Many Sacramento residents have heard about the secret underground city that sits below Old Sacramento and parts of downtown, but some have even joined the tours that delve beneath the earth to explore the tunnels and rough bricked basements of yesteryear. In fact, The Sacramento History Museum conducts those Underground Tours as a way to educate visitors and preserve our rich and unique heritage.
But far less Sacramentans realize why that underground city existed at all, and that they’re the last remaining relics of a stormy season that came very close to washing Sacramento completely off the map and rewriting California history forever.
In the autumn days of the Gold Rush of 1849, Sacramento had established itself as the first major city in California and a thriving transportation and agricultural hub with its position on the Sacramento and American Rivers.
But the very existence of the city was thrust in jeopardy with the Great Storm of 1861 – which is still the largest storm in California history.
The historic storm washed out a good portion of California and the Pacific Northwest, turning the Sacramento Valley into a giant “inland sea” that spanned 250 to 300-miles long and 60 miles wide.
The aberrational weather pattern was so huge that it moved as far east as Tennessee, where it shut down troop movements during the Civil War. But Sacramento bore the brunt, and as the storm began on Christmas Eve of 1861, Sacramento newspapers declared Christmas would be canceled. The heavy rains went on for 45 days straight without break, dropping 400% more rain than usual, causing flooding of Biblical proportions that came to a head in January of 1862.
By that month, the water level had risen so high in the low-lying city of Sacramento that steamships and smaller boats literally sailed through Old Sacramento and parts of downtown, rescuing people from their homes. Old Sacramento was completely submerged and thousands of residents died in the flooding and the rampant diseases that ensued. When freshly elected Governor Leland Stanford needed to come to Sacramento for his inauguration, he took a rowboat to the steps of the Capitol.
Soon, the legislature at the Capitol chose to evacuate Sacramento and temporarily moved operations down to San Francisco, and residents started following them. Only 13-years old at the time, the City of Sacramento was in serious jeopardy of being abandoned and therefore never evolving into the major metropolitan area we know today.
But the plucky and spirited Gold Rush settlers of Sacramento at the time weren’t going to be flooded out of their city without a fight. They knew that if they didn’t do something drastic to flood-proof their city, California’s economic and political power would shift to San Francisco.
To rescue their beloved city, the common citizens came to the leaders with an ambitious three-pronged plan: they would reroute the rivers; reinforce the existing levee system that had been constructed in the 1850s; and do something unprecedented at the time – raise the city streets.
Residents even agreed to self-tax to make the plan work, but still, there were plenty of doubters and some even considered it foolhardy, including the nation’s most famous writer at the time, Mark Twain.
"The system of raising its buildings has its advantages," Mark Twain wrote. "It makes the floor shady and this is something that is great in such a warm climate. It also enables the inquiring stranger to rest his elbows on the second-story windows and look in and criticize the bedroom arrangements of all the citizens."
But the monumental feat of engineering proceeded, and Old Sacramento and some buildings in the current downtown (roughly between I and N streets bordering the Sacramento River) were raised about 9 to 10 feet. One by one, workers cut through the foundations of houses, stores, and buildings, and then used a lattice of logs and hand-cranked house jacks (and a lot of manpower) to raise the structures. The 9-foot gaps that were created between the old ground level and the new were filled with mud and sand.
Other business owners found it easier just to leave their ground level be, sealing it off and building a new ground level or another story on top of it. Facing the colossal expense and workload, other storeowners couldn’t come up with the needed resources and had to close their doors and walk away. One Chinese herbalist did nothing, and his once street-level store was soon in a basement, though he kept doing business.
In all, it took 15 years to finish the street raising, as well as reinforcing the levees. When the dust settled, Sacramento was indeed livable again, saving the city but also creating plenty of unique structures beneath the earth, sometimes called “hollow sidewalks,” including tunnels, cellars, bricked up former storefronts, and other subterranean spaces.
Sacramento was the first city on the West Coast to raise its streets, predating Seattle’s similar architectural endeavor by 30 years. It became a rich and entertaining part of its history, with plenty or rumors of ghosts and paranormal activity underground over the decades, as well as a lot of illegal booze being served down there during Prohibition.
You can still explore the history of Old Sacramento, the early city, and the underground city with information and tours from the Sacramento History Museum at 101 I Street in Old Sacramento. Contact them at 916-808-7973 or www.SacHistoryMuseum.org.