The lowdown on Sacramento’s underground

The largest storm in California’s recorded history peaked in January 1862, turning the Sacramento Valley into a 250- to 300-mile-long inland sea. Since the previous winter, Sacramento had received 400 percent of its annual average rainfall. The storm moved as far inland as Tennessee, slowing down troop movements in the Civil War.

After 10 inches of rain in December 1861, Sacramento newspapers declared Christmas canceled.

By January 1862, steamboats sailed through what is now Old Sacramento, rescuing people from their homes, and boat-makers charged inflated prices to capitalize on the new demand. On Jan. 10, newly elected Governor Leland Stanford had to travel to the Capitol via boat for his inauguration.

The flooding was so dangerous, the legislature abandoned Sacramento for San Francisco. As residents left for safety, others made plans to raise the streets in an attempt to continue urban growth and thrive as the state’s economic and political center.

This storm inadvertently created Sacramento’s underground. As the streets were raised some 10 feet on average, new underground spaces were created. Some used their underground space as storage, others as lower levels for their stores. A Chinese herbalist used the space to conduct his business.

Sacramento State graduate Heather Downey recently completed her master’s thesis project on the subject, writing an interpretive plan for a Sacramento underground tour. To earn her MA in public history, the 24-year-old also wrote an analysis of why the city decided to raise its streets as much as 14 feet in the 1860s and ’70s.

In an hour-long presentation Tuesday night, sponsored by the Sacramento County Historical Society, Downey presented anecdotes and spoke about the underground to an audience of about 75 people in the Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society Building. In collaboration with the Historic Old Sacramento Foundation, Downey is planning an underground tour and exhibit. It will begin July 10 and will start and end at the Sacramento History Museum in Old Sacramento.

Tuesday was Downey’s first speech on the subject. SCHS vice president William Burg introduced the new graduate and HOSF research historian.

She said that some people know nothing of the underground, while many have heard rumors and myths about it. An even smaller group, she said, knows that the underground pathways include glimpses of old storefronts and architectural features leftover from before the street-raising project.

Downey, who was raised in Turlock, said she first heard of the underground a year ago, while volunteering at the Center for Sacramento History. CSH manager and HOSF director Marcia Eymann asked her to help research the underground for HOSF’s upcoming underground tour.

As a result, Downey began her research for the tour, as well as her thesis.

"The street-raising projects and the architectural features that are left over — the underground today — are merely portals from the past, pointing us to this one particular instance between the forces of nature and the power of man," Downey said.

Sacramento was the first city on the West Coast — and the only one in California — to raise its street level, she said. A tremendous feat for a 13-year-old city, it also predated Seattle’s street-raising by 30 years.

"Even though the flooding was obviously very devastating and outsiders were starting to express little faith in their capital city, city dwellers in Sacramento were not giving up on their vision for growth in Sacramento," Downey said.

Sacramentans’ plan was three-pronged: to reroute the rivers, reinforce the levees and raise the central city, she said.

But the plan drew critics like Mark Twain, who commented on the project in 1869.

"The system of raising its buildings has its advantages," he 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."

Despite the critics, and thanks to an enormous amount of physical work and commitment by the landowners, Sacramento stayed alive as a city.

"We want people to leave the tour equipped with new eyes to see our downtown district," she said. "You don’t have to necessarily go under the city to see the underground because there are so many above-ground features that point to the street-raising project."

Several skylights into the underground exist around the J Street area downtown. Pinkish quartz squares dot several sidewalks downtown, shedding a little light into a piece of history.

"Old Sacramento Underground: Get The Lowdown" begins July 10 and runs through October. The 45-minute tours will be led by guides with theatrical backgrounds, and will travel between Front to Second streets, both above and underground. Tours will run hourly Thursday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the last tour beginning at 5 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for youth. The tour begins at the Sacramento History Museum, 101 I Street, Old Sacramento, 808-7973.

1. The flood (credit Center for Sacramento History)
2,3. Downey answers questions (credit Jonathan Mendick)
4. Current height of Old Sacramento compared to the Sacramento River (credit Jonathan Mendick)
5. Sacramento History Museum (credit Jonathan Mendick)
6, 7. The underground (credit William Burg)

8. Locations of existing hollow sidewalks in Sacramento

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May 27, 2010 | 7:58 AM

I wish I had not missed the presentation–sounds fascinating. However, this article is a very good summation. Love the Mark Twain quote. Nice work!

May 27, 2010 | 11:02 AM

I second Stellas sentiment, great article. I look forward to checking it out first hand come July. The history of a city is as important as it’s present, and we are lucky to have such unique and well preserved “portals from the past”. Very cool.

May 27, 2010 | 11:34 AM

Excellent article and subject. I’m very familiar with the Seattle street raising but know very little about Sacramento. Now I know much more. Thanks!

May 27, 2010 | 4:39 PM

I had no idea that Sacramento raised its streets like that in the 19th century! I’m going to have to be more vigilant and try to scope out some locations before the tour begins.

May 27, 2010 | 7:02 PM

Take a look at the alleys on either side of the K Street mall downtown, or in Old Sacramento–the alleys dip down to the original street level. You can also see the street walls from the alley at 8th and K where a demolished quarter-block has not yet been rebuilt.

May 27, 2010 | 4:42 PM

Is this the same tour that only use to happen once a year? I hope it goes into the entire underground of downtown and not just the few streets of old sac

May 27, 2010 | 7:04 PM

It didn’t even happen once a year. It happened twice–once in conjunction with Gold Rush Days, once in conjunction with an event at the Railroad Museum. This will be the first permanent underground sidewalk tour, operating every weekend, in the city’s history. The fact that so many people assume there must have been regular tours just indicates how much demand there is for this tour!

The current tour is located strictly in Old Sacramento. There have been efforts made to get a few downtown property owners interested in having their underground sidewalk spaces as part of a tour, but none of them were willing to participate. Hopefully when they see tourists lined up to take the tour, they’ll see the money-making potential!

May 27, 2010 | 5:11 PM

Great article. I always wanted to tour underground Sac. The tour definitely sounds like a unique experience.

May 27, 2010 | 6:39 PM

i hope it also sparks more interest in the remaining underground spaced under the Central Business District so we can save what’s left before development and redevelopment takes this treasure from us forever.

May 28, 2010 | 11:30 AM

Fascinating. And I say, jokingly, that with all the recent storms, we’d have to raise the streets another couple feet!

May 30, 2010 | 11:42 AM

That was one point Heather touched on in her talk–the 1862 storm was a 200-year storm, and another similar storm today might still overtop the existing levees and result in catastrophic flooding. The levees protect the central city, but there are plenty of outlying suburbs that are very much at risk from catastrophic floods.

June 1, 2010 | 9:45 AM

Very good article. Another excellent source of information is the documentary Subterranean Sacramento, produced in 2007 by KVIE as part of their ViewFinder series (full disclosure: I work at KVIE so am clearly a fan of this episode). It offers some great images of the streets and shop entrances beneath the streets of modern-day Sacramento. Here’s a link:

June 1, 2010 | 2:19 PM

I sure wish I still lived the , because I would for certin go on that tour. I really Love those types of things !!!

June 15, 2010 | 1:33 PM

Correction on photo 4: showing the current height of Old Sacramento compared to the Sacramento River

This photograph is credit Esther Hodapp.

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