The Theater Washed Away By a River / The Eagle Theater of Sacramento California

In 1849, there were essentially two types of people who frequented Sacramento California. Those who worked hard all day digging or panning for gold up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and those selling things to these prospectors. Both would make a lot of money although the majority would have been those who sold to the miners. It was more of a sure thing and the prices received by merchants in such a remote region could be astonishing.

1849 sacramento california waterfront

Location of the Eagle Theater on the banks of the Sacramento River in Sacramento California. Public domain image.

The Eagle Theater in Sacramento Old Town was the first permanent theater structure built in the state of California. The structure was simply wood frame and canvas located behind a gambling tent. To enter the Eagle Theater one would had to walk through the gambling tent where, certainly more than once, a miner lost some gold dust between the entrance of the tent and the entrance of the theater. In retrospect, it probably was one of the best marketing ideas of 1849. At every turn there was opportunity for the gold miners to spend their money.

The Eagle Theater which supposedly cost an amazing  $30,000 to build (wood and canvas), opened in September of 1849. The high cost of building such a flimsy structure was a direct result of the shortage of building materials around the gold country. Other items such as food, clothes, etc were selling at astronomical prices. Opening a theater was a fairly sure way to make money in Sacramento at that time. The miners had spent most of their non-mining hours either gambling, drinking and in most cases doing both at the same time. Even that routine can get old. Not that they ever really gave up the gambling and imbibing, but something new was needed for miners to spend their time and their gold dust. There were enough non mining people around Sacramento and the gold fields trying to answer that question. A different kind of entertainment was needed. The answer was theater, although theater at that particular time and place could be open to interpretation. Nevertheless, good or bad theater, it was entertainment.

The very informative book, Women of the Gold Rush by author Elizabeth Margo, describes what unfortunately happened to the Eagle Theater. The Eagle Theater was created by the Eagle Stock Company which was a first for California. As mentioned above, theater patrons would pass through the Round Tent gambling saloon to enter the theater. The Eagle Stock Company began in early fall with a series of plays such as The Bandit Chief.

Eagle Theater in Sacramento California

Restored historic Eagle Theater in Old Town Sacramento California, from author's collection.

California falls and winter can be quite wet. It’s the rainy season in the state and it’s also a time when gold prospectors were often idle. The theater did two things. It offered entertainment when the miners needed something to do and it also was a way to get shelter from the rain.

In 1849, it rained during the entire fall season, rained all November and December and rained even heavier during January 1850. On one rainy evening in January the Sacramento River rose so much that water came seeping through the floor. During the play’s second act the audience was standing on the benches. By the time the play concluded, the audience of miners were virtually hanging from the rafters in the gallery. What occurred was that the Eagle Theater actually became a part of the newly widened Sacramento River. What was the short lived Eagle Theater was now part of the Sacramento River. The elements did what the critics could never do. Never again would a Sacramento theater be at that location. Amazingly, the Eagle Stock Company held fast and continued to put on performances for several more nights. The audience hung from the rafters over the part of the river that was serving as the Eagle Theater. This gives you an idea of how badly entertainment was needed and accepted. Flooding in Sacramento during January 1850 damaged a wide area of the Sacramento waterfront. When all was said and done, only a portion of the theater remained intact. New owners rebuilt the theater about 200 feet inland and renamed it the Tehama Theater. Several of the flooded out performers from the Eagle Stock Company found work later in San Francisco’s growing theater scene. The Eagle Theater would be no more.

This may very well have been the only instance that a theater was literally washed away by a raging river. Certainly, it was the only instance in California. many theaters in the old California mining towns were destroyed by fire. This happened in San Francisco several times in the early 1850’s and in Nevada City California. The first mining camps and towns were built with wood. Fires swept through many of these towns and virtually destroyed everything. After each fire, the towns were rebuilt. Brick eventually became the preferred material. This is why today when you take a trip to many of these towns like Nevada City, Grass Valley and Senora, brick structures are found everywhere.

Two California gold country articles you’ll find interesting are about the gold town of Auburn California and the prosperous town of Nevada City California and it’s famous theater.

Another excellent book regarding theater during the California Gold Rush is Anybody’s Gold by author Joseph Henry Jackson. The book includes a good deal of information about the performers who worked the early California theaters.

Today, the restored Eagle Theater structure is owned by the California Parks and Recreation Dept. Fund raising for the restoration is credited to the Junior League and it’s efforts to have to California legislature to provide $75,000 for the project. The Eagle Theater today is operated by the California State Railroad Museum which is about one block away. The address is 925 Front Street in Old Town Sacramento California.

Annie Oakley and Frank Butler / The Sharpshooting Duo

In the late 1800’s and at the turn of the century there may not have been a more famous couple than Annie Oakley and the skilled sharpshooter Frank Butler. They were partners in marriage as well as partners in show business. They traveled together, performed together and had a marriage that lasted some fifty years. Today, a fifty year marriage between such famous performers is a rarity for sure.

Annie and Frank in Cincinnati

young annie oakleyFrank Butler was born in Ireland and came to the United States at the age of thirteen. During his early years in the U.S. Butler developed excellent skills in sharpshooting and put together an act. Who would have believed that his future partner for life would have also been a very skilled sharpshooter? As fate would have it, Frank Butler met a 15 year old Annie Oakley at a shooting competition held in Cincinnati Ohio.

In a way it was love at first shot. Actually, Butler met Annie when he placed a $100 bet with a Cincinnati hotel owner that he could beat any sharpshooter he could produce. The person he produced was Annie Oakley. After missing on his 25th shot, Butler lost the match and the bet. After that he began courting Annie, and they married on June 20, 1882.

The Origins of the Annie Oakley Name

Annie and Frank Butler lived in Cincinnati at first and the story of her stage name, Oakley, which she only adopted when she and Butler began performing together has a few different versions. One is that she is believed to have taken it from the city’s neighborhood of Oakley, where they resided. Some other people believe she took on the name because that was the name of the man who had paid her train fare when she was a child. Regardless of the fact that her birth name was Phoebe Ann Moses, the name the American public came to know her as was Annie Oakley

A Touring Duo

Annie and Frank began touring together as an act and joined the Sells Circus which had it’s winter home in Ohio. In 1885 they joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West where Annie picked up the nickname of “Little Sure Shot”, given to her by Chief Sitting Bull while he was with the Wild West for about four months. When Annie first joined the Wild West there was a big rivalry with another skilled sharpshooter, Lillian Smith, and eventually this rivalry and ill feelings caused both Annie and Frank to quit the Wild West. They resigned from the show at the end of their first trip to England during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

Smith left the Wild West a few years later and Annie patched up her relationship with Cody and she and Frank rejoined the troupe.

You’ll also enjoy our Trips Into History article on Samuel Colt, His Repeating Firearms and a Murder Trial

The Trials and Successes of Samuel Colt

annie oakley 1899Frank Butler and Annie Oakley remained very close. Frank was part of the act at various times. Annie had the limelight and that was okay with Frank. he understood that they were a team and her success was good for both of them.

Often Frank would stand in as a target so to speak for Annie when she was performing.

One well known episode of this occurred in 1899 when the Wild West was touring Germany. Annie had a particular shooting act where she would shoot the ash off the tip of a volunteers cigar. Annie Oakley would ask for volunteers from the audience and typically there wasn’t anyone volunteering to hold the cigar in their mouth while Annie shot the ash off. Frank Butler would then stand up and act as the prop.

In 1899, while performing in Berlin, Annie asked for a volunteer and none other than Kaiser Wilhelm II stood up  and volunteered. Obviously this caused some anxiety among his entourage. Annie, who was known sometimes to take one shot of whiskey before her act, probably wished someone other than the Kaiser himself had stood up. She took aim and fired her trusty Colt 45 and shot the ash clean off the Kaiser’s cigar. You couldn’t invent this kind of story.

During her and Frank’s time performing with the Wild West they traveled all throughout Europe from Spain to the Netherlands  and just about everywhere in between.  Oakley and Butler left the Wild West for good in 1902. Annie then did some acting in a play written specially for her named “The Western Girl“.

The Hearst Trouble

Oakley and Butler met their next challenge as a result of William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper chain. Hearst had a reputation for sensationalism. In fact, many people had claimed that Hearst’s sensationalizing of the battle ship Maine explosion in the Havana Cuba harbor actually started the Spanish American War. Such was the influence of print media at the turn of the century.

The most popular new stories in the year 1904 seemed to be about cocaine prohibition. Hearst’s newspaper published a false story that Oakley had been arrested for stealing to support a cocaine habit. A devastating accusation made on such a popular American as Oakley. As it turned out, the woman who was actually arrested was a Chicago burlesque performer who decided to tell the police her name was “Annie Oakley”. The real Annie Oakley spent about six years suing Hearst and other newspapers. Oakley filed some 55 lawsuits and won 54 of them. The story of the time was that although she won and cleared her name, the amount of money she collected from the suits was less than her legal costs.

Other papers that had printed the story written by Hearst quickly reprinted a retraction story when the truth was discovered. Not Hearst. When Annie was finally awarded $20,000 from Hearst (today that would equal about $300,000) he tried everything he could not to pay. Hearst went as far as sending his own private detectives to Oakley’s home town in Ohio to try to dig up gossip and dirt. Hearst tried to unearth anything he could smear her with. The detectives  were unable to find anything for Hearst.

The Latter Years

annie oakley 1922The photo at right is of Annie Oakley in 1922. Annie and Frank spent their later years working for charitable causes and in general helping women.

Womens suffrage would not occur to after World War One. During the war they helped raise a lot of money for the Red Cross. Butler really became the family supporter after Oakley left Buffalo Bill.

While Oakley spent her time suing William Randolph Hearst, Butler became a representative for the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. After Oakley’s absolute final Wild West show in 1913, they settled into a comfortable retirement. They spent the winter in North Carolina, taking automobile trips, and hunting.

This couple, Frank and Annie, who remained married for close to fifty years and traveled the world together, meeting heads of state and royalty, both passed away at close to the same time. Annie Oakley died on November 3, 1926 in Greenville Ohio of pernicious anemia. She was 66 years old. Frank Butler, her husband, died eighteen days later. The story was that Frank was so upset over Annie’s death that he simply stopped eating.

Garst Museum

Those wanting to learn more about the amazing life on Annie Oakley and Frank Butler need only visit the Garst Museum. The museum is located at 205 North Broadway in Greenville Ohio. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is operated by the Darke County Historical Society. The Garst Museum is home to the Annie Oakley Center and would make an interesting side trip when you’re traveling through the area.

(Photos and images are in public domain)