The location of what became Sacramento California could not have been more opportune at the time of California statehood in 1850. Here was a land far away from the U.S. seat of government but at the same time so important to the nation’s westward expansion. At the same time, Old Town Sacramento was at almost ground zero during the spectacular California Gold Rush. So many things came together at the end of the 1840’s with the Mexican cessation of Alta California and then the Gold Rush that California became the destination of immigrants from around the world. This also catapulted San Francisco into a world famous seaport. Today, that original site east of San Francisco where all the action occurred is called Old Town Sacramento and is as close as you can get to a must stop during your California vacation. Sacramento Old Town is all about the history of the gold rush era.
Transportation wise, Sacramento was at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers which afforded easy access to San Francisco, the major western shipping point. This is adjacent to present day downtown Sacramento. All of those thousands of people who rushed to California by ship in pursuit of gold would find themselves passing through Sacramento. As they say, it was the right location at the right time.
The gold rush was responsible for the heavy steamboat traffic up and down the Sacramento River. Boats were crowded with prospectors who had arrived in San Francisco by ship from either around Cape Horn or through Panama. Supplies were shipped up to Sacramento and in many cases gold dust was shipped out. Some steamboat owners made a fortune on the Sacramento. According to steamboats.org, the very first steamboat to make it up the Sacramento River was the George Washington in 1849. Prior to this, the first recorded journey by boat up the Sacramento River was in 1839. This was a three boat trip by John Sutter. He went up the Sacramento to where it met the American River and this is where the city of Sacramento rose from.
The late 1840’s and early 1850’s was a time when people were beating down the door getting to Sacramento and to Sutters Fort which was the major jumping off point to the Sierra Nevada gold fields. What sprang up and was built at the area of the Sacramento River and the American River is today called Old Town Sacramento. This and Sutters Fort which is located a few miles west could be the two most historic sites in Sacramento. Definitely, two places you want to add to your trip planner if your California vacation takes you up to Sacramento.
You’ll find plenty of things to do in Sacramento. Old Town Sacramento has enough historic attractions to spend the entire day. You’ll view historic old town hotels such as the Union Hotel which originally was named the Veranda Hotel and was used extensively by old town Sacramento politicians. The California State Railroad Museum might be the finest vintage railroad museum in the United States. Among the many large exhibits under roof is a Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe railroad dining car from the Fred Harvey era. They also have a mail car from the Great Northern Railway. All of these exhibits allow you to walk through and see everything close up. Another rare exhibit among the steam locomotives is the Governor Stanford, which was one of the first locomotives purchased by the old Central Pacific Railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad was the western leg of the transcontinental railroad completed in 1869.
When you’re strolling around Sacramento old town you’ll also see the unique Tower Bridge. This is a vertical lift bridge that crosses the Sacramento River was dedicated in 1935 and in 1982 was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The California State Military Museum is another excellent historic attraction. This museum is the official California historic military museum and historic research center. Opened in 1991, the museum has artifacts on display from the earliest times until the present. Vintage firearms are showcased in abundance as well as official military flags, uniforms, frontier equipment and many historic photos. One rare exhibit includes a 1875 Battery Gun which is a modified Gatling Gun. The California State Military Museum also features a pretty extensive library.
Among the historic buildings still standing, and there are several, includes the old B.F. Hastings Building. This building is considered the old focal point of Old Sacramento. The structure was built in 1853 and at one time served as the western terminus for the Pony Express, the offices of the Alta California Telegraph Company as well as a Wells Fargo Agents office. Hastings completed and opened the building with his bank, Hastings & Company. The land where the building sits on was once owned by John Sutter through a Mexican land grant. The building changed hands several times. The structure that was there prior to Hastings building had burned down in a fire. The building you see today, built by Hastings, is a two story brick structure. At one time the B.F. Hastings Building also served as the first site for the California Supreme Court.
Old Town Sacramento itself has been declared a state historic district. Truly, you can spend an entire day in touring Old Sacramento and the California State Railroad Museum is at least a half day itself. One thing you may want to check on is the excursion train trip put on by the railroad museum usually offered April to September.The museum also hosts an extensive history program available to students. The museum staff has information on this and their website features all current programs.
The following two articles highlight both the gold towns of Auburn and Grass Valley California with several great pictures. Both of these towns sprang up from the California Gold Rush and are also great stops to put on your California vacation planner along with Old Town Sacramento.
(Photos are from author’s private collection)