Tourist In Your Own Town: Under Old Sacramento

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, August 18, 2006

During Gold Rush Days (Sept 1-4), Old Sacramento is offering special, one-time  tours that will sample selected portions of Sacramento's "underground," showcasing the original level of the business district prior to its being raised to deal with persistent flooding issues. These special tours will be available Saturday and Sunday afternoon only, with tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Old Sacramento Visitors Center beginning at 10 a.m. the day of the tour only (no advance reservations accepted). Tickets are free.


Many sounds are associated with Old Sacramento: footsteps on boardwalks and horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone streets.

Trains passing by the Railroad Museum.

And during Memorial Day weekend, non-stop jazz.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a different soundscape.  The silence of underground sidewalks, created nearly 150 years ago when Old Sacramento’s buildings and streets were raised 12 feet, leaving sidewalks below and covering them with wooden planks.
We’ll step down into one of these “sidewalk vaults” in a moment.  But first, some history on why the city was raised to begin with.

“Its all about the river.”

Paul Hammond is with California State Parks.

“The persistent floods really caused a great problem, because not only were there merchants being flooded out, but by 1855 when this becomes the seat of government, the government of California isn’t going to stay in a place that keeps flooding, it can’t keep doing business.  So there’s a real imperative to do something about the problem of flooding.”

Moving to higher ground was not an option, since the city’s river-based economy would suffer.  So, starting in the 1860’s, landlords jacked up their buildings one level and added basements to fill the space below. 
Next month the public will gain rare access to the basement of the B.F. Hastings building, former home of the Supreme Court.  And that’s where we start above ground with Paul Hammond.

“Well now we’re on the boardwalk in front of the B.F. Hastings building.  So we’re on 2nd Street right next to the corner of J.  The Old Sacramento Visitor’s Center here is through a door.  But right underneath us, and we’ve got a very wide sidewalk here, this is one of those sidewalk vaults.  So shortly we’re going to be down underneath where we are right now.”

We wind our way along J Street and down the sloping back alley behind the Hastings building.

“And we’re just about at what I believe is the original street level as we approach the back entrance.  So we’re about twelve feet down from the sidewalk level that we were on earlier.”

Hammond unlocks the old-fashioned iron shudders protecting the basement’s wooden door.

“And then we’re in where the air changes.  You can smell the moisture because we’re near the water table here.  And we walk past some early archaeological digs. Then we come over to the side of the building and we’re looking over here at what would be J Street.  We turn on a flashlight and you can step down through this doorway in to the sidewalk vault.  And right above us is the sidewalk.  So we’re on J Street, we’re going to turn the corner here and think that about 12 feet above us there’s pedestrians doing the very same thing but they’re walking on boards and we’re walking on dirt.”

You can’t really hear those footsteps coming from above now because a concrete layer was poured under the boardwalk in the 1970’s for safety reasons.

But back when the city was being raised, no such safety measures existed. Looking at the original brick wall rising from the curb of the sidewalk vault, Paul Hammond describes a dangerous 13-year transition period.

“There might have been wagons and carts dumping earth on the other side of this wall, and it’s slowly rising.  At some point the street level gets up to the top of this brick wall, and this building owner hopefully has been in the meantime raising his or her building.  And then they try to cap the whole thing off with a new boardwalk.  And in between there are all those risks of you, as a pedestrian, falling off of the street or the front of a building or one of the sidewalks that goes nowhere.  And there are great recorded stories about people falling into these pits.”

“So we’re back at where we entered.  We’re going to step back up to basement level here.” 

We only traveled about 50 feet under J Street and another 80 or so under 2nd Street, but it really has felt like stepping into the past, strolling the same sidewalks of the 18 hundreds. Again, Paul Hammond.

“You can recreate, replicate old places.  Disneyland has done a great job.  Las Vegas is working on recreated many much Older World themes.  But you can’t recreate true history and truly historic spaces.  They either are real or they’re not.  This one, you can just tell, it oozes with history.”

You can experience that underground history during limited tours on Labor Day weekend.  Meanwhile, the next time you stroll down a boardwalk in Old Sacramento, consider that 12-feet below you, at the base of an empty vault, lies the original sidewalk, intact, as it was when Sacramento City was founded.