of transcontinental operations.

However, by the late 1870s both the railroad and the hardware store had grown beyond the capacity of the Sacramento area. The Central Pacific Railroad especially needed the access offered by a big city. Thus, in the early 1880s, both were moved to a large storefront in San Francisco. Prior to these departures (and perhaps to make them more attractive to the rental market), the building's owners had it refurbished in the Italian Renaissance style popular at the time. Visitors to Sacramento through the 1930s would have admired the ornately patterned doors and windows gracefully situated under an arched parapet.

By the time construction for Interstate 5 necessitated the building's demolition in 1963, there was little evidence left to suggest the site held historical significance. The neighborhood was run-down, the stucco facade discolored and weather-beaten. Storefront signs promoted the Farmacia International (which also sold hunting and fishing licenses) and the El Sombrero Mexican Restaurant. A neon sign protruding above the restaurant advertised rooms for rent upstairs at the El Prado Motel. Gone were the days when adventurous men made decisions of national significance behind its walls. The citizens of Sacramento were in danger of losing a valuable piece of history.

With foresight unusual for government agencies of the era, the California Department of Natural Resources, Division of Beaches and Parks (which later became the California Department of Parks and Recreation) determined that the Big Four Building was worthy of preservation, at least in spirit. When the time came for demolition, a sampling of decorative elements and building materials were set aside for future use. Cautious negotiations between Sacramento and the State of California resulted in the ownership transfer and relocation of these materials to the Old Sacramento Historic District. A site was found, next to the historic Nathaniel Dingley Steam Coffee & Spice Mill building on I Street, upon which to re-create a new Big Four Building in 1965.

Of Spice and Color
There is not much documentation known to exist regarding the Nathaniel Dingley Steam Coffee & Spice Mill. Old Sacramento histories and official reports make conflicting claims about the building's origins. It is known that Nathaniel Dingley arrived in San Francisco in February 1850, settling within a matter of months in Sacramento and buying out a partner in the coffee and spice business. The building that now stands is believed to be roughly across the street from Dingley's original location, and was built within the two years following Sacramento's disastrous 1852 fire. There were no surviving early pictures of the Dingley Spice Mill building on which to base an accurate, 19th-century restoration.

Because the Railroad Museum was most interested in interpreting the early development of the Central Pacific Railroad and Sacramento's retail business, both the Dingley Spice Mill and Big Four buildings were to be modeled after circa 1860 designs. At the time, the only guiding image for re-creation of the Huntington, Hopkins & Company Hardware store was a single photograph made by an unknown photographer, many generations removed from the original negative. It was believed that the photograph was taken during the 1860s, but the image available to the Railroad Museum was blurred and details undefined.

In the late 1990s, however, an extremely sharp print of the same photograph was located in the archives of the Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino. The image is so crisp that a discerning eye can peer into the deep shadows of the store's interior and pick out individual retail items hanging from the ceiling! As evidence of the building's age (including a sagging balcony deck) and various details of facade signage in the photo have been correlated with related research, the date of this photograph has been established as 1870 or 1871.

Employing the Huntington Library photograph and information from 19th century Sacramento City Directories, revised guidelines were developed for exterior paint colors and signage for the Big Four Building and adjacent Dingley Spice Mill. A 32-foot long wooden sign now sits atop the parapet of the Stanford Brothers side of the Big Four Building, proclaiming the headquarters location of the "Central Pacific Rail Road Company." New signs hanging from the balcony direct visitors to the Huntington, Hopkins & Company Hardware store. Recent signage for the Dingley Building, an enigmatic survivor at its original site, was created from a combination of written historic accounts, 1860s taste, and period sign-making traditions.

Modern-Day Railroading Headquarters
Why do these buildings even exist today? Luck and foresight have both played roles, along with planning for the California State Railroad Museum beginning in the late 1960s. Were it not for the Museum and its location adjacent to the Dingley Spice Mill Building, it is entirely likely the Big Four Building would not have been recreated on its current site. This building's railroading "spirit" lives on because of the vision of those who made critical interpretive planning connections between the former "54 K" building and its relevance in telling the story of railroading in the West.

Today the Big Four Building houses the Stanford Gallery and the Huntington, Hopkins & Company Hardware exhibit and retail store on its ground level. Upstairs are the General Offices of the California State Railroad Museum, the re-created boardroom of the Central Pacific Railroad, and the California State Railroad Museum Library's reading room. The building's interior is totally new, with a floor plan designed to meet its modern-day usage.

Upstairs in the Dingley building are the offices of the California State Railroad Museum Foundation. This building's ground floor currently houses a warehouse and shipping area for the Museum Store. Re-created Dingley Steam Coffee & Spice Mill products are now available through the Museum Store. 

A basement beneath both buildings houses much of the CSRM Library's extensive collection of books, manuscripts, maps, drawings and photographs. Also in this lower level are offices and facilities for CSRM Maintenance and Exhibits staff. In many ways, the Big Four Building has returned to an earlier role, serving as "headquarters" to today's California State Railroad Museum itself dedicated to preserving, among other things, reminders of the once-mighty Central Pacific Railroad.

Due to the dedication, in-depth research, and perseverance of the staff of the California State Railroad Museum, visitors to Old Sacramento can add an authentic restoration of the Big Four and Dingley Spice Mill buildings to their experience. The newly-refurbished exteriors of both buildings debuted publicly over Labor Day Weekend 1998, and have added a true taste of 19th century color to the north end of Old Sacramento State Historic Park. The California State Railroad Museum takes great pride in the work that its historians, builders, and painters have accomplished. Be sure to take note of these newly refurbished attractions on your next visit to the California State Railroad Museum and Old Sacramento State Historic Park.