For nearly fifty years, visitors to Old Sacramento have been immersing themselves in olden times while enjoying the shops and eateries in this former gold rush port. Old Sacramento has more buildings of historic significance in its 28 acres than nearly anywhere else in the West.
Registered as both national and California historic landmarks, the properties are primarily in private ownership, with individual businesses leasing shops, restaurants and office space. Since its resurrection from a Skid Row in the 1960s, Old Sacramento has flourished and is once again a thriving commercial trade center, just as it was over one hundred years ago. In addition to a large collection of historic buildings, Old Sacramento is home to what is widely regarded as North America’s most popular railroad museum. (Sacramento was the western terminus of the first transcontinental railroad and the short-lived Pony Express.) The place just reeks of history!
Now there is a reason to visit Old Sacramento for more than shops and eateries. There is a new underground tour, offering the “lowdown” on Old Sac. Hidden beneath the city for nearly 150 years, Old Sac’s underground has been the capital’s best-kept secret. Today, visitors can explore covered pathways and excavated foundations while a tour guide narrates the tales of devastation, perseverance and determination that led to California’s only successful municipal street-raising project.
First, a little background:
The 1849 California Gold Rush began when gold was discovered at John Sutter’s mill on the American River. With the arrival of prospectors, trade began to develop around a wharf Sutter had established where the American River joined the Sacramento River. The junction was as far as seagoing ships could sail to the gold strike and seemed the natural location for a commercial port. This new hub of commerce soon became known as Sacramento.
Unfortunately for the new settlers, Sacramento was established along two flood-prone rivers. The problem became clear when such large amounts of rain fell in the winter of 1861 that an inland sea formed, forcing Gov. Leland Stanford to travel via rowboat to his inauguration.
Property owners realized something had to be done to protect their investments and preserve Sacramento’s hard-won status as the state capital. Instead of abandoning what they had already spent so much time and effort to build, they decided to raise the city above flood level. Tall, buttressed retaining walls were built along the street edges and dirt was brought in to raise the streets an average of more than nine feet. Some buildings were raised up to the new street level, and in other cases, the ground floors of the buildings were abandoned and a second story became the street-level entrance.
The street-raising project created voids or “tunnels” as some called them, and they are the subject of the tour offered by the Historic Old Sacramento Foundation.
The first stop on the tour is the Halls & Luhrs building, once the site of brothels and other bygone businesses that were built below the floodplain. The Halls & Luhrs grocery store was erected over the shuttered remains of the brothels in 1884. Cosumnes River College students conducted an archaeological dig from 1979 to 1980 and recovered artifacts that were buried there. Recovered objects included perfume vials, jugs of alcohol, hairbrushes and other artifacts from women who apparently worked as seamstresses, cigar merchants, dressmakers and, of course, madams. Wooden railings skirt the archaeological site so visitors can look into it.
According to the tour guides, immigrants found success working alongside one another in the emerging new capital despite the prejudices of the time. Peter Zacharias, a Syrian boot polisher, is thought to have worked in one of the now buried sites with Tong Hang from China, who was a tinsmith. Frankie Bass, a literate, property-holding woman (very rare at the time) of biracial descent, was held in high regard by fellow business leaders and noted for her “wisdom” in purchasing insurance before her place burned down in 1854.
Along the route, tour guides point out neighboring buildings that were the same height until the street-raising project lifted some buildings, but not others. The tour includes a look at interpretive panels showing how the buildings were raised and a discussion of the tools that were used and the lawsuits that resulted from the raising.
The tour passes century-old brick-buttressed walls at several places. These well-constructed walls continue to support the street and sidewalks above, testifying to the determination of Old Sac’s forefathers to defeat adversity and assure the survival of the new state capital.
While some have suggested there were tunnels in Old Sacramento that might have been used for illicit smuggling, tour guides point out that there were no tunnels, just isolated subterranean pockets.
Next time you are RVing through Sacramento, stop by and tour Old Sacramento’s newest old attraction. It has been right under everyone’s feet for 150 years! n
Dave Helgeson and his wife, Cheri, promote RV and manufactured home shows in Western Washington. They spend their free time traveling and enjoying the adventures of the RV lifestyle.
IF YOU GO:
Tours: Tours will resume March 31 and continue through November. They begin at the Sacramento History Museum, 101 I Street in Old Sacramento. The tours are an hour long and involve walking on uneven surfaces and coping with low ceilings.
Driving and Parking:
Since RV parking is very limited, this attraction is best visited in your tow vehicle or dinghy. A map showing the location of Old Sac and all public parking areas including RV parking can be found at oldsacramento.com/downloads/old_sacMap.pdf
Tickets: Tickets may be purchased online at historicoldsac.org, in person at the Sacramento History Museum, or over the phone at (916) 808-7059. Tours are often filled to capacity, so you should purchase tickets in advance to guarantee your spot.