Famous Western Frontier Generals / Crook and Miles

A Western Frontier General

The Indian Wars are what thousands of books have been written about, both nonfiction historical accounts and dime novels. Fighting Indians is also what we remember most about the famous frontier generals of the period but in reality many were involved in civilian matters as well.

General George Crook House

General George Crook House

Visit the General George Crook House

The General George Crook House is located in the Miller Park neighborhood of North Omaha Nebraska. It’s on the U.S. Register of Historic Places and it would makes a good trip stop when visiting Omaha. The Crook House was used as the headquarters for the Department of the Platte during the general’s tenure and also for later commanders.

The Crook House was visited by both Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes. The house was eventually  taken over by the Douglas County Historical Society and was refurbished in the 1980’s. It’s open for both tours and special events.

The Expeditions of General George Crook

General George Crook was involved in many events on the western U.S. frontier, being part of the Sioux Indian Wars of the mid 1870’s as well as Comanche campaigns among others.

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General Crook's Expedition after the Battle of the Little Bighorn

Crook was also involved in matters not strictly military in nature and with nothing to do with fighting Indians or western pioneers. This was a part of frontier military duty that probably hasn’t been heavily written about in history books.

The Posse Comitatus Act

During the very early Civil War reconstruction period, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act which really was an extension of an Act passed in 1807.

The Posse Comitatus Act put a limit the military’s potential involvement in civilian affairs. In other words, it’s intent was to keep the army from being a domestic police force. Local and state law enforcement was charged with that duty.

This law was actually one of the founding principles of our government. Being passed in 1867, the act went into effect at about the peak time of westward expansion. Towns were springing up almost every day and when the transcontinental railroad was completed, in 1869 the emigration westward reached even new heights. To be sure, the U.S. Army had it’s hands full trying to protect settlers and keeping trails open. At about this time the army was also attempting to write treaties and relocate Indians to reservations.

great train robbery

Actor in 1903 film The Great Train Robbery

The Army Goes After Train Robbers

One interesting story concerns the army’s role in chasing after train robbers.

A Union Pacific train was robbed at Big Springs Nebraska on September 18, 1877. The  robbers netted personal items from the passengers and about $60,000 in gold coins. This certainly was one of the great robberies of the time. After the robbery the outlaws split up into two groups and headed south. The Union Pacific offered a $10,000 reward mostly due to the amount of gold coins stolen which was enormous for the time.

Civilian posse’s headed out after the robbers which was normal. What was different in this case was that General George Crook ordered troops dispatched from both Fort Robinson and Fort McPherson to join the pursuit. Eleven of his troops joined Sheriff George W. Bardsley of Hayes City Kansas and a short time later confronted two of the bandits near Buffalo Station Kansas. A shootout ensued and two of the robbers were killed.

george crook statue fort omaha

General George Crook bronze statue, Fort Omaha

Reward Money

If it sounded like a good outcome, it really wasn’t. There was a legal battle over the reward money and a few years later Bardsley collected $2,250 and the eleven soldiers had to split a total of $1,002. The tale is that Sheriff Bardsley claimed all the credit. While General Crook was known to have a liberal interpretation of Posse Comitatus, in most cases when the army involved itself in civilian affairs it drew loud criticism.

The army’s dilemma was that the relatively new settlements in the west often times had inadequate law enforcement but at the same time the army had to act in some capacity when high profile trouble erupted and a $60,000 train robbery qualified as high profile.

Regardless of the controversy generated, General Crook was known to have ordered his soldiers into civilian matters on several occasions. You can just imagine the political infighting that ensued trying to interpret the Posse Comitatus Act. Today we have much clearer lines of jurisdiction but in the wild west of the late 1800’s with local law enforcement somewhat sketchy this line was blurred at best.

pullman car interior

Pullman Car Exhibit at Texas Transportation Museum, San Antonio

Labor Trouble and the Pullman Strike

Another high profile civilian incident that ended up involving the army was the 1894 Pullman Strike in Chicago. While Chicago isn’t really the western frontier, the story is revealing as to how military intervention can turn political.

The period after the Civil War saw it’s share of labor unrest. Immigrants had arrived by the thousands searching for work. Regarding labor unions, The Knights of Labor reached it’s zenith in the 1880’s and had it’s greatest victory with the Union Pacific Railroad strike.

The primary goal of the Knights was the eight hour workday. Alkso miners as a group called many strikes involving both pay and working conditions. In the second decade of the 20th century one of the most bloodiest labor uprisings took place in Ludlow Colorado when coal miners struck and were attacked by the Colorado Militia. This incident also eventually drew in federal troops to stop the bloodshed.

Several economic downturns  from the 1870’s onward aggravated the labor situation and in this case it involved the Pullman strike in Chicago.

pullman company chicago

Pullman Company circa 1900

During an economic downturn the Pullman Palace Car Company lowered worker’s pay 25% while leaving corporate manager’s pay the same. Union activists and avowed socialists entered the picture. Tempers flared and violence was inevitable. George Pullman stuck to his guns. He wasn’t going to bargain with his workers and he wasn’t going to even speak with the strikers.

General Nelson Appleton Miles, another big figure from the Indian Wars both on the plains and in Arizona (Geronimo surrendered to Miles) and a Civil War veteran, was sent in with 12,000 troops augmented by U.S. Marshals on orders of President Grover Cleveland to end the strike. Miles had one of the more colorful army careers and eventually in 1895 was elevated to the post of Commanding General of the U.S. Army.

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Early photo of Nelson Appleton Miles

The use of force against civilians by federal troops was a very controversial topic at the time. During the confrontation several strikers were killed in the and that in itself led to further violence. The situation spiraled out of control. A tremendous amount of property damage occurred. During the strike Eugene Debs, the socialist organizer, was arrested and tried for inciting violence and destroying private railroad property. Debs, after two trials and being represented by Clarence Darrow was found guilty of a lesser charge and actually served six months in jail.

See the Trips Into History article on the links below…

A Visit to Fort Sill Oklahoma

The Last Days of the California Stagecoach

Garryowen and George Armstrong Custer

When the Pullman Strike was over the army took a great deal of criticism. The criticism was that Nelson Miles was getting too close with George Pullman and kept his troops in Chicago longer than necessary. In situations like these the army is wide open for accusations of taking sides.

Regardless of this incident, Nelson Miles was considered one of the frontier’s more successful army generals. The town of Miles City Montana was named in the General’s honor. Pullman himself was criticized for his “company town” philosophy whereas workers were dependent on his company for their homes, groceries, everything. They lived in homes within Pullman’s own town outside Chicago.

pullman strikers

Pullman strikers in Chicago

Many historians have pointed out the irony of having rank and file troops used to subdue the nation’s labor force. If anything, the typical non commissioned soldier had much more in common with the labor unions of the late 1800’s made up mostly of newly arrived immigrants than he did with the industrial tycoons of that period. Many U.S. Army troops were themselves immigrants.

As a memorial to the 1894 Pullman strikers, a rose and herb garden was planted in Chicago in the 1980’s to commemorate the strike. It’s location is 11111 S. Forestville Ave.

Recommended books on the subject of the western frontier generals and 1800’s labor unrest include General Crook and the Western Frontier by author Charles M. Robinson III…My Life on the Plains: Or, Personal Experiences with Indians by George Armstrong Custer…The Pullman Strike : The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great Labor Upheaval by Almont Lindsey.

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)

American Military Aircraft

 

In this article Trips Into History will highlight several American military aircraft that made a difference. Each of the military planes featured here have made large contributions to America’s military effort and each has a historic story to tell. These historic aircraft are on display at various venues around the U.S. and we will highlight some of these excellent air museums.

b-29 bomber

B-29 Superfortress in flight

The B-29 Superfortress

Everyone knows that it takes time between the design phase of an aircraft to it’s actual production. In the case of the B-29, the original designs were submitted to the U.S. Army in 1939. This was prior to the U.S. entering World War Two.

As military aircraft went, the B-29 was radically new in a number of ways. A pressurized crew area was one. The B-29 was also designed to carry remote controlled guns. The plane was also the heaviest to date built to carry bombs over very long distances. The plane was designed as a replacement for the B-17 and B-24.

Boeing built the B-29 in two plants. One was located in Wichita Kansas and the other in Renton Washington. Two other companies also manufactured B-29’s. These were the Bell Aircraft Company who constructed in Georgia and the Glen L. Martin Company who built the planes in Nebraska. Total B-29 production by all three companies which ceased in 1946 totaled just under 4,000 planes.

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Tail section of B-29 Superfortress

When you view these aircraft today, take special note of the airfoil and flaps. These are the Boeing 117 airfoil and the Fowler flaps which gave the B-29 superior left. The Boeing 117 airfoil had much lower drag and could provide better per pound of lift than any other airfoil. In addition to this the plane had the biggest flaps to date. The flaps provide more of a climb rate at takeoff and provide a lower stalling speed while landing. The Fowler flap was a  trailing edge flap that moves out of the wings on tracks. The Boeing 117 airfoil and the Fowler flap gave the B-29 a big advantage as a long range heavy bomber.

The B-29 Superfortress was ideal for operations during World War Two in the Pacific largely because of it’s extended range. Many of the bombing runs in the Pacific theater required very long distances from island bases. A very interesting book and great read is The Last Mission by author Jim B. Smith, a radio operator on the B-29 named “Boomerang“. This book chronicles the last mission of World War Two and how it inadvertently had a part in actually ending the war. The Boomerang flew over Japan while a failed coup by hard line Japanese military officers was underway.

b 52 bomber

B-52 Stratofortress

The B-52 Stratofortress

Just like the B-29, the B-52 was designed to be a long range heavy bomber. This aircraft can operate at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet and carry both nuclear and conventional precision bombs and missiles.

The military issued specifications for a new heavy bomber in November of 1945. Plans and designs for the B-52 were submitted in 1946. The B-52 was meant to be a replacement for the jet propelled B-36 Convair. Differing from the B-29, the B-36 was the world’s first manned bomber with an unrefueled intercontinental range.

The B-52 (B-52A) had it’s first flight in 1954 and became operational in 1955. During it’s production span, the B-52 was built as several models. The B-52 B was first manufactured in January 1955 and delivered to the Air Force six months later. The year 1956 saw the addition of a B-52 C and B-52 D.

b-52 stratofortress

One of the engine pods on the B-52 holding two Pratt and Whitney engines

In 1957 we saw the B-52 E roll out then in 1958 the B-52 F and G models. A total of 102 B-52 H’s were delivered to the Strategic Air Command beginning in 1961. The H model is capable of carrying up to 20 air launched cruise missiles. In addition, it can carry the conventional cruise missile that was launched in several contingencies during the 1990s, starting with Operation Desert Storm and ending with Operation Allied Force. The B-52 H is equipped with eight Pratt and Whitney engines each delivering 17,000 lbs of thrust. The aircraft has a range of 8,800 miles unrefueled and a speed of 650 MPH.

a-7 corsair

A-7 Corsair !!

The A-7 Corsair II

The Ling-Temco-Vought built A-7 Corsair II is a carrier-capable subsonic light attack aircraft. This plane was one of the most successful military aircraft of modern times. In addition to having one of the lowest loss rates during the Vietnam War, the planes cost a little over one million dollars each and delivered weapons with an accuracy unheard of in their era. The carrier based A-7’s were one of the Navy’s most potent striking weapons during the Vietnam War.

Built originally on the airframe of the F-8U Crusader, the A-7 underwent several modifications since its introduction in 1965. The A-7 Corsair II, was used by TAC for close air support attack missions. There were several A-7 models with the A-7E  being the final version. The A-7’s were eventually replaced with the F/A-18s in 1992.

a 7 corsair II

Nose of carrier based A-7 Corsair II

Though the exterior of the aircraft appears bulky, the plane had extraordinary power. The single seat plane with an official range of 2,280 miles, an Alison 15,000 lbs thrust engine and a top speed of 691 MPH, the A-7 Corsair II was quite an attack aircraft.

Links to two additional photo articles on our Western Trips site you’ll enjoy include the Grumman S-2A Tracker and the F-15 First Responder both on display a the Pacific Coast Air Museum located near Santa Rosa California.

You’ll also enjoy our Trips Into History photo article about the first transcontinental air route involving passenger trains. This is the story about Transcontinental Air Transport and the creation of TWA.

See the B-29, the B-52 and the A-7 Corsair II

The venues listed below are great low cost travel stops and feature a good collection of vintage and classic military aircraft.

All three of the military planes featured in this article can be viewed at the National Nuclear Science and History Museum in Albuquerque New Mexico. The museum is located just north of the Albuquerque International Airport and Kirtland Air Force Base, about six miles east of the downtown area.

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Tail Hook on A-7 Corsair

The Pacific Coast Air Museum located just north of Santa Rosa California and about 65 miles north of San Francisco has an excellent display of military aircraft including the F-15 First Responder that took to the air over New York City during the September 11th attacks.

The Pima Air and Space Museum is one of the largest in the U.S. Located a few miles east of Tucson Arizona, the Pima Air and Space Museum features over three hundred aircraft including a B-29 and a B-52 G.

The Planes of Fame has two locations. One is in Chino California and the other just north of Williams Arizona between Williams and the Grand Canyon. This is a unique air museum because planes are not only restored but several are also in flying condition. Many World War Two planes are on display including a Grumman Bearcat, a Grumman/ General Motors Avenger TBM and a Mitsubishi Zero. The Arizona location is a great stop to add to your trip planner when visiting the Grand Canyon.

(Photo of B-29 Superfortress in flight is from the public domain. Remainder of photos are from author’s collection)

 

Juan Bautista de Anza and the Expedition that Established San Francisco / The National Trails System

There is a very historic old Spanish trail that eventually established what is today San Francisco California, the historic Mission Dolores and the Presidio. Today, this trail is administered by the National Park Service through a partnership with other federal, state, county and municipal parks and volunteer groups. Some of the areas of this Spanish trail are in the hands of private ownership but there is a remarkably large amount of the trail that is ideal for a California auto tour. In 1990, Congress established the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail as a part of the National Trails System.

juan bautista de anza

Juan Bautista de Anza, public domain

This very important Spanish trail was blazed by a Spanish military officer by the name of Juan Bautista de Anza. Ther idea actually originated with Anza’s father who dreamed of finding an overland route to Alta California. This was an important route for Spain who was trying to secure their stronghold in the region. Spain’s concerns were the explorations of both the Russians and the English. The Russians had a thriving trade operation in the area about 100 miles north of San Francisco Bay at Fort Ross on the Pacific coast. The English of course had operations in what is today Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Using mission and Indian trading routes, Juan de Anza found a path into Alta California in 1774. This route would allow passage of supplies, livestock and much needed settlers. When Anza identified the route he secured permission from the Viceroy of New Spain to make the Spanish expedition.

Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition was quite different from a mere exploration. Some of the earlier expeditions were for simple exploration. This expedition was to help colonize a distant land. This essentially went hand in hand with the Spanish Mission system being established around the same years. Traveling through Sonora New Spain, Anza put out a call to men to join him and be paid as soldiers. His men told about the lush land to the north which was greatly different than the desert region around Sonora. Interest was high but Anza placed certain requirements to many of the prospective recruits. There were two primary conditions. The men would agree not to return to New Spain and they were obligated to bring along their families.

de anza trail map

Route of the Juan Bautista de Anza Expedition, public domain

Anza’s expedition departed from Tubac Presidio on October 23, 1775. The expedition included thirty families which amounted to some 240 men, women and children. The expedition had a purpose. The purpose in general was to safely deliver the settlers and their livestock to el Rio San Francisco, the first Spanish settlement in that key area. There was no guarantee of success but the travelers put their full faith in Anza. The families who joined the expedition, after weighing their current opportunities in Sonora, felt strongly that a better life could be found in Alta California. They risked everything for a chance to be among the very first settlers to California.

As with just about all Spanish expeditions, religion and the Franciscans played a large role. Most days began with Mass and hymns of praise. These were conducted by Franciscan priest Pedro Font. In addition to Font’s religious duties, he kept a very detailed diary and recorded latitudes using a quadrant. His journals were a running historic record recording locations, miles traveled and supplies used. It is from his diary and one written by Anza himself  that today we have an excellent record of the Anza expedition. Coming up from present day Mexico around the Nogales area, the expedition which included some 1,000 head of cattle crossed the Colorado River into Alta California at present day Yuma Arizona. Anza was fortunate to have received able help from the local Indians and this included finding the Yuma Crossing. The trail went through Riverside and north of present day Los Angeles to the coast near Oxnard. Then it was up the Pacific coast past San Luis Obispo and to the east of Monterey before reaching present day San Francisco. Much of the route fairly follows US Hwy 101. It’s interesting that riders on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train from Los Angeles to Oakland also follow a section of this trail.

juan bautista de anza interpretive center in martinez california

The Juan Bautista de Anza Interpretive Visitor Center in Martinez, CA, from author's collection

The Juan Bautista de Anza expedition was a great success for Spain. After Juan de Anza selected a site for both a presidio and a Spanish mission, on June 27, 1776 a Lt. Moraga led the settlers to what is today the city of San Francisco. This marked the establishment of Mission Dolores on the San Francisco peninsula. This also marked the very northernmost settlement to that date for Spain. What’s very interesting to the tourist is that many of the names of settlers and military involved with Juan de Anza’s expedition are still seen today throughout northern California. These are names such as Moraga, Berryessa, Bernal and Peralta. Today, these are names of towns, highways, landmarks and counties. De Anza’s name can be found on buildings, schools and streets.

The National Park Service has sixteen sites along the de Anza Trail where many visitors like to collect stamps showing their visit. These stamps are given out by the NPS to officially confirm the visit. The National Park Service administers the Anza Historic Trail Exhibit Visitor Center located at John Muir National Historic Park in Martinez California. This is the historic adobe on the Muir grounds that has been made into the Anza Historic Trail Center. This center has some great exhibits and would be a fine addition to any san Francisco area trip planner. Martinez is located northeast of San Francisco opposite the town of Benicia California.

The California State Military Museum and the State’s Volunteer Union Company

The California State Military Museum is a gem of a military museum. This venue is the official state of California museum for everything military. California has a very extensive military history. From the early Spaniard colonization, to the Mexican rule during the early 1800’s, to the occupation of United States troops in 1848. Because of this centuries old era of European occupation, California has in it’s possession countless artifacts of each era. One of these collections involves Civil War firearms, uniforms and flags. If you are traveling to the Sacramento California area, this is a military museum not to miss.

california state military museumCalifornia became a state in 1850 during the frenzy of the great California Gold Rush. When the American Civil War broke out, California was in a very remote region in regards to the fighting. In fact, there were no official battles fought on California soil. The Blue and the Gray did not meet in California. All the same, California was quite involved if only on a undercover basis. Regular army troops were largely called back to the eastern battlefields. This was the case throughout the west. The first California Volunteers were formed to guard against a potential Confederate takeover. Battles were fought in both Arizona and New Mexico. One of the most reported on was the Confederate defeat at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico not far east of Santa Fe. The outcome of the Battle of Glorieta stopped the Confederate advance into Colorado and the southern plains. During the Civil War the southern section of New Mexico Territory actually seceded from the Union when the Confederates set up in Tucson.A significant battle there was the Battle of Picacho Pass. The defeat for the Confederacy at Picacho stopped their western advance. This battle is often referred to as the westernmost battle of the Civil War involving regular Confederate forces.

california volunteer sergeants uniform

California Volunteer Sergeants Uniform

California, aside from being geographically remote from the rest of the U.S., was inhabited by a large variety of people, mostly due to all of the different people the Gold Rush attracted. People from the midwest had settled in California as well as people from the south. Democrats were a majority in the state, but southern Democrats a minority. Regardless, in 1861, a group of southern Democrats made an attempt to get California and Oregon to secede from the Union. That attempt met with failure. The largest threat was in the southern part of California. Many southern Democrats, sympathizers, and discontented Californios posed the real problem and it was in that part of the state that southern sympathetic volunteers organized militia units. The term Californio is a Spanish term for a Californian. This distinguished a Californian from the Native Indian population. That southern threat was eventually put down by Union forces still in the region. The southern question had reared it’s head back at the time of original statehood in 1850. From the outset California had declared itself as a non slavery territory. When the issue of granting statehood reached Congress there was opposition from southern lawmakers. The northerners in Congress obviously were able to overcome this largely because of the vast gold wealth in California and because of it’s enormously increasing population. There were several attempts by many southern Californians to push for secession from the Union during the 1850’s, and one measure actually reached Congress. After Lincoln’s presidential win in 1860 that measure was quickly set aside and died. The war of secession in California went nowhere.

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California 100 Cavalry hat

While President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to join the Union side and imposed a draft, he didn’t apply this executive order to California. A state like California was asked to form a volunteer force to take over the responsibilities of the regular army. These duties were essentially to protect wagon trains, stagecoaches and to try to keep the Indians in check. Many volunteers in the case of California much preferred to fight the war in the east as imposed to local service. While patriotism influenced the volunteers who wished to fight the Confederacy on the eastern battlefields, the volunteers who stayed in the west to replace the withdrawn regular troops no doubt were also making a large contribution. It’s a well known fact that after the regular troops were sent east, Indian depredations increased. While many may have thought that service in the far west was not quite as glamorous, if war could be considered glamorous, as serving in the east, there is no question that the California volunteers who stayed in the west were providing a very necessary service to the Union. They also were on hand if thoughts again rose for a war of secession in that state.

A group contacted the governor and offered to raise a company of 100 volunteers to go east. Californians had been well aware of the war going on thousands of miles away and many wanted to enter the conflict. The governor accepted the offer and the California unit was formed as a separate company of a cavalry regiment from Massachusetts. Officially they became Company “A” of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, but they were more popularly known as the “California Hundred’. This Civil War regiment would ultimately travel to Boston by ship through the Panama Isthmus. Their passage was paid by the bounty they received for joining the Union Army. Everything worked out so well with this first company from California that another 400 men went east in 1863 again via ship through Panama. The second contingent of volunteers were referred to as the California Battalion. There was also a group known as the California Battalion that served during the Mexican American War of 1848.

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Civil Wat era vintage rifles

The three vintage Civil War rifles on display at the California State Military Museum pictured right are a 1863 Springfield Percussion Musket .58 Caliber. Below it is a 1860 Springfield .52 caliber short barrel and on the bottom is a 1855 Springfield Percussion .58 caliber rifle. The Springfield rifles were heavily used during the Civil War.

The Californians formed Company A in the Massachusetts regiment that was headquartered in Boston. The entire Massachusetts regiment was then sent south to the Baltimore area and then into Virginia. For about a year between 1863 and 1864, the Califonia 100 saw a lot of action against John S. Mosby’s Confederate Rangers. Sending troops back east from California was only one of the state’s contribution to the Union war effort. Much needed gold was shipped back east. Troops from southern California entered what is today the state of Arizona via Yuma to confront Confederate forces who had taken over much of the southern part of the New Mexico Territory. The most significant action was at Picacho Pass in April 1862.

During the Civil War, the California company’s casualty total were eight officers and eighty-two enlisted men killed. Another one-hundred and forty-one were lost to disease. Many more were lost to sickness as opposed to deaths during battle.

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Spanish or Californio style spurs

Many artifacts of this era are on display at the California State Military Museum. In 1993, Civil War artifacts, on display at in the State Capitol were moved to the California Citizen-Soldier Museum to exhibit, maintain, and preserve. In 1994 the California Citizen-Soldier Museum was made the official military museum for the state. In 1995 the museum was renamed the California State Military Museum. The museum today boasts over 33,000 military artifacts. These include weapons, uniforms, unit records, battle flags, photographs, personal letters, newspaper articles and medals.

In addition to California Civil War artifacts are large displays of Spanish and Mexican era artifacts as well as exhibits pertaining to World War Two. The California State Military Museum is located in Old Town Sacramento California. As military museums go, this is one you’ll want to visit during your next California vacation or western road trip.

 

A Visit to Old Town Sacramento California

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.

Wells Fargo Concord Coach model at the Wells Fargo Museum in Old Town Sacramento

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.

Sutters Fort, Sacramento California

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.

1875 Battery Gun

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.

B.F. Hastings Building, Old Town Sacramento

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)