Old Town Sacramento Historic District and Waterfront Walking Tour

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Hello and welcome to this walking tour of the Old Town Sacramento Historic District and Waterfront Walking Tour.  You should be standing in a small tree shaded patio on the west side of the 1 Capitol Mall Building in front of the entrance to the Tower Bridge Parking Lot and across the street from Tower Bridge. 

This 1 1/4 mile walking tour of Old Sacramento's Historic District will take about 90 minutes. The historic district takes visitors back to the time of the gold rush, riverboat steamers, and the building of the transcontinental railroad.  As I lead you along the boardwalk throughout the historic district, I will fill you in on the history of California and Sacramento as well as some unique stories about Old Town itself. 

Now before we get walking let me give you a very brief introduction to the history of California and Sacramento. 

For thousands of years, prior to European discovery, this area was the home of the Nisenan Native Americans. They lived peacefully here, hunting and gathering for all their needs. In 1542, Spanish explorer Juan Rodgriquez Cabrillo discovered and mapped what would become Alta California. But it wasn't until 1776 that Alta California came under Spanish rule.  In 1808 Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga came upon the Sacramento River and Valley.  This area would get its name from a description written by a traveler on that expedition.  He wrote, "Es como el sagrado sacramento," its English translation, it's like the Blessed Sacrament, which is what Catholic's call the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.  

Mexico's war for independence began in 1821. The following year, Mexico won its freedom from Spain, and Alta California, passed quietly into Mexican control.

In 1839, Swiss immigrant, John Sutter, Sr. arrived in California. He persuaded Alta California's Mexican governor to award him a 48,000 acre land grant at the convergence of the Sacramento and American River's. There he built Sutter's Fort, which would operate as the economic center for his agricultural and trading colony New Helvetia, also known as New Switzerland, named after his home country.

As Sutter's new colony continued to grow, United States President James Polk was setting his sites on U.S. expansion into Mexican territory, especially Alta California. Polk gave Commander John Sloat the order to seize Monterey, the capital of Alta California, if the U.S. ever went to war with Mexico.  On May 13, 1846 the U.S. Congress declared war on Mexico and less than a month later on July 7th  Sloat peacefully raised  the U.S. flag over the Monterey Custom House and claimed California for the United States.

The following year in 1847, Sutter built a sawmill about 30 miles northeast of his new colony.  It was at this sawmill in January 1848 that gold was discovered.  This would forever change the course of Sutter's colony, but not for the better.  Many of the residents of New Switzerland and workers at the mill abandoned their homesteads and headed for the gold fields, leaving behind a ghost town which never recovered.   

In December 1848, John Sutter's son, John Jr., laid out the plan for a new town, Sacramento. Two years later, in 1850 California became a state and Sacramento was incorporated as a city. Sacramento grew rapidly during its first two decades, but residents would face many challenges during those early years. In fact, 1850, a horrendous year for Sacramento,  brought disaster for every season. Winter of the new year brought the first of several floods, Spring the first significant fire, Summer a banking panic, and Fall a cholera epidemic.  As we walk through the oldest quarter of this city, you will hear stories about Sacramento's early years, and how residents dealt with these challenges.

Alright, it is time to get going.  Our next stop is across the street.  The golden colored Tower Bridge at the corner of Neasham and Capitol Mall. 

As you face Tower Bridge, walk to the corner traffic signal and crosswalk.  Use the crosswalk and carefully cross Neasham Circle toward Tower Bridge.  

Carefully cross the railroad tracks and continue up the steps onto the pedestrian portion of Tower Bridge.  Walk along the pedestrian walkway and stop when you get to the first tower.  Then turn and face Old Town, looking up river. 

Below is the mighty Sacramento River, the largest river in California. Originating at the Klamath Mountains near Lake Shasta in northwestern California, the river flows south 445 miles through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and into San Francisco Bay. 

Take a look upriver to that bridge in the distance.  That is the I Street bridge. Built in 1910, it is a great visual cue for the story I am going to tell.

In 1839, John Sutter carved out a road from his fort to an embarcadero landing along the Sacramento River and erected a wharf. The location of this embarcadero wharf was located just south of the I Street bridge.  Just north of the bridge is the mouth of the American River.

Ten years later in the summer of 1849, thousands of gold-seekers from all over the world arrived at this embarcadero. After landing in San Francisco, thousands of prospectors in search of fortune followed two major river routes to reach the California's gold fields.  Both headed east through San Pablo and Suisun Bays, where they split.  The southern route followed the San Joaquin River to Stockton and the northern route the Sacramento River to the Embarcadero, right here to Old Town Sacramento.  Sacramento was bursting at the seams with Forty-Niners, as they were called and the town became the final jumping-off place for the northern gold mines.

Fortune seekers, quickly bought their supplies in town and headed out to stake their claim in the mines.  From Sacramento there were two routes, a steamer up the  American River, or an overland trail by horseback.  But not all who arrived in Sacramento during the early gold rush years headed to the mines. Some saw fortunes to be made by staying behind in Sacramento. Catering to miners needs, they opened hotels, saloons, gambling halls, boarding houses and mercantile shops. Whether you stayed behind or headed out to the gold fields, both business owners and miners faced many a hardship.

Before we head off into Old Town I want to call your attention again upriver.  Do you see the paddle wheeler straight ahead and to your right?  That is the Delta King.  We will learn more about her history later on this tour.  Now, notice the difference in the river level where the Delta King is docked and the street level where the restaurants sit high on beams.

When John Sutter Jr. originally laid out Sacramento in 1848, he did so at the river level.  After annual floods devastated this new town, the streets were raised to the level you see on your right. Pretty impressive achievement in the 1860s.  You will hear more about how this was done as we tour the town.    

Alright turn around and walk back along the pedestrian walkway of Tower Bridge.  Descend the steps and turn left on Neasham Circle. Continue straight along the sidewalk, you should be across the street from the parking garage. Up ahead this path will turn into a boardwalk.  

John Sutter Jr., mapped out the area around the embarcadero in 1848 and sold lots on the waterfront for $500 each. Using canvas and wood from abandoned ships, early Sacramentans quickly erected buildings and opened saloons, hotels, and mercantile stores to meet the demand of the arrival of thousands of gold-seekers.

During those early years, gold dust was a common form of currency.  The usual price for a drink in a saloon was a pinch of gold dust, with the bartender measuring.  Saloon owners screened bartenders for how much they could raise in a pinch.  Those with fat fingers got the job.  

The first hotel, the City Hotel, opened in June of 1849 and others soon followed.  Though prospectors looking for a place for a good night sleep were not concerned with cleanliness, they lay awake most nights itching and scratching as blankets, which were rarely cleaned, were filled with lice.

By the end of 1849, Sacramento doctor, John Morse wrote in his First History of Sacramento City, "Sacramento has become a perfect house of disease, suffering and death."  This statement would soon ring true.

Coming up on your left just past Joe's Crab Shack will be a silver colored metal ramp walkway. Turn left and walk onto this ramp. Stop when you get to the end of the first section.  Do not make the u-turn to continue walking down the ramp. 

From here you are at a great vantage point to see some major highlights along the Sacramento river bank. 

Starting on your left that is Tower Bridge where we started this tour. Built in 1934, it opened to traffic in 1935. When this vertical lift bridge opens for tall ships, the center portion between the two towers lifts straight up.  Directly across the river is the city of West Sacramento. 

That beige stepped pyramid shaped building is called the Ziggurat.  Designed by Sacramento architect Edwin Kado to resemble a Mesopotamian ziggurat, it was built in 1997 and is the headquarters of the California Department of General Services.  Now look directly to your right upriver to the I Street Bridge. This metal truss swing bridge was built in 1910 to link the capital city of Sacramento to Yolo County to the west.  

And now take a look to your right and down to the wooden boardwalk outside the Delta King paddle wheeler.  The boardwalk marks the original level of Sacramento as it was established in 1849.  The decision to place the town at the water's edge would be the catalyst for its first major catastrophe.

In 1850, the same year Sacramento incorporated, the town was hit with its first disaster, a devastating flood. Built at water level at the confluence of two major rivers the Sacramento and the American, the new town flooded every winter. With no sanitation methods, and with dead animals, rotting food and debris of all kinds floating in the flood waters, these yearly floods were also a breading ground for disease.

To control the floods, residents built levees.  The townspeople felt safe, until the following winter when the river broke through the levees and inundated the city once again with chilling waters. Sacramentans were at their wits end and seemingly out of ideas to solve the flooding problem until the Daily Union newspaper published an anonymous letter from a local merchant with an unprecedented idea to save the city. "If floods can't be contained by levees, he said, then let's lift the city above the floods!"   Though the idea was well received by residents, not much was done as the next eight years brought light winter rains and few people thought about floods during those times.  Then came the big one, the floods of December 1861 and January 1862. They were the worst to ever hit Sacramento.  

It was now apparent that the city had to be raised and there was no time to waste. Lifting up an entire city, which had never been done before to anyone's knowledge, would prove to be quite challenging. The city allocated $200,000 for the engineering job, which would be done in stages and take several years. The final grading, raising and reconstruction was finished over 10 years later in 1873.  How was all this accomplished?  It involved a series of integrated construction jobs, the first of which involved the railroad.

In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, which provided Federal government support for the building of the first transcontinental railroad. The following year the Central Pacific Railroad company headed by four Sacramento merchants, Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker, formed a plan to establish Sacramento as the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad.  And with that, the Central Pacific Railroad would became the first partner Sacramento enlisted in raising the city. 

The city gave the railroad the land along the riverbank next to the Embarcadero wharf. But they had one big requirement.  The railroad had to build a levee for the railroad line 22 feet 9 inches above the river level. It is interesting that this was 3 inches shy of the Great Flood of 1862 which peaked at 23 feet.  But it was what the city wanted and the railroad agreed and built the levee.  The city then used the levee's high point to level off the entire town approximately 22 feet above the river line.  The next step, all the roads had to be raised.  I will tell you how that was done shortly. 

Turn around and walk back along the ramp to the boardwalk.  Then cross the railroad tracks and continue straight to the cobblestone street. 

Turn left when you get to the sidewalk and stop at the crosswalk before you get to the ferris wheel and amusement park. 

At the crosswalk, stop and turn to your right.  Directly across the street is a parking lot.  Carefully cross the cobblestones of Front Street and continue along the boardwalk down L Street, keeping the parking lot on your left. 

Stop here for a moment on the boardwalk and take a look over the wooden fence into the parking lot.  Now look to your left to see pillars under the sidewalk of Front Street.   Behind the pillars notice the brick wall supported by brick buttresses. 

Built in the 1860s, these brick walls were used to raise the streets. This is one of just a few places in town where you can see what lies beneath the cobblestone streets here in Old Town.

How were these walls built?  Well let me tell you.

After the railroad had done its part in building a levee to lay its track, the next challenge in raising the city was to raise the roads to the level the railroad had established.  To do this, the city ordered every property owner in town to construct a brick bulkhead along the street fronting their property to the new curb line. Eventually  two brick walls supported by brick buttresses were build over all streets in town. Then thousands of cartloads of sand and gravel were dredged from the river bottom, dumped on the streets between the brick walls and tamped down.  Once the gravel had settled, which took months, the new streets were paved with cobblestone.   

The next dilemma for the business owner was what to do about their front entrance, which was now blocked by a brick wall. There were two options, turn the original first floor into a basement and cut a new front door on the second level. This would have been the easiest and cheapest solution.   Or bring in a construction crew to jack up your multi-ton brick building to the new street elevation using jackscrews similar to an old auto jack.  Though property owners had to pay for all of this themselves, the majority of businesses chose the second option. All together, more than 200 buildings were raised in Sacramento.

Continue walking straight along the boardwalk and cross Firehouse Alley ahead.  

You will notice that this alley runs downhill.  It was not raised, and was used for water run off.    

Continue walking to the end of the block.  At the corner, take a look across the street to the stone monument with a bronze bust surrounded by a grove of trees.  

That is our next stop. Use the crosswalk ahead to carefully cross 2nd street to the Theodore Judah Monument. Then stop in front of this stone monument to Theodore Judah while I tell you a bit about him.

Born in 1826 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Theodore Judah studied at Rensselaer Polytechnic institute in New York before working as a survey engineer on a number of railroads in the northeast. In 1852, Charles Lincoln Wilson recruited Judah to come west and serve as the Chief Engineer for the Sacramento Valley Railroad.  Under Judah's charge, train operation for this 22 mile railroad which ran from Folsom to Sacramento, began in February of 1856.  

While building the Sacramento Valley Railroad, Judah dreamed of building a railroad over the Sierra, the biggest obstacle to completing the transcontinental railroad and making Sacramento its western terminus.  Judah floated the idea to some financial tycoons in San Francisco, who immediately rejected the idea.  Not dismayed, he brought the idea to four Sacramento businessmen,  Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker.  The Big Four, as they came to be known, organized the Central Pacific Railroad, a rail line that would run east from Sacramento to Promontory, Utah to complete the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad.  Judah would be the Central Pacific Railroad's chief engineer for this project.  

Because of Judah's single-minded passion for driving rail road lines through the Sierra Nevada mountains, something that was considered impossible by many at the time, he earned the nickname, Crazy Judah . Although he did not live to see it, his dream of establishing a rail line through the Sierra Nevada's was realized in 1869 when the Golden spike, connecting the Central Pacific Railroad to the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory, Utah, was hammered on May 10, 1869.  Replacing the months long sea voyages and hazardous travel by covered wagon, the Transcontinental Railroad system made coast-to-coast train travel in eight days.
This monument to Theodore Judah, first Chief Engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad, was first erected in a Sacramento municipal park opposite the Southern Pacific Station. The monument was later moved into storage during the construction of Interstate 5 and eventually placed here in Old Sacramento.

Alright, it is time to get moving. With the monument behind you, cross 2nd Street using the same crosswalk you used to get here.

 Once you have crossed the street, turn right and continue straight along 2nd Street.  

During the second half of the 1800s, the next two blocks of 2nd street, was considered the red light district. Hotels and saloons were interspersed with brothels plying their wares. Despite customers and working women being arrested regularly for disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, and public drunkenness, the brothels along 2nd Steet were very profitable for their madams. 

Continue walking alongside the red building to the double glass front doors. This is the front door of the Firehouse Restaurant.  There is a historic plaque just to the right of these doors noting that this is  the former location of the Sacramento Firehouse #3.  Stop for a moment in front of this plaque I have another story to tell. 

Some of the ship captains who arrived here in Sacramento at the onset of the gold rush in 1848 abandoned their ships at the dock and headed straight off to the gold fields.  The canvas sails and wood hulls left behind then became building material for the first buildings in the new town of Sacramento.  Canvas and wood were no match for fire. 

In April 1850, Front Street between J and K turned into an inferno.  But this would be minor compared to Sacramento’s great fire of November 2, 1852. Known as the Great Conflagration, this fire destroyed the majority of these hastily built structures.

The resiliency of Sacramento is unparalleled, within a month, over 700 structures were re-built.  This time the buildings were constructed out of brick with iron shutters to help prevent future fires from spreading. 

As a result of this fire, the city required all future buildings to be erected out of brick and funded the construction of 9 fire stations, including the one at this location, Engine Company No. 3.  This building served the volunteers of Engine Company No  3 for almost 70 years. 

In 1960 this was the first building restored within the newly designated historic district of Old Sacramento.  Renovated into a bar and restaurant reminiscent of the Gold Rush Era, The Firehouse Restaurant opened for business in 1960. This fine dining establishment has regularly attracted governors, politicians, diplomats, sports and entertainment celebrities. Ronald Reagan held both of his gubernatorial inaugural dinners here. And on a more personal note, as children, my husband and his siblings each looked forward to the day they turned 13 and got to celebrate becoming teenagers with an extra special dinner at the Firehouse.   

When you are ready, continue walking toward the corner.  At the corner, stay on the boardwalk, turn left and continue straight along K Street.  On the corner you will pass the former location of the Democratic State Journal, a daily news publication that debuted in 1852.

Continue walking while I tell you another story about the disastrous year of 1850.

On October 15, 1850, the riverboat New World steamed into Sacramento.  On board was a passenger sick with cholera.  The plague ran through the town like wildfire striking indiscriminately.  At the peak of the epidemic, Sacramento's Dr. John Morse recorded 150 cases in a single day. By November 14th Sacramento was virtually a ghost town, hotels and saloons closed, as residents left town to wait out the illness.  After 6 weeks the worst was over, residents were able to return and things eventually went back to normal. 

Continue to the end of this block and stop for a moment at the corner near the sign for Stage Nine Entertainment Store

Stage Nine Entertainment Store, located in the historic What Cheer House, encompasses the entire corner of Front and K Street. The What Cheer House was constructed in 1853 and operated as a hotel for 10 years during the height of the California Gold Rush. The salutation "What cheer?" or "What cheer, partner?" was the "What's new?" of its day.  What Cheer Houses' prime location providing equal access to steamboats on the river and stagecoaches bound for gold fields, made it a favorite gathering place for miners and early California politicians.

Today this historic building serves as the home to The Vault, G. Willikers Toy Emporium, Old Fashioned Candy and Confectionery as well as Stage Nine Entertainment and is one of California's select Disney Preferred galleries carrying the complete catalog of officially-licensed Disney Animation Art from Disney Fine Art.

With the What Cheer House on your left, turn right at the corner and cross K Street.  When you get to the other side, turn right and continue straight along K Street.  You will be walking away from the waterfront.   

Continue past the sign for Evangeline's Costume Mansion.  Stop at the end of the boardwalk in front of the light beige masonry stone  building with black shutters.  

On the wall of this building you will find the historic plaque for the Lady Adams Building.  This building also houses part of Evangline's unique costume and novelty store.    

The first owners of the Lady Adams Building were two German immigrants who came to California "around the horn" on a ship named The Lady Adams. Initially, in 1849, they operated their importing and wholesale business from the brig of the Lady Adams moored at the foot of K Street, then moved their business into a tent while they used the ships parts to build the structure. The bricks which form this building had acted as the ships ballast.  It was due to these bricks that the Lady Adams was the only building in town to survive the great fire of 1852.

With the Lady Adams building to your left, cross Firehouse Alley and continue straight along the boardwalk to the end of the block. 

Stop when you get to the end of the block stop and take a look ahead and across the street between the trees.  You will see a metal archway with the word Downtown.  This path leads to the Golden 1 event center, home of the Sacramento Kings basketball team, and on to the California state Capitol.  We are not going there on this tour, but I wanted to point it out.  Now turn left and continue along the boardwalk along 2nd Street. 

Ahead on your left watch for the building marked with wall lanterns in between each door.  Stop on the boardwalk in front of that building.  The address is 1024 2nd Street.   

This was the location of the Orleans Hotel, which attracted distinguished visitors during the 1850s and 1860s. California state politicians gathered at the Orleans regularly and its guest list included American author Mark Twain, Horace Greeley founder and editor of the New York Tribune, and infamous Spanish dancer Lola Montez. 

Originally built in New Orleans, the hotel was dismantled and brought to Sacramento in 1850 where it was reassembled only to be destroyed by the fire of 1852.  But, like a phoenix, the hotel rose again three weeks later as a 3-story brick building with 40 bedrooms, and a grand saloon.  The Orleans Hotel was also the headquarters for the California Stage Co., where each day dozens of Concord stage coaches arrived at 5am.  In front of the hotel, runners for these stages, charged with recruiting passengers, shouted at the top of their lungs, "Who's agoin to Nevada City? Only three seats left, last chance today for Nevada City!" 

Rhode Island stage driver James Birch arrived in Sacramento in 1849 to make his fortune in the mines.  Instead Birch saw another opportunity and immediately set up a stagecoach line running prospectors from Sacramento to Coloma. With this service well received, he continued to add stages and lines to all of the hot stops in the mining area.  Other companies came into the picture but by 1853, Birch was still the king of staging.  He bought out all the existing companies and consolidated them into one company, the California Stage Company. By 1856  with over 1000 horses and 200 Concord coaches and wagons, the California Stage Company lines were reaching all over northern and central California.

Continue walking toward the end of the block and stop when you get to the staircase at the Visitor's Center at the corner ahead. I have a story to tell about this building.  

The fire of 1852 dealt a huge blow to this block, including this building.  In 1853, businessman and entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin Hastings bought what was left of this building for $1,500. He renovated it and opened a bank.

For the next two decades, this building would meet the changing needs of Sacramento, serving as a microcosm of commercial and political activity. It was the first location of the California Supreme Court.  There judges evaluated and analyzed the law, creating the case law which today still governs much of California. The Wells Fargo Company had their office here and so did Alta Telegraph.  And do you remember Theodore Judah, chief engineer for the Sacramento Valley Railroad Company?  He had an office here as well.  And for the entire 18 month existence of the Pony Express in 1860 and 1861, this served as its western terminus. 

Today this is the home of the Sacramento Visitor's Center.  Inside you will find some informational plaques on the walls that have historical information relating to the Pony Express and Wells Fargo Company.  Now continue walking and turn left at the corner of 2nd and J and continue straight along the boardwalk. 

Ahead on your left watch for the white wooden fence with an archway opening.  Stop when you are in front of this archway. This is Pioneer Park. 

Though not much of a park, in 1849, this was the site of the Sacramento City Market building.  A structure that radically changed during gold rush years, transitioning from wood to brick and from one-story to four-stories. During the redevelopment years of the 1960s this building was too far gone to even renovate.  It was demolished leaving only this vacant lot.   For some reason, those cast iron columns you see inside the park were taken off buildings during the 1960s renovations and left here in the park.

Now walk to the end of the boardwalk and the white picket fence.  Stop here, before crossing Firehouse Alley.

Take a look at the brick building across Firehouse Alley and look for the brass plaque which states that this is the site of the Sam Brannan Building.

Sam Brannan was an American businessman, and journalist.  Born in 1819 in Maine, Sam came to California in 1846.  In 1847, he established the California Star, the first newspaper in San Francisco.  Later that year he opened a store in San Francisco and Sutter's Fort in Sacramento. In 1848, Brannon got word well before other business owners that gold had been discovered at Sutter's Mill. He quickly bought up all of the picks, shovels and pans he could find and filled both of his mercantile stores.  Then he paraded down Montgomery Street in San Francisco waving a bottle full of gold dust in one hand and proclaiming "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!"  He paid 20 cents each for the pans, then sold them for $15 a piece. In nine weeks, he made $36,000. 

Using his profits, Brannan purchased more property in Sacramento, including this section of J Street in 1865.   The building served as Sacramento's first post office, the Jones Hotel, and eventually the Brannan Hotel.

It is time to get moving again, cross Firehouse Alley and continue along the boardwalk to the corner. At the corner, turn right and cross the street. 

Once you have crossed the street, turn right again and continue along the boardwalk down J Street. 

Just ahead is a grassy area, on your left. Stop when you get to the end of the grassy area at the informational plaque.  In the 1850s this was the site of James Warren's, New England Seed Store.  James brought camellia seeds with him from the east coast and introduced this flower to Sacramento in 1852. The camellia is now the official flower of the City and County of Sacramento.

Now take a look across Firehouse Alley to the red brick building.   Erected in 1851 this was the site of the Sacramento Union newspaper. The newspaper business in Sacramento was a merciless.  Nineteen newspapers began here between 1849 and 1857 and only two survived, the Democratic State Journal, the location of which we saw earlier, and the Sacramento Daily Union. The Union was the oldest daily newspaper in California, in print from 1852 until 1994.  During the Union's early years famous American writers Mark Twain and Bret Harte were among its contributors. 

When you are ready, cross Firehouse Alley and continue walking along the boardwalk. Behind the black iron fence on your left is an empty lot. Originally the site of the Magnolia Saloon where early California politicians were known to have made many a political deal over a drink or two.  

Stop when you get to the corner and look across the street.  That is the Pony Express statue and our next stop. Cross the street and I will meet you at the statue.  

Stop on the sidewalk in front of the Pony Express statue and turn to your right to face the Heywood Building.   At one time this was the location of D. O. Mills Bank, the only bank in Sacramento that did not go out of business during the bank run of August 1850. 

During the gold rush years, successful miners returned to Sacramento to exchange their gold dust with merchants for more supplies and to deposit their excess gold in banks for safekeeping. Early on banks offered 5% interest monthly on deposits.  But by the 1850's competition had risen so high that banks began offering 10 to 15% return on their deposits.  This was not sustainable and by August of that year three major banking institutions closed their doors, with others continuing to fall like dominoes.  Many miners lost some or all of their deposits. The exception to this was Darius Ogden Mills and his brother Edgar and their D. O. Mills bank which due to their wise management, did not lose one penny of their depositor's funds.   In 1864, Darius would go on to become president of the Bank of California in San Francisco while his brother Edgar remained behind to run their successful banking operation in Sacramento. 

Now turn around and take a look at the Pony Express Statue for a moment.

In 1860 the fastest way to get mail from the east coast to California was twenty-five days by steamer. William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell felt they could do this faster and established the Pony Express.  The route, St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California covered 2,000 miles in 10 days, by horse. The advertisement for the Pony Express read: Wanted “Young, skinny, wiry fellows anxious for adventure, not over 18.  Must be expert riders and willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” The Pony Express only lasted 18 months. The completion of the transcontinental telegraph in October 1861 caused its demise.

Sculped by Thomas Holland, this statue of a Pony Express rider on a horse at full gallop, was installed here in the 1970s.  It commemorates the glory days of The Pony Express, which had its inaugural run leave from the B.F. Hasting's building across the street on April 4th, 1860.  There rider Sam Hamilton, with satchels full of mail, galloped off into a blinding rainstorm down J Street, on that first leg of the 1,966-mile trip to St. Joseph, Missouri.

Now continue walking along the sidewalk down 2nd street away from the Pony Express statue.  Take a look to your right.  Do you see the a stone wall with a number of plaques?  Walk over to the plaques and stop for a moment.  

These plaques were placed here in 1963 by the Sacramento Historical Landmarks Commission and Sacramento County Historical Society.  They are part of the plan set forth in the 1960s to redevelop Old Town Sacramento.  Despite its colorful history, Old Town was gradually abandoned during the 1940s and 50s.  It became an eyesore, a collection of cheap diners, bars and flophouses. And a  haven for the homeless.  When the Firehouse Restaurant opened in 1960, no one thought it would succeed.  When it did, a plan was set forth to redevelop the entire Old Town recreating and renovating it to look like it did in the 1850s.

In its earliest days, Old Town Sacramento's boundaries extended beyond its current limits.  During redevelopment in the 1960s the construction of Interstate 5 eliminated a portion of the old city leaving only the historic core we have today with 50 plus historic buildings dating to the second half of the 1800s. Each building has a history and each shows a reasonable approximation of their original Gold Rush era appearance.  Though all of the buildings have required varying degrees of reconstruction since the 1960s and few serve their original purpose, most now house restaurants, gift shops, or other businesses catering to tourists.

Alright let's get going.  Continue walking along the sidewalk in the direction you were going. 

What you see here today, in Old Town Sacramento, is the outcome of the redevelopment project of the 1960s.  The town truly feels as if one has stepped back in time to the 1850s.  So much so that in 1965 the National Park Service named the entire original historic 1850s business district a National Historic Landmark.

The architectural style of Old Town is mixed, with a few Greek Revival buildings.  You will also find some building of Spanish and Mexican influence, which stems from the seven decades of their rule. But the most dominant is the Italianette style which feature multi-storied buildings with large arched doorways and windows, covered balconies, and ornate decorative details. 

When you come to the crosswalk, turn left and cross 2nd Street.  When you get to the other side, stop in front of the black iron fence in front of Pioneer Square.  

The sign proposes the question, Where do you go after you find gold? Well, if you were a miner here in the 1850s and 60s, this would have been your first stop. 

Professor Louis Lauriet’s Assay Office opened in 1850 and was located here in a two story brick building. Originally from the West Indies, Lauriet was an assayer.  He analyzed and weighed the gold to determined if it was authentic. If it was, Lauriet would cast the gold dust into ingots or slugs and stamp them with a U.S. mint value.  Now a miners gold was legal to spend.  

The building that housed Lauriet's assay office has been gone for years.  At one time it occupied this sunken courtyard in front of you.  The exposed brick wall you see on your right down in the courtyard was built by store owners in the 1860s to raise the streets to the current level you stand on today.  This wall is an example of what exists underground here in Old Town, brick walls running the entire length of the streets. 

Today,  Pioneer Square is the home to TheUnderground Tasting Room.  They are open Friday through Sunday from 1 to 8pm.  

Walk to the corner of 2nd and I which is across from the Railroad Museum.  Cross the street here and stop in front of the Railroad Museum.  

Quite possibly the single greatest technological feat of the 1800s, the Transcontinental Railroad, took six years and thousands of workers to complete.  The majority of the workers willing to do this backbreaking work were Chinese migrants. At the peak of construction, and accounting for almost 90% of the track laying crew, the Central Pacific Railroad employed 15,000 Chinese migrants.  These crews carved tunnels through the Sierras.  It was dangerous and tedious work, drilling holes into the thick granite walls, packing the holes with explosives and exploding avalanches of rock down into the canyon below. Many tunnels progressed at less than a foot a day.  By June of 1867 Chinese tracklayers had conquered, what was considered the unconquerable, Donner Pass, the highest on the route.  Though it was all downhill from then on, it took another year to finishing laying track through the rugged mountain range.  Finally on May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford drove the ceremonial Gold Spike at Promontory Summit, Utah completing the 1,912 mile continuous Transcontinental Railroad. East met west with continuous steel rails permitting passengers and freight to ride from sea to sea and the city of  Sacramento played a pivotal role in this endeavor. 

The California State Railroad Museum is a must see for any railroad enthusiast.   Inside historical exhibits are presented using stories of the people who lived, worked and died while building the railroad.  Current exhibits include: The Chinese Railroad Workers’ Experience, a view of the Chinese workers who built the western portion of the nation’s first Transcontinental Railroad and Farm-to-Fork, a history of the Fruit Growers Express refrigerated railcar system. There is also an extensive locomotive collection inside the museum.  While the locomotive collection is extensive, only a portion of the 19 locomotives dating from 1862 to 1944 are on public exhibition at any one time. The remaining engines are either undergoing restoration or awaiting restoration in the Museum’s shop facilities.

There is an admission fee if you are going to visit this museum which is open daily, except for holidays, from 10am to 5pm.  With the museum on your right, continue straight along the boardwalk in the direction of the waterfront.  

Take a look to your right.  Do you see a set of red doors with the words hardware, iron, steel and coal painted over the door?  Stop there in front of what is today called the Big Four Building.  I have another story to tell. 

Few names conjure up the heyday of early Sacramento more than Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford the 8th governor of California and founder of Sanford University.  Known collectively as the Big Four, these influential businessmen, philanthropists and railroad tycoons were the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad, the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad. Each of these men had a connection to the buildings in front of you.  These buildings were originally constructed between 1849 and 1852 and stood  on the south side of K Street between Second and Third, a location which  currently lies beneath Interstate 5.  While the highway was being constructed these buildings were moved to this location and reconstructed to appear as they did in the 1850s.
Out of these structures, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins ran their hardware store, the Stanford brother's a successful wholesale merchandise firm, and Charles Crocker a dry goods store.   Upstairs these men had their offices for the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California.  It was there that they planned out the building of the western section of the Transcontinental Railroad. 

Now with the red doors on your right continue walking to the red brick Sacramento History Museum building.  

In the spring of 1849, the city of Sacramento was incorporated and this two story brick building, which was built in 1854, served as its first municipal structure.  It served as the City Hall, police station, city court, city jail and the city water supply was held in a tank on the roof. 

In 1985, the Sacramento History Museum moved into what is now a reconstructed version of the 1854 City Hall and Waterworks Building.  Open daily from 10am to 5pm, the museum exhibits feature historical images, artifacts, and unique interactive elements pertaining to Sacramento history. There is a charge to visit this museum. 

With the museum building on your right, continue walking in the direction of the waterfront.  Cross the railroad tracks, and continue straight to the waterfront. 



Off to your right you will see the brick railroad roundhouse.   This building, which is part of the Railroad Museum, was and is still today used for servicing and storing locomotives.  Early steam locomotives normally traveled in the forward direction only. The turntable in front of the roundhouse was used to turn the train cars around for their return journey.

Now continue walking toward the water. Cross another set of railroad tracks and stop when you get to the river overlook and take a look to your right toward the I Street Bridge.

It was there, just south of this bridge that Sacramento docked their prison ships during the 1850s.   Why prison ships?  Well the gold rush created a massive migration of fortune seekers that arrived here, and though most were law abiding folks, some were not.  Prior to the building of the Sacramento's municipal building in 1854 which housed the city jail, Sacramento had no where to put those who broke the law. 

One of these prison ships was the LaGrange, a three-masted ship that arrived here in 1849 from Salem Massachusetts. The following year, the city purchased the ship, and built cells in its hold. The LaGrange served as a jail until 1859 when it sank.

In 1986 archeologists located wreckage of what they believe is the LaGrange imprisoned so to speak in rock just south of the I Street Bridge.  

Alright, turn around and walk back in the direction of the Sacramento History Museum. When you get to the front of the Sacramento History Museum turn to your right and continue walking in front of the yellow Union Pacific caboose. 

Continue walking as you pass in front of the Union Pacific Railroad Caboose.  The humble caboose,  a fixture on the end of freight trains for more than a century, was the place where train crews could cook meals, wash their clothes and rest. 

Continue walking and stop when you are in front of the Train Depot.  A picture of the depot is shown below. 

Then look across the street to the Eagle Theater.  Originally constructed in 1849 out of canvas and wood, this playhouse provided entertainment for a mere four months before it closed its doors for good. An outcome of the January flood of that disastrous year of 1850.   The story goes like this,  on the night of January 4th 1850, the Sacramento River breached its levees flooding the entire embarcadero landing.  Water rose inches deep inside the Eagle.  By act two the waters covered the bench seats.  As the play continued, customers stood on top of the benches.  Finally the flood water reached the stage and snuffed out the candles and lanterns that were being used for lighting. The stage went dark and the theater closed for good. The structure you see here today was built in 1974, and is a replica of the original Eagle Theater.  

Though this theater did not survive others were built.  Entertainment was very important during the Gold Rush years and actors traveled the circuit between San Francisco, Sacramento and gold country towns entertaining the miners.  One of the most famous performers, or dare I say infamous, was Lola Montez.  She arrived with great fanfare in Sacramento on the steamer New World in July of 1853.  Famous for her "Spider Dance" her performances sold out at the Sacramento Theatre on 3rd Street. The theater was demolished during the construction of Interstate 5, but this story lives on. 

For some reason Lola apparently annoyed the editor of the Daily Californian who wrote a scathing review of Lola's performance.  Lola, being a high spirited soul, did not take this well and fired off a letter to the editor challenging him to a duel.  "After such a gross insult, you must don the petti-coats.  I have brought some with me, which I can  lend you for the occasion.  You must fight with me.  I leave the choice of two kinds of weapons to yourself for I am very magnanimous.  You may choose between my dueling pistols or take your choice of a pill-box  One shall be poison and the other not, and the chances are even.  I request that this affair may be arranged by your seconds as soon as possible as my time is quite as valuable as your own." 

Well the editor declined the opportunity, Lola finished out her engagement in Sacramento and moved on to the next town.  You may learn more about Lola and other feisty Gold Rush women on my VoiceMap tour On the Road to Gold: A Highway 49 driving tour from Angels Camp to Jamestown.

Now continue walking just a few more feet and stop for a moment when you get to the front door to the Central Pacific Railroad Passenger Station Ticket Office. It will be on your right. The address on the door is 930 Front Street.

This station is a faithful reconstruction of the western terminus of America's first transcontinental railroad.  The ticket office, telegraph office, baggage and waiting room are all set up as it would have appeared around 1876.  Inside the train shed, behind the ticket office, is an array of vintage railroad locomotives, cars and other equipment.  If you happen to be here between April and September you might consider taking a 45 minute ride on one of Old Towns historic trains.  Departure times and prices are listed near the front door to the station.

Continue straight along Front Street. Cross J Street and keep going while I tell you about the riverboat years. 

Starting in 1849, steam paddle-wheelers operated for more than 90 years between San Francisco and Sacramento.  At Sacramento, transcontinental passengers bound for San Francisco debarked from trains and stepped across the levee to a waiting steamer.  These floating palaces were well appointed.  Their main salon featured a grand staircase and brass chandeliers.  Fresh flowers graced the white linen covered dinning tables, and a four-piece band entertained guests. 

The New World steamer, the same one that brought Lola Montez and the cholera epidemic to Sacramento, set a record on the San Francisco to Sacramento run at 5 hours and 35 minutes in 1851.  But she would not be the most notable ship to cruise the river. That designation would go to the Delta King.  
Continue along Front Street.  We are heading toward the Delta King.  

When you come to the end of this building, (the location is shown in the picture below) turn right and walk in the direction of the waterfront. 

As you walk toward the waterfront you should see a granite marker with a bronze plaque.  Walk over to this marker and stop for a moment. 

This marker denotes the location of Mile Marker 0, and the origin of the Central Pacific Railroad.  It was at this location in 1863 that prominent citizens and railroad founders gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony to begin construction of the Central Pacific Railroad.  It would be six more years before the Central Pacific would meet the Union Pacific completing the first transcontinental railroad. 

Now, turn to your left.  Do you see the gray marble Antelope historical marker in front of the railroad tracks?   Walk over to it.

This marker explains the roll the riverboat steamer played during the 19 months of the Pony Express. With Sacramento the western terminus of the Pony Express, mail still had to get to San Francisco. For the 19 months the Pony Express was in service, river steamers arrived and departed here at the foot of K Street daily and transported mail to and from San Francisco.

Now take a look toward the river. You should see two gangways as well as signs for the Delta King. Continue walking across the railroad tracks ahead and stop at the entrance to one of the gangways for the Delta King.  This is our last stop. And I  have one more story to tell, as no walking tour of Old Town Sacramento would be complete with out a story about two of the most famous riverboats to ever cruise these waters. 

With a promise of Comfort and Luxury Afloat, the identical twin paddle-wheelers, the Delta King and Delta Queen entered into service on June 1, 1927, alternating nightly runs between San Francisco and Sacramento. 

In building these vessels, it seemed as if no cost was spared. Passenger decks were constructed with the finest oak, mahogany, teak, and Oregon cedar and these four deck superstructures would be the first California riverboats built with steel hulls, which provided strength, and stability, incase of accidents. 

Here is a narration of a tour of one of these ships on opening day:  From the gangplank, passengers entered the Saloon Deck lobby.  The centerpiece a grand staircase with ornate bronze filigree and curving Honduran-mahogany handrails, beaming brass chandeliers, and a grand piano.   Beyond the lobby was the dinning room where fresh flowers graced the crisp white linen-covered tables and travelers relaxed in luxurious mahogany chairs upholstered in soft Moroccan leather. A five course meal cost .75 cents.  After dinner the social hall came alive with music from a four-piece band. Those so inclined filled the  floor to dance the night away doing the two-step, waltz, or Charleston. Or if a quiet night in a cabin relaxing to the hypnotizing sounds of the paddle wheel's soft pulsations was more to your liking, fare and accommodations were sold separately. Fare was $1.80 one way, and $3 round trip, with prices for cabins ranging from $1 to $5. 

In 1940, the Delta King and Delta Queen's time cruising the Sacramento River ended. During those 13 years, the two made almost 4,500 night voyages on the river using only steam and paddle wheel, no  radar, depth finders or other sophisticated navigational aids were available at the time.  And all of these trips were without any serious accident. 

From 1940 to 1946 the Delta King and Delta Queen served the United States Navy as naval barracks as well as a hospital.  Both stationed at various locations near San Francisco. 

After the war, the Delta Queen was sold to Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati.  She was towed through the Panama Canal to New Orleans, refurbished and began cruising the Mississippi in 1947.  With over 60 years cruising the Mississippi area, the Delta Queen was taken out of service in 2008.

From 1946 to 1989 the Delta King remained land locked in various locations from San Francisco, Richmond, Stockton and Canada.  In 1978 the vessel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. For 15 months in the early 1980s, while docked in Richmond, the hull of the Delta King was fully submerged causing severe damage to the vessel. It took 6 weeks of hard work to  get her afloat.  In 1989, after years of renovation, the Delta King finally was moored permanently in Sacramento at the Old Town dock where she has found new life as a 44-room hotel and restaurant and home to the Capital stage theater.  Its open to the public so feel free to explore this floating landmark once you have completed this tour. 
This marks the end of our walking tour. I hope you have enjoyed your tour of Sacramento's Old Town. Until next time, Happy Adventures!


All photo by L.A. Momboisse