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Old Sacramento: the 1849 Gold Rush, brought vividly alive


For a small historic district measuring only five blocks long by two blocks wide, Old Sacramento still superbly captures the atmosphere of the great California Gold Rush of 1849. In that epic event, 300,000 feverish gold hunters flocked to Sacramento and thence to the gleaming goldfields 50 miles further east.

Tiny Sacramento boomed from four houses in 1848 to 10,000 people a few months later in 1849, living in makeshift huts of wooden slats, under canvas awnings, in tents, and with many sleeping on the ground.

Those times, described by some as “an awful time and a glorious time, mixed together”, brought unimaginable wealth for less than 5% of the hardscrabble gold prospectors, and untold suffering for most of the others.

Sacramento flooded in January 1850 to be submerged under 10 feet of water. Men poled across the street on pontoons and small boats. Repeated flooding would cause the entire business district to be raised 9 ½ feet, above the high water mark. In the Sacramento Cholera epidemic between October 20 and November 17, 1850, 600 people died, including 60 in one day, causing the town to be abandoned until the disease ran its grim course.

Fire followed disease in November 1852 and again in 1854. It was as if the almighty was testing the inhabitants of this rough and ready outpost.

Donald Jackson describes Sacramento in the gold rush era as “famously wicked”. The town “probably offered the most temptation per square yard”. Scruffy and hard-bitten miners entered the town with bags of gold, storing them away “as indifferently as they did their hats and boots”. They had money and were ready for some recreation.

In a town without law or government, and where women were scarce (only 8% of the population of the entire state), gambling has been described as on a “stupendous scale”.

Gold dust was the collateral of the day. The gamblers left their bags of gold dust with the gamekeeper who drew from them as the games progressed. Saloons, often no more than large tents, were absolutely crammed, and every gambling table packed. Drink prices were steep, paid for by the barkeeper taking a pinch of gold dust from the prospector’s leather or canvas bags.

Today you can retrace the steps taken by the adventurers and brigands lured to Sacramento by the glow of gold. Old Sacramento still looks much as it did in its turbulent days, with raised and covered worn wooden sidewalks and old western building facades. Three-story wooden saloons with ornate turn of the century window pediments and balconies sit in the shade of the old trees.

Old Sacramento indeed takes you back to the gold rush days—and in the last few days of August every year the clock is literally turned back when 200 tons of dirt is dumped onto the streets and hundreds of costumed performers relive life in those wild days (www.sacramentogoldrushdays.com).

The popular Old Sacramento Underground Tour whisks you back 150 years and 10 feet below ground into a dark netherworld as you walk along hollow sidewalks and past excavated building foundations and forgotten bulkheads, left underground by the raising of the city. You’ll see original doors and windows, and exposed brick retaining walls, and receive a good dose of the town’s colorful history thrown in for good measure.

The Underground Tour finishes at the Sacramento History Museum, also well worth exploring to fill in some of the gaps in the town’s past. Look for the dioramas and exhibits of a river gold claim, a recreated gold mine, Chinatown, a doctor’s surgical toolkit, a superbly restored stagecoach, some fascinating old historic photographs of miners, and much more.

Military history buffs will enjoy the California State Military Museum on 2nd Street. Here you can learn about California’s storied military history from the war with Mexico to Californian troops deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The exhibits display a wide range of militaria from weapons and uniforms to helmets, flags and banners, personal soldier’s items, historic photographs, artifacts, and other memorabilia.

If any of Old Sacramento’s museums are worthy of being described as “World Class” it would have to be the California State Railroad Museum on I Street.

Having seen a few dusty old cabooses lying around at other museums, I must admit I was lukewarm about attending yet another train museum. However, once inside this enormous warehouse-sized building, I was amazed at the superbly presented trains and carriages.

It’s an impressive sight: 20 perfectly restored locomotives and railroad cars, all gleaming and shining, drawing people like moths to the light. This museum, with some gorgeous old steam engines including a North Pacific Coast engine with wooden cabin, an old black engine approaching a tunnel, a green Virginia & Truckee Railroad Baggage Car, a row of cars with restaurants, sleeping quarters, galley, mail cars, and much more, will entrance even the most jaded visitor. Allow a couple of hours to tour these exhibits, many of which you can walk through, and longer for train aficionados.

To understand more about the great gold rush, Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park is a must. Located on L Street, between 26th and 28th Streets in suburban Sacramento, two miles from Old Sacramento, the recreated fort is where John Sutter did his assay test of James Marshall’s gold flakes, found in the American River, the event that launched the momentous 1849 Gold Rush. A video room provides a short film telling about the good and bad life and times of John Sutter, and the fort’s history.

Measuring 312 feet by 156 feet, the fort’s thick, whitewashed walls enclose a multitude of rooms where the fort’s daily business took place. You walk around the various rooms that form the fort’s outer walls, listening to audio guides tell of daily life in the kitchen, bakery, barracks, sleeping quarters, saddlery and tack room, carpenter’s room, blacksmith’s forge room, blanket weaving room, and the gunsmith and armory room.

If you’re lucky, you’ll see some living history re-enactments of daily life in the fort. I saw an excellent demonstration about operating a 19th century musket.

Old Sacramento, attached to the modern city that is California’s State Capital, packs a surprising punch for its weight as a tourist attraction, and makes a great 2- or 3-day stopover.

When You Go:

Where to Stay:

Best Western Plus Sutter House, 1100 H Street.
This Best Western offers a central swimming pool and comfortable, air-conditioned rooms to escape the intense heat that bakes the city on its hotter days. The staff is professional and helpful, and happy to give you advice on tourist attractions.

The Citizen Hotel, 926 J Street.
For a charming dose of old-world character and modern-day amenities, go no further than this lovely boutique hotel. Formerly an attorney’s office, the extensive library near the front desk holds shelf upon shelf of imposing legal tomes. The rooms, sorry, suites, are tastefully decorated and most offer a great view over Sacramento. The hotel’s Grange Restaurant offers an excellent menu and great convenience. Located a 15-minute walk from Old Sacramento, this hotel cannot be faulted.

Where to Eat:

Being the political capital of California, Sacramento offers a plethora of outstanding restaurants for discerning diners, politicians, and tourists.

Lucca Restaurant and Bar, 1615 J Street.
Sit in the outdoor covered patio for an outstanding Italian/Mediterranean meal. And look towards the large fireplace at one end of the room and imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger sitting there, holding court. Yes, Arnold was a regular here during his gubernatorial days.

The Firehouse, 1112 Second Street.
Sacramento’s (and indeed the whole regions’) finest dining experience is had at this elegant old world restaurant. Get dressed up and prepare for some exquisite dining at this award-winning restored brick firehouse restaurant in Old Sacramento, now registered as a historical landmark. The wine collection is the most extensive in the Central Valley. Try the Duck Tataki, Lamb Ras el Hanout, Thai Peanut Pork Belly, Steak Delmonico, prepared by Executive Chef Denab Williams. You will remember your meal at The Firehouse for years to come.

For further information about attractions and accommodation in Sacramento, please visit the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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