Visiting Old Town Sacramento
A Brief History of Old Sacramento
As one of the sleepy little towns of California that exploded into a boom town after the discovery of gold in the foothills, Sacramento saw explosive growth and more than a few major disasters, including fires and floods.
After two devastating floods, in 1850 and 1852, it was decided to raise the level of the streets. This project, which included raising the buildings to the new level, took over 14 years!
It was not always the state capitol, either. There were actually several cities that held that position over the course of five years, including San Jose, Benicia, Monterey, and Vallejo. San Francisco tried hard, but was never selected. Sacramento has actually been the capitol twice!
When Did Sacramento Become the Capital of California?
Prior to its admission to the United States as the 31st state, on September 9, 1850, there was no central governing body in California.
- First came Monterey, from September 9, 1849–October 13, 1849
- San Jose, then known as Pueblo de San Jose, from December 15, 1849–May 1, 1851
- Next, Vallejo, for a very short time from January 5, 1852–January 12, 1852
- Sacramento saw its first inclusion in the list, from January 16, 1852–November 2, 1853
- Vallejo again, in a confusing overlap of dates, from January 3, 1853–February 4, 1853
- Next, Benicia held the title from February 11, 1853–February 25, 1854
- Finally, on February 28 of 1854, the capitol returned to Sacramento, where it remains to this day.
There's Much to See in Old Town Sacramento
Old Town Sacramento is one of those places nearly impossible to see and do all in a single day. It is worth several trips if you live nearby, or staying overnight for a couple of days if you can. This historic area covers 28 acres, and is registered as both a California and National historic landmark.
A good place to start is the visitor center, located at 1002, 2nd Street. They have maps, general information about the area, as well as several interesting displays, including an old stagecoach. Up close and personal, it is easy to see what a terribly uncomfortable ride those things must have offered!
History Comes Alive
At the visitor center, you can also purchase tickets to the underground tour, which is a fascinating foray through the streets, and underneath buildings, where you can see the original street level, and observe the archaeological dig currently still in progress by a local college. (Sorry, I have no accompanying photos, as photography is not allowed on the underground tour.)
There is an underground because after a few devastating floods, it was decided to raise the streets—and subsequently the buildings—up to the new street level. It was quite a process, and took over 14 years!
The tour is conducted by a docent in the costume of the era, playing the part of one of the actual residents of the town. Our tour guide was “Mary McCormick,” who stated that she had died from a coronary thrombosis, but that cholera was a much more prevalent and swift killer. She said that in the old City Cemetery (not on the Old Town site) you can find her tomb which is, sadly, among the most vandalized of the old monuments.
Fire was a prevalent danger in all of the old mining towns and camps, due to the shoddy construction of buildings made from wood. In the case of Sacramento, the wood came from abandoned ships sitting in the river as the would-be prospectors jumped ship to head for the gold fields. Walls were made of canvas from the sails! The Eagle Theater has been reconstructed just as it was in those days.
After a second devastating fire, they got smart and started using bricks for building materials.
Having purchased your tickets for the underground tour, you have also paid for your admission to the History Museum, which is a treasure trove of old artifacts and displays featuring historical photographs and the stories behind the people pictured.
One such person was Sam Brannan, who became California's first millionaire, chiefly by gouging miners on equipment they needed in the gold fields. He bought gold pans for 20 cents each and charged the miners 15 dollars! Similarly outrageous markups were made on other equipment such as pickaxes and shovels. Within a few weeks, he'd made over $36,000—worth about $1,197,313 in 2019 dollars.
Karma doesn't play nicely, however. His wife found out he was cheating on her, and even back then, California was a community property state, and women could own property and operate businesses on their own. She sued for divorce, got half of his wealth and holdings, and after some failed business deals, he ended up in the Los Angeles area as a pauper in his final days.
Below are shown some of the other museum exhibits: a couple of antique printing presses, a model of a modern printing press, the antique window lintel from an old alehouse, and a fancy-style carriage in which the elite classes would have traveled.
Trains, Trains, and More Trains!
A don't-miss destination while touring Old Town is the California State Railroad Museum. It has three floors of displays of all things railroad related. Displays and life-size dioramas illustrate the building of the transcontinental railroad. Sacramento was the terminus for that famous project. It was also the end of the line for the short-lived pony express.
The main floor has many old-time locomotives, ranging from the petite to the monstrous. One such behemoth, number 4294, is an 4-8-8-4 configuration (one set of four (leading truck), two sets of eight driving wheels and one set of four (trailing truck)—a set of wheels is called truck).
The drive pistons are huge, and there are two sets, one for each set of four driving wheels.
These gigantic locomotives were built specifically for the Union Pacific Railroad, for use on steep mountain grades: they wouldn't need a helper engine.
One of the interesting things about old number 4294 is that it was built by women! It was built long after the gold rush days, during WWII, and the “Rosie the Riveter” women built her. There is a statue of that iconic symbol standing on the deck between the loco and the tender.
The museum also has a theater showing short historical films, as well as guided tours by docents. At the far rear of the main floor, you enter the roundhouse, where numerous train cars are on display. Many are open and you can walk through them.
There is a dining car, a car that was the private car of a big-wig executive, a mail car, a pullman car, a refrigerator car, and several other interesting examples.
The entire third floor is given over to an exhibit of toy trains with historical information. There is a large diorama running large-scale Lionel trains. Four trains run, and are connected to interactive panels on pedestals so kids can have fun “running” the trains.
On the Water
Permanently moored at the waterfront sits the Delta King Hotel. Once a fixture of transportation between San Francisco and Sacramento, her usefulness came to an end with the advent of bridges spanning the bay.
The Delta King and the Delta Queen were built as identical twins, and both served in the same capacity. After the bridges, however, they were used by the Navy during WWII, serving variously as floating barracks, troop transports, or hospital ships in San Francisco Bay.
Following the war, the Delta Queen was sold to the company that still operates her on the Mississippi River. However, when she left, she took the engines from the Delta King with her as spares, leaving her twin fated to be only towed wherever it was to go.
For a time, the King was nearly lost, having been partially sunk for over a year. However, it was purchased, restored, and outfitted as a floating hotel. In addition to the hotel, there are a couple of restaurants and bars on board, as well as a theater.
The entire boat is a museum piece, and the public is welcome to go aboard and look around; no obligation to have a room or eat at the restaurants.
The Hornblower company operates historical river cruises, leaving from the dock next to the Delta King. As of this writing, the tickets are: $20/adult; $18/senior citizen; $10/child ages 4–12; children under 3 are free.
The cruise is an hour long and passes by various historic sites along the river, all narrated by the captain. Seating is non-reserved and first-come-first-served. Limited refreshments may be purchased on board.
Note: For adults only, cocktail cruises are available in the evenings.
Dining and Snacking
There are numerous restaurants and shops catering to the gastric needs and desires. These range from full-service sit-down restaurants to bars and candy shops and ice cream parlors. There are also a couple of the ubiquitous fast-food places in the area.
On our day trip, we had lunch at Fat City Bar and Cafe. My mother-in-law had what she declared to be the best roast beef sandwich she'd ever had.
Meanwhile, I thoroughly enjoyed the best and most unique veggie burger I'd ever had! Instead of the run-of-the-mill bland soy patty, this one was made from cornmeal, with actual pieces of corn, black beans and great seasoning. It was moist and very tasty.
All of the streets, boardwalks, restaurants, and museums are ADA compliant and wheelchair/ scooter accessible, including the underground tour. Many of the shops are also accessible, though some of them have kind of narrow aisles between merchandise displays.
Keep in mind, however, that many of the streets are still paved with old cobblestones, and some areas are unpaved. Boardwalks can be uneven, so the overall result is kind of a bumpy ride. If you're using an electric scooter, that shouldn't be too much of a problem. In a basic wheelchair, you might want an extra cushion on the seat.
The only place not really easy for the disabled to visit would be getting into the various train cars in the Railroad Museum. There are no ramps, the aisles are very narrow, and the steps are steep and tricky.
Old Town Sacramento is easy to get to, being right off of the I-5 freeway. Heading north from the Bay Area, take the J street exit, and follow the signs (you'll go around a couple of blocks making a giant U-turn: Sacramento is full of one-way streets).
Coming south from points north of Sacramento, take the I street exit, and follow the signs. Coming from the west, take highway 80, cross the Tower Bridge, and follow the signs. As you cross the bridge, you can look right down on the Old Town waterfront and see the Delta King.
There is a parking garage at the edge of the Old Town area, and there is limited metered street parking within the historic district, but that fills up fast early in the day.
Parking in the garage is probably the better option for an all-day excursion though, because you won't have to worry about expired parking meters—plus, your car will be in the shade, and you won't be getting into a virtual oven at the end of the day during the summer months.
Note: All photos were taken by the author.
© 2019 Liz Elias