Old Sacramento The Town that Gold Built

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A horse-drawn carriage moves down the street in front of historic buildings.

Old Sacramento. Photograph by Carlos Eliason/Visit Sacramento

The Organization of American Historians’ 2018 annual meeting will be held in Sacramento, California. You can find out more about the meeting here and register here. As you plan your visit, consider taking in the sites of Old Sacramento either through an official OAH tour or on your own.

If you’re a visitor to Sacramento, consider strolling over to Old Sac, more formally known as the Old Sacramento Historic District. A twenty-eight-acre national historic site lying between I-5 and the Sacramento River, the neighborhood is Sacramento’s living room or town square. It’s the place locals gather for music and fireworks. It’s where we take our relatives from Cuyahoga Falls who want a gander at the “Wild West.” But be forewarned: this wasn’t your saloon-and-bordello West. Thanks to the Gold Rush, this was your fancy hotel-and-opera-house West.

Old Sac is many things at once: touristy and elegant, reconstructed but genuinely historic. And if it weren’t for a few determined historic preservationists, it long ago would have been flattened to make way for a roaring freeway.

Fall from Gold Rush Glory

Home to the Nisenan Tribe, the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers gained new visitors and attention with the beginning of the California Gold Rush in 1848. After that fateful gold discovery, all those heading for the gold fields (and the savvier ones who supplied those heading to the gold fields) wound up at John Sutter Jr.’s embarcadero on the Sacramento River.

For twenty years, the blocks surrounding the watery foot of J Street remained the town’s commercial hub and railroad terminus. Tall stone, brick, and plaster buildings with lacy iron terracing lent a substantial, sophisticated air to the rawboned town, and shopkeepers, farmers, miners, “soiled doves,” politicians, Native Americans, African Americans, and tourists from San Francisco all met to merchandise there.

In 1869, however, California legislators set up shop at the newly constructed capitol a few blocks away. City Hall and the post office followed; then the Central Pacific Railroad moved further out. The older district entered a slow downward trajectory. By the early twentieth century, the neighborhood, which included an African American community, was a bastion of run-down buildings, cheap lodgings, and poverty.

Wrecking Ball? Meet Preservation Power

By the early 1960s urban-renewal fervor was in full swing. Cities were flush with federal dollars to redevelop urban centers. But before preservation-minded groups could fully organize, many older architectural treasures, as well as many communities and neighborhoods throughout the U.S., were razed to address “urban blight.” California set legal wheels in motion to address its own deterioration with efforts known as “slum clearance,” and Sacramento’s city fathers were more than ready to jump on board. First stop: Old Sacramento.

In 1962, local jurisdictions and state agencies working with the highway division approved plans to run I-5 through the historic district on the city’s West End. A clutch of preservationists from the Sacramento Historic Landmarks Commission, National Park Service, and Sacramento Bee, among others, launched a fierce protest against that plan. After a protracted public battle, the two sides compromised and designed a bulge in the highway to skirt the historic district. The preservationists had scored a victory for Old Sacramento.

In 1963, the city formally dedicated the district for educational, cultural, and historical purposes. Some buildings were moved, others renovated or reconstructed to reflect the Gold Rush Era. The district became a National Historic Landmark in 1965. Today, five million visitors each year walk the neighborhood’s wood-plank sidewalks and cobbled streets, enjoying its recreational delights and ogling Old Sacramento’s grand Victorian buildings.

Walk This Way

Visitors traveling from the Sacramento Convention Center can easily stroll or taxi over to Old Sac’s shopping, restaurants, and cultural attractions. Museums, you say? You’ll find the California Automobile Museum, the California State Railroad Museum, and the Sacramento History Museum right here, even a branch of the Wells Fargo History Museum.

Get your picture taken at the Pony Express Statue and have lunch on the charming, moored Delta King Riverboat, followed by a leisurely carriage ride. Tour the B. F. Hastings Building, the first location of the California Supreme Court, or the Big Four House, built by California’s rail pioneers.

Food, drink, and live music are constants in this neighborhood. Let them pump up your Old Sac state of mind while you relax and lift a glass to what was, and what is, here.

Tracy Huddleson is a master’s student in the Public History Program at California State University, Sacramento.

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