The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma capped off the greatest human migration in history. Thousands of hopeful pioneers headed towards Mexican California on the Oregon Trail in search of a better life. From the settlement town of Old Sacramento, to the supply center and trade post of Sutter’s Fort, the Sacramento region is rich in Gold Rush History.
As you enter this 28-acre town of historic buildings constructed in the 1850s, you’ll step back to the California Gold Rush era. Pioneers first settled along the banks of the Sacramento River, a main traffic route for supplies. Regular flooding and subsequent disease made the early years difficult and implored the settlers to take on the ambitious task of raising the street level twelve feet. Today, after strong preservation efforts, the nostalgic appeal of early American history is reflected perfectly by the wooden sidewalks, horse-drawn carriages, old-fashioned candy shops and Mississippi-style riverboats. History comes to life through interactive experiences, such as taking a ride on a steam engine train, seeing what a one-room schoolhouse looked like, or dressing in period costumes for an old-fashioned photo.
Considering the adventurous and ambitious spirit inherent of the pioneers, it is no surprise that some famous names got their start in Sacramento. For example, the influence of the “Big Four” of western railroading (Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and Charles Crocker) is evident throughout the city. The Big Four Building in Old Sacramento includes the Huntington Hopkins Hardware Store Museum and Stanford Gallery. B.F. Hastings opened as a bank in April 1853 that is now a museum housing a reconstructed Supreme Court and Wells Fargo Museum. Adventurous ambition was truly crystallized by the riders for the Pony Express.
A monument stands in Old Sacramento honoring the dare-deviled orphans who conquered the challenging trip from St. Joseph, Missouri to the Western Terminus in Sacramento. 500 horses, 200 relay stations, 80 riders, and 10 days was the standard for the legendary, albeit short-lived, Pony Express. Inquire about docent guided historical walks in the Visitors Center on Second Street.
Old Sacramento is also home to the California State Railroad Museum (CSRM). This is the most comprehensive collection of trains and other related artifacts in North America with incredibly knowledgeable docents eager to share railroad history. At the Railroad Museum, visitors walk through this remarkable chapter in history, from the grueling task of laying tracks to boarding the deluxe cars that graced the Western United States. The Sacramento History Museum offers yet another opportunity to learn about California history with special presentations on the Gold Rush, newspaper business and agriculture industries.
Long before the development of Old Sacramento, Native Americans populated the area. The Nisenan lived in the Sacramento valley for 10,000 years before any other settlers arrived. By 1833, however, a smallpox epidemic killed 20,000 Nisenan in the valley leaving the population vulnerable. And so, Sacramento’s modern history actually begins in 1839 when Johann Augustus Sutter landed on the banks of the Sacramento River. He received a 48,000-acre land grant from Mexican Governor Alvarado and built the adobe trading post known as Sutter’s Fort. The fort was Sacramento’s earliest settlement and served many purposes. Sutter would trade with Indians, raise livestock and act as a representative of the Mexican government. When James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, Sutter’s Fort became invaluable to pioneers. Tour the State Historic Park for a glimpse into Gold Rush life at the fort, including exhibit rooms of copper and blacksmith’s shops, a bakery, prison, dining room and living quarters.
Moving through history, the Historic City Cemetery was established in 1849 and is the last resting place for over 20,000 early Sacramentans, including John A. Sutter Jr., Edwin and Margaret Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. Guided and self-guided tours are available. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is home to Sacramento’s oldest congregation, with Tiffany stained glass windows and a rare Johnson Tracker organ and the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament features a 217-foot tower built in 1889. Its prominent architectural design echoes of 19th century Paris with stained glass from Austria.
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